Archive of 'Big Jim' Stirling's architecture is sold to Canada

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The vast archive of one of Britain's most important post-war architects, Sir Jim Stirling, has been sold to Canadian academics in a hush-hush deal that has triggered anger and frustration among archivists and fans of his dramatic buildings.

The deal will cast doubt on the future of archives by Richard Rogers and Norman Foster who, with Stirling, have been dominant forces in British and world architecture. Nearly 10,000 models and drawings by Stirling, known simply as "Big Jim", are being deloused and catalogued at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal.

Stirling, who died in 1992, would have been amused by the bug hunt: he was brilliant, sardonic and combative. His copious appetite for the pleasures of life left a trail of emotional wreckage and claims of serial adultery by his biographer. But he drew like a Renaissance master and took design risks that made him a seminal force in international classical post-modernism. His uncompromising buildings provoked both reverence and disgust, seeming at times to be wilfully ugly and, at others, sublimely graceful.

The loss of his archive, rumoured to have cost the Canadians about £1m, has left the British architectural establishment wondering how it let such a valuable legacy slip away. The director of the Montreal museum told the trade magazine Building Design that it was "the last great archive where ideas are communicated through the drawings of the architect himself".

The archive is a richly illustrated chronicle of the genesis of landmark buildings such as the Number One Poultry scheme in the City of London, and the history faculty at Cambridge University, which suffered chronic overheating and leaks after a hasty redesign.

Since Stirling's death his widow, Lady Stirling, and his former partner, Michael Wilford, are understood to have approached the Royal Academy and the Royal Institute of British Architects about housing the collection.

Both attempts to secure its future in Britain failed because, according to the Royal Academy's collections secretary, Mary Anne Stevens, "the Riba is strapped for cash and we are strapped for space. Where else might it go in the UK? The answer is nowhere."

But the Riba's drawings collection curator, Charles Hinds, said: "If the CCA is keeping the Stirling archive complete, it is better off there than here. In the UK we just can't cope with something of this size. I am reluctant to say that, because people studying British architects should be able to do so in Britain."

Nicholas Olsberg, director of the Canadian centre, dismissed the idea of British patrimony over Stirling's work. "We are talking about architecture in a period when the movement of ideas was very international," he said. And he took a swipe at the management of architectural archives in Britain, suggesting there was "a record of instability" among UK institutions.

The deal has been kept so quiet that those once close to Stirling – such as his partner of the early Sixties, Eldred Evans – have been left in the dark. She described the sale as a tragic disgrace "because he represents a different architecture to what is in favour today – glass and steel".

She added that many of Stirling's designs were "paintings that are works of art in themselves".

The Canadians will use the archive to publish a complete works of Stirling and have pencilled in a major retrospective of Seventies architecture for 2006, which would feature much of Big Jim's work.

The problem of housing the professional legacies of Brit-ain's great architects is unlikely to improve, leaving the future of two even larger bodies of work – those of the Lords Foster and Rogers – in doubt.

Comments