Gowan’s Tour-de-force

Gowan’s Tour-de-force

Book review Ellis Woodman, Modernity and Reinvention, The Architecture of James Gowan, Black Dog Publishing, Londen 2008, published in: De Architect, 2008


Outside Great Brittain James Gowan primarily known James Stirling‘s former partner, but in London architectural circles his authority still holds strong. ‘It’s a tour-de-force, I’m afraid’ replied James Gowan wryly when Adam Caruso (47) inquired about Gowan’s (85) opinion on his renowned Brick House. Caruso could deal with that, as Gowan eagerly displays his scepticism about cerebral tendencies in modern architecture. His obstinate Scottish humour is legendary.

Ellis Woodman published a retrospective on this James Gowan. It is a square book in black and white, designed in a typography that is ostentatiously passé. The cover features a portrait of the architect in the prime of his life. His gaze is powerful, but also bemused and slightly taunting. The portrait must date from the time of the breach with Stirling. The chronological presentation of Gowan’s oeuvre takes up most of the book’s space. In particular, the designs for the Schreiber family – and especially the magnificent first Schreiber House – are discussed at length.

Book spread on first Schreiber House

Next to an introductory essay, the book contains long, critical interviews on various designs. Divergent practical backgrounds and design decisions are clarified herein. Ellis Woodman skilfully lifts his book beyond hagiography and anecdotalism. In biographical terms, the breach with Stirling is inevitable. But in addition, this ever painful fact gives relief to Gowan’s professional views. The reason for the breach was that Stirling declared the aesthetic of the Leicester laboratory to be the style in projects for university buildings in Oxford and Cambridge.

Gowan had developed the massing of Leicester. The aesthetic elaboration was a consequence of the functional and technical requirements for the lab. The constructor’s logic of greenhouse structures and shed roofs motivated the ‘Style for the Job’. Gowan believed that the two new commissions required the finding of an appropriate technical-architectural repertoire derived from pragmatic considerations rather than from general stylistic beliefs or aesthetic choices beforehand.

First Schreiber House, London

This performative practice continued to characterise his designs thereafter. Gowan possessed the ability to connect the reality of the construction site to architectural culture, but also took explicit pleasure in the bizarre taste preferences and capricious promptings of his clients. His search for the ‘Style for the Job’ had everything to do with such socio-cultural conditions. The architectural nature of Gowan’s work is evident. In vain one looks for designs on the large scale or testimonials to urban development such as those known, for example, from his contemporaries Alison and Peter Smithson.

Like Gowan himself, Ellis Woodman worked with resources at hand: a limited budget, a meticulously maintained archive of catalogue drawings, scale models and black-and-white photographs, the vitality and keen memory of Gowan himself. Gowan’s career is not rigged as a success story: for once, no typographical experiments and long-winded reflections, no glamour pics, no single tour-de-force, but a well-written insight into a career with traumatic twists and turns and a goal-oriented, culturally aware profession.