James Stirling gave all other architects a bad name. His roofs leaked, his buildings broiled their occupants in the summer and froze them in the winter. His housing was disliked, his postmodern humour has dated badly and his arrogance was famous.
But he was also one of the great architects of the modern era, a designer whose invention and ambition changed the international architecture scene. He revived revolutionary Soviet modernism, adopting agit-prop and the communist industrial aesthetic for a Cambridge college, and then invented a postmodernist idiom that liberally referred to history, to memory and to urban archetypes half-remembered from a De Chirico dream or a Piranesi etching.
This small exhibition at the Clore Gallery – the building itself is one of Stirling’s own typically controversial designs – attempts to survey his career through the drawings and models from his archive and also, just as illuminatingly, from the extensive ephemera stored in boxes at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.
The task of trawling through this daunting material fell to the British-born academic Anthony Vidler, and he has performed it diligently, intelligently and sympathetically.
There are sketches on the backs of airline tickets, student projects, bird-watching notes and black-and-white snaps. But there are also some of the most seductive, influential drawings of the era, worm’s-eye axonometrics that show three-dimensional space from beneath and superb models that describe truly sculptural and compelling buildings.
For a while now Stirling has been out of fashion. Richard Rogers and Norman Foster are now part of the establishment – both are members of the peerage – but the memory of Stirling, who died in 1992, has faded.
His later buildings were far from masterpieces and, in London at least, he is best remembered for No. 1 Poultry, a clunky piece of formulaic postmodernism that replaced a delicate ensemble of Victorian buildings on which it is no kind of improvement except that it is bigger and hugely more profitable.
In Germany he remains revered as a master; his NeueStaatsgalerie in Stuttgart is still a hugely influential and enjoyable building.
But with a postmodernism blockbuster exhibition coming up at the Victoria and Albert Museum and with sufficient time having elapsed to get some perspective on Stirling’s project, this exhibition does provide an intriguing glimpse into a fascinating diversion from modernist orthodoxy (which is now back with a vengeance). Stirling will return. The best of his work is too clever, too architecturally original, too witty and enjoyable for his reputation to languish for very long. And the more his personal faults are forgotten, the better he will seem. This exhibition shows exactly why.
Until August 21