The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: James Gowan

by Mark Crinson

A few years after helping to design Britain’s greatest post-war building – for Leicester University’s engineering department – James Gowan moved to a stuccoed early-Victorian house in Notting Hill. It was a narrow end-of-terrace house built as a doctor’s surgery, with a small receptionist’s room to the left of the front door. He loved this house, the quirks of its staircase and window mechanisms and the odd arrangements of its drainage, and from here he could stroll across Hyde Park to teach at the Royal College of Art. It was also here, in his big airy studio knocked through on the first floor, that Gowan continued to work and to return obsessively to his earlier designs, right up until his death earlier this summer at the age of 91. He was in his own terms a ‘gothic’ architect because no solution was ever done with so long as it could still be marvelled at, questioned and re-worked. And, because this attitude started with his immediate environment, it seemed at one with the kind of spry integrity, gentle yet acute, he exuded as a man.

This was also why he was a marvellous subject for interview (and, as many have attested, such a good teacher). Gowan’s asceticism knew no bounds, but so too did his indulgent fascination with what really mattered – the stuff of architecture, the making of an architectural design. An hour might be spent talking by the front door, followed by a slow procession up that staircase, and then further hours on uncomfortable stools in the studio surrounded by models and drawings. Never was even a glass of water offered, but all the time there was a different kind of generosity. He could be sharp, and some of his memories of his famous partnership with James Stirling were still touched with bitterness. More often he was wry, informative and funny, his soft Glaswegian tones rising in mordant irony as yet another architectural folly was skewered. With a measured sense of theatre, he would hesitantly yet triumphantly pull out a drawing (‘I was just looking in my basement…’) or a sketchbook (‘Here’s an idea I had for animal architecture…’), or leaf through a pile of papers (‘Ah, another letter about Leicester…’).

Gowan’s most resonant buildings were the ones he designed with Stirling, and every one of them still surprises. As well as that extraordinary explosion of architectural ideas at Leicester, there was the enigmatic and powerful, yet somehow almost parodic, competition design for Churchill College, the beguiling surfaces and shadowed spaces in the Ham Common flats, and that courageous early critique of prevailing modernist urbanism (although Gowan never quite bought Stirling’s nostalgie de l’abîme) of the Preston housing. Each of these cut across the values of the day, touching that deeper cultural ferment of the 1950s whose lessons we have yet to fully absorb.

There is a myth that Gowan built little after the partnership, despite the steady flow of houses, housing estates, warehouses, furniture for Chaim Schreiber, the odd small flat conversion and shop, and – in his last years – work as consultant for a hospital near Milan. While he never embraced post-modernism, his anti-dogmatic openness and his architectural ethos of necessary typological difference (‘the style for the job’, he famously called it) led to playful ventures into classical motifs and marble fireplaces. The works that repay most study, however, are the estates on Creek Road and Trafalgar Road in Greenwich, now highly vulnerable in the continuing privatisation of the welfare state. These drew upon a London tradition of street architecture while also reaching back to the work of the Amsterdam School, and for this critics dismissed them as passé. Yet there is a complex and very moving expression of unified habitation in these estates, stemming from the crisp details of the brick facades and working up to the serrated shaping and layering of the terraced blocks. A public monumentality is achieved, but also, and in the same architectural gestures, a strong sense of the private realm of shelter. Perhaps it is these qualities of dignified urbanity that Gowan’s best students have also aspired to capture.

James Gowan, born 18 October 1923, died 12 June 2015.