James Gowan Obituary

by Alicia Cantabella

The British post-war architect James Gowan has passed away at the age of 91.

He was born in Glasgow on the 18th of October of 1923, there were no previous architects in his family, his dad owned a butcher shop, but his artistic skills took him to study architecture at the Glasgow School of Art and, after being a radar instructor during the war, he moved to London and completed his studies of architecture at Kingston School of Art. 

Gowan belongs to the third generation of modern architects who started to work in the exciting post-war environment. His first job after graduating was in Powell & Moya Architect Practice, participating in Churchill Gardens Housing Complex in Pimlico as well as in the design of the iconic Skylon for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

In 1954 Gowan joined the architects Lyons, Israel and Ellis office, where he met James Stirling with whom he started one of the most successful architectural practices in the post-war scene. Together they built the family house in Isle of Wight designed by Gowan before the partnership. Their work had a tremendous impact, with buildings from the Flats in Ham Common, the Housing Estate in Preston, the Assembly Hall in Brunswick Park School and the unique building for the Engineering Department at the University of Leicester, finished in 1963, labeled by many colleagues and critics to be the first ever post-modern building.

From 1964 Gowan continued working on his own from his studio-house in Notting Hill developing mostly housing buildings like the schemes for the London County Council in Creek Road and Trafalgar Road, both in Greenwich and the archetypal Schreiber House in Hampstead, which survived an attempt of demolition in 1987 and nowadays is one of the most esteemed houses of its time.

He dedicated a large portion of his career to teach in different universities in the UK and abroad, such as the Royal College of Art and Princeton University, being always linked to the Architectural Association from 1958 where he was a tutor for different units and coincided in time with Peter Smithson, Arthur Korn and Peter Cook, being probably his brightest disciple the neo-classical architect Quinlan Terry.

During the last years of his life Gowan designed a hand full of hospitals and teaching schemes in Italy in collaboration with Renato Restelli. In 2006 he constructed his last project, the New Research, Teaching and Rehabilitation Centre in Rozzano, Milan.

A compilation of his thoughts and writings concerning architecture can be found in his book Style and Configuration published in 1994.

Gowan never received sufficient recognition for his architectural achievements in life. He was without doubt one of the most brilliant architects of his generation and his work is an inspiration for architects, artists and designers in the XXI century. 

© Alicia Cantabella 2015