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The controversial postmodern masterpiece that is now Britain’s youngest listed building

7 December 2016

The decision to list James Stirling’s No. 1 Poultry is remarkable in many respects. Chief among them is the building’s age. In the UK, buildings are usually considered for listing only after 30 years, yet No. 1 Poultry was completed in 1997, less than 20 years ago. The 30-year rule coincides with the fashion cycles of architecture and the amount of time generally required before unpopular buildings begin to be re-assessed. Stirling’s building is a late example of postmodernism, a largely reviled architectural style that has nonetheless started to gain a creeping fashionability. (The V&A’s 2011 retrospective and the sale of David Bowie’s Memphis furniture collection this summer have also granted it some cultural kudos.)

No. 1 Poultry has still arrived unfashionably early for the party, cutting through the decorum of the listing process. This is partly due to proposals to refurbish the building that stirred English Heritage into action. But it is also a recognition of the status of James Stirling within British architecture.

In the post-war period Stirling was one of the very few British architects of true international standing. During the 1960s he designed a series of dazzlingly original buildings in a bravura mash-up of constructivist, modernist, and industrial architectural influences. These included the so-called ‘red trilogy’ of the Leicester Engineering building, the Cambridge History Faculty, and the Florey halls of residence in Oxford. Stirling’s mid 1970s conversion to post-modernism has always been a source of mild embarrassment for the majority of his champions, who consider it a mid-period aberration he would have rejected had he not died suddenly in 1992 at the age of 66.

No. 1 Poultry is one of his final works, a full-on Po Mo odyssey designed by Stirling with his then-partner Michael Wilford and completed posthumously. Even without the challenging mix of muscular neoclassicism and mannered jokes, No.1 Poultry would have been controversial. It was commissioned by Peter Palumbo and involved the demolition of a number of Victorian buildings including the famous Mappin and Webb store. The development was the subject of a high court planning inquiry and a bitter dispute between conservations and architectural supporters that finally ended in the scheme’s favour and the inquiry Inspector’s summation that the building ‘might just be a masterpiece’.

Stirling’s design also replaced a previous scheme by Mies van der Rohe. Palumbo abandoned this project after an earlier planning battle but the theoretical loss of a Mies building has long been a sore point. So Stirling committed a double heresy: he replaced Mies and Mappin & Webb and became the scourge of both modernists and conservationists.

Given all this, the listing of No. 1 Poultry has stirred up many of the same arguments. But one shouldn’t blame Stirling for the events that came before him and we should ultimately judge the building on its own merits. And these are considerable. It has some of the sculptural force of Stirling’s hero Hawksmoor. It is big and brooding, but it has delicacy in parts too and a spatial generosity in the public route that allows you to walk through it. The colonnade that would have been filled in as part of the proposed refurbishment provides a dignified public streetscape. And the roof garden is thrilling: you can look down into the triangular open-air atrium with its primary-coloured windows and out across the roofscape of the City.

Stirling’s design holds its own among a group of the best buildings in London: Hawksmoor’s St Mary Woolnoth, Lutyens’ Midland Bank, and OMA’s Rothschild headquarters. It is also opposite what remains of Sir John Soane’s Bank of England, much of which was demolished in the 1920s. Had it not been listed, we may well have ended up mourning the loss of No. 1 Poultry just as deeply.