Nonie Niesewand surveys the high times of a master builder
Big Jim: the life and work of James Stirling

by Mark Girouard

Chatto & Windus, pounds 30

Big Jim Stirling, pictured on the front cover of this posthumously published biography, thighs like hams, porky fingers around a pencil, doesn't look like a sex object. Astonishingly, this is how he emerges under the gaze of Mark Girouard. Clearly, there were as many sides to James Stirling (1924-1992) as to his multi-faceted buildings. Girouard knew of Jim's appetite for women, food and wine, but still there were some surprises. Like the fact that he gadded about the world for two years with a glam German architectural student, Marlies Henstrup, 25 years his junior. His secretary diarised his private life in shorthand and kept everything else in longhand.

Already Big Jim is a scandal, fuelled by his widow, Mary Stirling, distancing herself from it after commissioning Girouard. This is a great shame, on two counts.

First, Mary Stirling is the unsung heroine of the book, allowing Marlies to join her and their three children at the architect's death-bed in 1992 after a bungled minor operation. Girouard believes that "to attempt to cover over these qualities and to try and conceal what happened seems deceitful and damaging to him".

Second, and there is no guessing game about this, Mark Girouard is very good at describing Stirling's genius in architecture. Unlike Pevsner, who complained that Stirling's buildings were, like the man, rude, Girouard admits to being in love with three of them: the Florey at Oxford, the Faculty of History library at Cambridge, and Leicester University's Engineering Unit. He compares Stirling to Nicholas Hawksmoor in that "Jim's buildings were sometimes strange and not always successful but they can catch and haunt the imagination." Of course.

Girouard believes that Stirling was, like Richard Rogers, dyslexic. If true, this puts an interesting spin on their buildings. Both architects break out of the rectilinear grid even as they express function on the outside.

Take Sheffield University, designed in 1953 with James Gowan. Working in a regular structural grid with post and slabs, James reveals what is going on inside the building. Each function is given a different meaning, with vertical blocks like bookends to two horizontal stacks and, sandwiched in the middle, the lecture theatres - expressed as eight boxes on the facade.

Jim's passage from angry young man to irascible middle age is hilarious. Whoever would have thought that Sandy Wilson, august architect of the British Library, would paint his kitchen black and wear black leather with studs?

The New Brutalists Allison and Peter Smithson pass the style trial with their buildings in exposed cement, but fail the fashion test. Stirling once took the hood of a pixie suit knitted by Allison and tied it in a knot on top of her head.

By the Sixties, Stirling's bright crystalline buildings were being compared to silos, sewers, bunkers, rocket launchers, liners and battleships. And by the Seventies, work dried up. This is no surprise to every sufferer within the leaky Faculty of History building at Cambridge. They sharpened their pencils - and their wits - to write obits for James Stirling. "To qualify for grants, he was in too much of a hurry," Girouard explains, blaming contractors as much as Stirling.

As the tiles fell off, Jim partied and lectured at Yale. One story about urinating on a glass door in full view of an office-warming party is, Mark Girouard admits, "perhaps over the top and in bad taste"; but then Stirling never valued good taste, as you can see from the awesome Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart.

Whatever you think about the cocksure No 1 Poultry building shown on the back cover of Big Jim, crowing "look at me" right in the heart of the City of London, it is not limp-wristed. Girouard tried to stop No 1 Poultry being built, writing to the building inspector to protest about the destruction of nine listed buildings. Stirling didn't speak to him for three years. In truth, it doesn't sound as though they ever really made it up.

But Girouard believes that the Nineties were the dawning of a new era for Stirling. At the fifth Venice Biennale for Architecture in 1991, as his "Boatshop bookship" for Electa opened to international acclaim, every star in the architectural firmament took photocalls.

Only Frank Gehry, soon to eclipse them all with the Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao, wouldn't be captured on film unless he was photographed "back to back with big Jim". But Jim declined, with a scowl. A year later, he was dead.

For six years, I puzzled over that curious hybrid, the Elephant man of Jim and Frank. It was hard to imagine deconstructivist Frank, all curves and sinews, grafted on to Big Jim's bows banded in travertine and topped with a funnels.

Mark Girouard provides an answer. Frank Gehry believes that Jim was "recreating himself as a Modernist". And Jim, pencilling a one-line answer to the question "Since you began working as an architect, what changes have you undergone?", wrote "Full circle, more than once."