Obituary: Sir James Stirling

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The Independent Online
THE CITY of London denied itself a contemporary building of outstanding quality by Mies van der Rohe when the Secretary of State bowed to the perceived spirit of the age in 1985, upholding his Inspector's refusal to permit the development, writes Lord Palumbo (further to the obituaries by Mark Girouard and Jonathan Glancey, 27 June). He could well have heeded Dean Inge's famous injunction that 'a nation that is wedded to the spirit of the age will be a widow in the next'.

This site at No 1 Poultry is the most important in London. Mies's architectural style was in contrast to the buildings that surround the Bank junction. James Stirling was a contemporary genius who would design in context, and that was his brief. The atmosphere was charged; the conservationist tide was at full flood. He recognised that the design must be of superlative quality to overcome objections to the demolition of listed buildings in a conservation area. He respected the Mappin & Webb building at the apex by Belcher, and his first design retained the building with a contemporary building of his own rising behind it. This was not a cynical exercise in expediency, but an intellectual attempt to conserve the best on the site and to complement it. The City Corporation rejected the proposal out of hand.

Stirling had no talent and no gift for the politics of planning, he cared only for his art, creating the best upon a site of physical complexity and of great prominence both in terms of location and publicity. He then designed a building for the whole site, which the City Corporation rejected, but which the Inspector, in a subsequent and second public inquiry, described as a potential masterpiece. Stirling well knew the drubbing that he would receive from conservationists of every stripe, but the integrity of his purpose, allied to the physical bravery that he had exhibited during the war, animated his concern to create the very best. Any genius will be his own man; genius without temperament is a contradiction in terms.

Having determined the area that was thought appropriate for the mix of offices and shops within the permitted height limits and with the additional amenity of roof garden and restaurant, the design was left entirely to the architect. There were no quarrels, no differences of any kind. We gave James Stirling creative freedom. I relished his scholarship, his grasp, his knowledge, his laconic style, infectious creative vigour, cultivated aesthetic taste, his gargantuan appetite for life and the stark contrast between him and the pygmies whose prejudice and ignorance left him, as ever, the prophet whose people give him scant honour.

Stirling had fully designed No 1 Poultry before the development was finally vindicated in the House of Lords in February last year. The artistic creations of any society, in any age, are the badge of its civilised values. The genius of James Stirling could, in this age, provide such a badge. When No 1 Poultry is built, the City of London will possess that great rarity in our times - a building of outstanding architectural quality. That will be not only his monument but our claim to be a civilised community.