Stirling in Runcorn / from the archive / issue 2

James Stirling is seemingly everywhere in 2011, nineteen years after his death and at the centre of a critical re-evaluation that has seen major exhibitions and publications in the UK and North America seek to confirm his position as one of the world’s most important post-war architects. Usually viewed as a post-modernist, Stirling always rejected the label as he sought continually through his career to explore new directions in modernism whilst undoubtedly intending to forge a relationship with older design paradigms. This is the puzzle and the joy of Stirling’s work – always, there are a set of references to consider, followed quickly by the pleasure gained from seeing just how they have been integrated into a novel design concept.

The northwest of England contains just one surviving Stirling project, the conversion of one corner of Jesse Hartley’s Albert Dock warehouse in Liverpool for the Tate Gallery of the North in 1984, radically remodelled in 1998 as Tate Liverpool, with only vestigial remains of the original design. An early social housing scheme of 1957-59 in Preston, designed with James Gowan, is now demolished, whilst the winning 1992 design for Salford’s Lowry arts centre by Stirling and his partner Michael Wilford involved extensive revisions after his death that created what is a largely Wilford building.

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One further northwestern project was demolished in stages between 1990 and 1992, the Southgate housing scheme in Runcorn New Town, developed from a design concept in 1967 to a final phase completed in 1976. Here was an apparent failure from the Stirling canon, lapsing quickly into a state of disrepair and disregard to be demolished within fifteen years of completion and never enjoying full approbation from architectural critics even when new, at least in Britain. In typical Stirling fashion, however, the scheme was actually a triumphant concoction of success and failure that still tells us something useful about the experimentation that was possible in public housing before 1979 and about the particular talents of a man who was more concerned with setting an agenda for everyone else to follow than in creating failsafe designs unworthy of controversy.

In historicist terms at least, Stirling’s inspiration at Southgate was the urbanity of Georgian Britain with the estate structured around a sequence of squares and recurring design elements on the elevations used rhythmically as in the formal 18th-century terraces of Bath or Edinburgh, underlining an entirely civic approach. This was a natural design response to the brief by the Runcorn Development Corporation that this should be a high density housing development, immediately adjacent (and physically linked by highwalks) to the hub of the new town’s services, Runcorn Shopping City. As an inner residential district, Southgate was intended to make a contribution to the idea that the new Runcorn could be a town in the fullest, noblest sense, and not just a patchwork of undistinguished suburban fragments.         

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With this ideological framework in place, and a commitment to classical planning devices and elevations superficially apparent, Stirling devised a scheme that in fact subverted these historic precedents as well as some contemporary architectural norms. Behind the regular facades of phase one were a mixture of maisonettes and flats over and under-sailing one another across five storeys, the sort of arrangement seen in numerous post-war slab block developments. A system of open deck access was stitched into an estate-wide network of highwalks between blocks, the circulation model established at Sheffield’s Park Hill in the late 50s that still had currency in second generation new towns like Runcorn and which Stirling interpreted in a grand manner, providing generously splayed concrete posts which lent the walkways a solid grandeur and, by turns, civic legitimacy. The first phase of the development saw the employment of a system-building approach as demanded by the development corporation in order to minimize costs. Concrete frames cast in-situ were filled with pre-cast concrete panels whilst multi-coloured coloured glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) cladding was used extensively to enliven elevations and introduce a hi-tech note to the scheme, one of the earliest uses of such a material in the UK. The second phase of Southgate acted firstly to correct the perceived planning failings of the first, with a single unit type – larger houses – built in terraces, each with ground floor access and private gardens. These new units were now built entirely with GRP over timber frames, creating uncompromisingly modern forms – colourful, smooth and rectilinear – giving rise to the local sobriquet of 'legoland'.

Other than the neophile use of GRP and the overall impression that this might be housing for new planetary exploration as much as for a new town in the north, Southgate gained distinctiveness from its emphatic, legible geometries, not least in the large circular windows used across both phases. Multiple references are called to mind by this inventive elevational device, from the nautical (not to say cosmonautical) inspiration of the nearby Mersey and the imagined seafaring blood of the new town's overspill population, to a spirited exploration of classical Vitruvian geometrical theory spliced with some Kandinski and the interplay of colour and form.

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Failure is too often the focus of our analysis of post-war public housing, but in the case of Southgate the rapidity of its decline is an unavoidable subject. There were a limited number of original design failings, not least the unpopular maisonettes in phase one sandwiched in the middle storeys of the blocks without any private outdoor space, but largely the estate was the victim of an original budget that was far too low to create sufficient quality for such a high-density scheme – poor insulation and a disastrous district heating system being particular issues – and, more significantly, a wrong-headed lettings and management policy that quickly translated limited maintenance problems into vertiginous social decay. Demolition was, by 1989, thought more cost effective than refurbishment, in the context of the New Town Corporation being wound up and seeking to draw a line under its liabilities.

It might also be noted that truly innovative mass housing from its 1970s pomp consistently struggles to find cheerleaders for conservation when even solvable problems arise. Aesthetic timidity is translated very easily to political cowardice, and what remains as a result, effectively, is architecture that is published and analysed rather than built and lived, like far too much of James Stirling's work. The loss of Southgate was a loss not just for Runcorn but for the entire second generation of new towns and to British architecture as a whole. Whilst Milton Keynes contains more surviving (though often very altered) 1970s housing schemes of note and has enjoyed some recent conservation success with its exquisite shopping centre, Runcorn has now become a footnote in this wider story of innovation, little visited or written about. Academic exploration of this period in architectural history is gathering momentum and all 1970s housing has now been eligible for listing for two years – the survival of Southgate would surely have made it one of the major  monuments to this significant period and a key site of architectural pilgrimage in northwest England. As James Stirling's reputation has grown rather than diminished in the short period since his death, meanwhile, the loss of one of his key mid-period works is felt all the more keenly, especially in Runcorn where a landmark bridge and the sublimely exciting chemical works are still not sufficient to give the town a solid architectural reputation. The sense of loss over Southgate is one that is sure to swell further over time, contributing much to the conservation debate on public housing from a still under-researched period.                   

© Matthew Witfield

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.