I fetched up at Stirling on a scorching July afternoon, when heat had slowed the city’s traffic to a crawl.  Sunshine soaked into the Monaro I was driving at the time, its boot filled with boxes of old architecture books, and every surface inside the cabin was hot.  The honey-coloured sandstone of Stirling’s terraces gave off wafts of heated air which made the place shimmer when approached down the M9 motorway.

Ahead lay the great rocky incline which the castle sits on; another pinnacle with the Wallace Monument perched on top, and further west, Craigforth rising up from the floodplain where the Teith meets the Forth.  Turning off the M9 you leave Craigforth behind, with its great wooded mound and cluster of insurance company buildings set apart from the city, and head up towards the university. 

Designed by RMJM, and built between 1967 and 1974, Stirling was the first complete newbuild campus in Scotland, as distinct from existing technical or university colleges which gained a promotion.  Looking back through magazines in the dusty stacks, the University was well critiqued at the time it opened, such as in John McKean’s piece in The Architectural Review of June 1973. 

It was the only brand new Scottish university built after the Robbins Report was published, and the first to be established in Scotland since the University of Edinburgh was founded in 1583.  Unlike the “Redbricks” in England from the same era, Stirling consists of crisply-detailed buildings of dimensional blockwork and precast concrete, all faced with sparkling chips of white spar.  The whiteness was dazzling that day, but I located shade near the base of the Pathfoot building and quickly realised that my visit had coincided with a conference on Poetry and Politics.

Pathfoot was the first piece of a masterplan which conceived of terraced buildings set around an artificial loch, with carefully-considered contours and planting.  It steps down a landscaped hillside in a series of cascading flights of steps linking the long, transverse wings whose spirit is Scandinavian.  The white precast fascias, black timber spandrels, and large expanses of yellow pine joinery inside are so typical of that era – and the building’s whole programme is contained in a coherent building.

The political poets – or perhaps poetic politicians – made parallel tracks across the campus.  In fact, I’ve heard that some of those who use the building complain of the sameness of the rigorously rectilinear corridor system, but that grid was necessary to contain the great variety of functions.  The Pathfoot Building is a variation of the “spider” plan, often employed for military barracks and also wartime emergency hospitals such as Bridge of Earn, Stracathro and Killearn.

As the first building of a new university, Pathfoot used that arrangement of a main spine corridor with wings and secondary corridors branching off laterally, to organise its accommodation.  The spider contains staff rooms and library on the lowest terrace; undergraduate and research laboratories, lecture rooms and admin offices on the middle terrace; with common rooms, seminar and lecture rooms, and restaurant on the topmost level.  Other typologies from that era included the Racetrack plan and the Mat building.

Interestingly, before it became the university, the site was earmarked for a hospital, which proves the concept of system thinking.  In other words, big bureaucracies like the NHS and the further education system create similar scales of building with similar typologies on similar sites. 

As I wandered down the central stairs, I ran into groups of academics – mainly middle-aged women with cropped hair and penny-round glasses, speaking in Home Counties English and Midwestern American accents.  They were, presumably, from those same Redbrick universities like Keele or East Anglia, and they loudly extolled the “craft” of one of the speakers. 

I wondered how they responded to to the craft employed in creating the building, or whether they even perceived any parallels between the architecture and their own field?  You would assume that people attuned to the subtleties of expression would appreciate the modulation and articulation involved in creating the spaces around them.  Perhaps not.  Earwigging into their conversations, there were offhand comments about the building, mainly grumbling about the flights of stairs, and the vertical distance they had to travel …

From the original Pathfoot building and MacRobert Arts Centre onwards, the campus is laid out in a series of freestanding blocks which cluster around Airthrey Loch, an artificial body of water which, forty years on, looks completely natural.  Fringed with reeds and willows, the loch is home to waterbirds and its flowing, concave curves contrast with the stepping forms of the buildings, suggesting something of Aalto or Pietila.

This is apt, since a composite of the Scandinavian Modernists’ approaches to architecture was what Robert Matthew had in mind when he developed his Scottish Modernism a decade before Stirling.  The timber and rubble masonry approach of the Queens Tower at Dundee University, Crombie Halls at Aberdeen, plus Lochay and Cashlie power stations in Perthshire, developed into the rationalised architecture used here, with steel frames and prefabricated claddings.

The form-making at Stirling is different to those early period Matthew buildings, because RMJM were seeking a less self-conscious sense of Scottishness.  The university is located in a European, rather than Scottish or British, context, and is one of the finest collections of buildings of that era.  It isn’t urbanism, which is the fashionable discipline which students are pointed towards nowadays … instead, it’s about setting modern buildings into the landscape, to complete a unified environment which is neither urban nor rural.

In effect, the University of Stirling is a working model of a much larger community: residential accommodation is within walking distance of the workplace, and cultural facilities sit alongside.  Sports and leisure buildings are equally accessible, and there are good transport links too.  The whole sits within a landscaped park which has a benevolent microclimate, and although the Wallace Monument glowers down on the campus, it’s full of self-conscious symbolism which is far away from the qualities of Airthrey.

The conference ended and the poetry delegates filed up the steps towards the car park.  Unlike Martin Amis’s characterisation of poets – “Poets can’t, don’t, shouldn’t drive.  British poets can’t or don’t drive.  American poets drive, but shouldn’t,” – these were critics and academics, so presumably they did have driving licences.  As they climbed into their new-style Minis and retro-inspired Fiat 500’s, did they realise how Scotland changed in the century which separates the monument and the university?

Or were they in fact more familiar with the Drip Road post office in the Raploch, from which they posted off Wish You Were Here postcards featuring the castle and Wallace Monument, but missed the point completely…?

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