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Obituary: Michael Wilford (1938-2023), Stirling partner who went on to build his own successful practice

Chris Dyson

One half of Stirling/Wilford, who maintained a high profile alone, including by designing the Lowry, opening a successful German partnership and teaching worldwide

Michael Wilford.
Michael Wilford. Credit: RIBA Collections

Michael Wilford, who has died aged 84, first won international renown in his partnership with James Stirling, which produced some of our most important postmodern buildings, from No. 1 Poultry in the City of London to the Neue Staatsgallerie in Stuttgart.

After Stirling’s death in 1992, Michael’s own practice maintained an excellent reputation for significant public buildings, from the British embassy in Berlin and Esplanade cultural centre in Singapore to the Lowry arts centre in Salford.

Wilford studied first at Northern Polytechnic and then Regent Street Polytechnic in London. He joined Stirling and Gowan in 1960, working with these two titans of modernism as they built the famous red brick trilogy – the Florey, Oxford; the history faculty library, Cambridge; and Leicester’s engineering building – plus halls of residence for the University of St Andrews, Dorman Long’s headquarters, and housing in Runcorn, Cheshire.

The Stirling/Wilford partnership was set up after Gowan left in 1971. I joined in the early 1990s, and could see the strength of their working relationship. Jim and Michael sat on opposite sides of their first-floor office at 8 Fitzroy Square, overlooking the gardens. Michael was both a pragmatist and a creative foil to Jim’s ideas, and a consummate administrator; leading the team of able associates and talented architects took a talent for stewardship that he had in buckets.

  • No. 1 Poultry, London.
    No. 1 Poultry, London. Credit: Danilo Leonardi / RIBA Collections
  • Neue Staatsgallerie, Stuttgart.
    Neue Staatsgallerie, Stuttgart. Credit: Charlotte Benton / RIBA Collections
  • Tate Gallery, Liverpool.
    Tate Gallery, Liverpool. Credit: Alastair Hunter / RIBA Collections
  • WZB Social Science Research Centre, Berlin.
    WZB Social Science Research Centre, Berlin. Credit: Charlotte Benton / RIBA Collections

Many stayed on to work at Michael Wilford & Partners, which was resolutely a design studio, with Michael constantly reviewing and editing designs as they evolved. His energy was tireless.

Hand drawing was highly regarded. ‘For me the process of drawing is one of evolution and exploration, he told the British Library’s National Life Stories project. ‘Drawing is critical to liberating the imagination… there is a dialogue between the mind and the images; I don’t see how that can be reproduced or substituted by any other mechanical or electronic means.’ Nevertheless, the office also produced equally exquisite and thoughtfully composed computer drawings.

Models required a significant financial outlay, and tended to be used only after a design had come to maturity, to better explain a project or ideas.

At the same time Michael established a Stuttgart office with Manuel Schupp, building on the success of the Staatsgallerie. Major commissions came from WZB, BBraun, Sto and the House of History for the state of Baden-Wurttemberg. He loved flying off to visit new projects and places, often working all the way. When the work was done, however, he enjoyed a good party as much as Stirling had.

  • British Embassy, Berlin.
    British Embassy, Berlin. Credit: Christopher Hope-Fitch / RIBA Collections
  • The Lowry, Salford.
    The Lowry, Salford. Credit: Richard Booth / RIBA Collections

The partnership in London disbanded in 2000 as work dwindled, but Michael continued to work in Germany, and to collaborate with practices established by former employees, including MUMA, Sutherland Hussey and my own.

Alongside practice he taught widely, with stints Yale, Harvard and Rice, at McGill University Montreal in Canada, University of Newcastle in Australia, and the AA. He was a critic, external examiner and visiting professor at the University of Liverpool’s School of Architecture in a close relationship that lasted until the end of his life.

His contributions to architecture were recognised with awards including the 1997 Stirling Prize for the Stuttgart Music School –  a project originally conceived with his former partner – and the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust’s Building of the Year for the Lowry. In 2001, he was awarded a CBE.

He is survived by his wife, Angela, and children Karenna, Carl, Paul, Jane and Anna.

Chris Dyson is the director of Chris Dyson Architects