Obituary: James Gowan, architect

Born: 18 October, 1923, in Glasgow. Died: 12 June, 2015, in London, aged 91
James Gowan: Architect who had a creative partnership with fellow Glaswegian Sir James StirlingJames Gowan: Architect who had a creative partnership with fellow Glaswegian Sir James Stirling
James Gowan: Architect who had a creative partnership with fellow Glaswegian Sir James Stirling

James Gowan was a post-war architect best known for his collaboration with fellow Glaswegian Sir James Stirling, on the revered Engineering Building at the University of Leicester, completed in 1963. It was considered to be Britain’s first post-modernist building and became an inspiration for a generation of new British-based architects, including Lord Richard Rogers, Sir Peter Cook and Dame Zaha Hadid.

This red-tiled project propelled the duo to an international audience. However, the celebrations were short-lived, with the Glaswegians’ partnership ending in acrimony shortly after, following fundamental architectural differences in approach to their next project, a commission for the History Faculty Library at the University of Cambridge.

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Stirling, a somewhat outspoken, bohemian and larger-than-life character, went on to gain further plaudits and notoriety with public commissions, while Gowan worked alone in relative obscurity.

Gowan went on to complete a number of projects under his own name, including the four-storey Schreiber House, with its bespoke interior, in West Hampstead, London, in 1964, for the leading British furniture manufacturer, Chaim Schreiber.

Likened to a forbidding brick castle from the outside or more like a local authority housing block than an opulent villa, the house, with its luxurious open-plan living, received grudging reviews from the architectural press of the time, but is now believed to be one of the most significant houses to be built in Britain in the past century.

Gowan also addressed social housing issues, realising large schemes in both Greenwich and at East Hanningfield in Essex.

From the early 1990s, Gowan’s energies were focused on a series of hospitals and care homes in Italy, notably the Instituto Clinico Humanitas at Rozzano on the edge of Milan.

Despite Stirling’s unwillingness to acknowledge Gowan’s role in their Leicester University project, others have since appraised the pair’s relationship, asserting that Gowan was indeed Stirling’s creative equal. Delighted, Gowan said of his more famous and long-dead partner: “I’d like to wake him up.” The two never reconciled.

Born in Pollokshields, James Gowan was born to James and Isobel. Initially, he was brought up by his grandparents in Partick following his parents’ separation. Aged 12, he joined his mother who encouraged his artistic bent – drawing buildings.

He started studying architecture at the city’s School of Art before curtailing his training to join the RAF during the Second World War.

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After being stationed in Palestine as a radar operator, he was demobbed in 1947 and settled in London, where he completed his studies at Kingston School of Architecture under the tutelage of Philip Powell of Powell and Moya.

Upon graduation, Powell employed Gowan at his practice, where he worked on the competition-winning design for the Skylon tower, which was built for the 1951 Festival of Britain. He then spent time working on Stevenage New Town before returning to London to join the office of Lyons Israel Ellis, where he first met Stirling. They formed their own practice in 1956.

Their debut work, the Ham Common Flats in Richmond (1956-5), west London, immediately established their reputation as one of the most radical practices of their generation. The beautifully proportioned square boxes and the buildings’ rugged expression in brown brick and exposed concrete was in stark contrast to the thin, utilitarian character of much British architecture of the period.

The project received the admiration of both Ian Nairn and Reyner Banham, the two foremost architectural critics of the day, who rarely agreed.

The Leicester University Engineering Building was their zenith together. Gowan’s maxim was “the style for the job”, illustrating that the building’s style should reflect its function, while Stirling was more flamboyant, which led to many heated exchanges on the project. Nevertheless, with compromises agreed, the now Grade-II listed building emerged over a four year period.

Situated on the edge of Victoria Park, the department building comprises two adjoining elements – one horizontal, one vertical. Large ground-level workshops cover most of the available site, and are traversed by skylights oriented at 45 degrees to the walls; there is a vertical ensemble consisting of office and laboratory towers, lecture theatres and lift and staircase shafts.

The glazed towers are clad in red tiles to represent the Victorian industrial aesthetic of Leicester, while a crystalline roof with 2,500 diamond-shaped glass panels covers the workshop building, like a row of glass Toblerones.

The project, said to be influenced by the French architect Corbusier, was noted for its technological and geometric character, marked by the use of three-dimensional drawings based on axonometric projection, showing an image of an object as viewed from a skew direction in order to reveal more than one side in the same picture, thus allowing it to be seen either from above (in a bird’s eye view) or below (in a worm’s eye view). Afterwards, Stirling wanted to simply transpose a variant of their Leicester building to their new Cambridge Library brief, which Gowan viewed as sacrilege as it did not reflect the building’s function.

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After the irreconcilable split over the Cambridge commission, Stirling proceeded with the build and Gowan was vindicated years later as some observers noted that “it (the building) had proven famously dysfunctional, overheating in summer and leaking in winter”.

Over the years, although Gowan never quite received the accolades his work perhaps deserved, he was, nevertheless, regarded as a charismatic and influential teacher. With his dry, barbed, laconic Glaswegian wit, he endeared himself to a generation of British architects encouraging them to be free thinkers and question convention rather than be disciples.

While teaching at the Architectural Association in London, the roll-call of his now-celebrated former students, including Richard Rogers, Quinlan Terry, Piers Gough, Tony Fretton, Alex de Rijke and Stephen Bates, is remarkable not just for its length but also its diversity. Fretton recalled: “No one escaped his ruthless Glaswegian humour.”

Gowan married Margaret Barry in October 1944. She died in 2001. He is survived by two daughters, Linda and Joanna, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.