Ellis: James Gowan

James Gowan, Sketchbook: Engineering building, Leicester University (red/blue), 1976, DM 2660.37 IN SET – Drawing Matter

James Gowan (1923–2015), From Sketchbook: Engineering building, Leicester University, 1976. Pen and ink with colour pencil on paper. © Estate of the architect.

While typically, the architect employs the sketchbook as a raft by which to navigate the relentless flow of day-to-day practice, those that James Gowan assembled, across the course of his long professional life, served as a more elevated and leisurely mode of transport. Questions that he was addressing in the office at the time of their production certainly leave their mark, albeit in the form of immaculately resolved drawings, produced on a variety of paper stocks and pasted in. But the pages of these small volumes are also amply populated by memories and speculations of no clear immediate application.

James Gowan, Sketchbook: Berkshire farmhouse and panto set design, 1976, DM 2660.20 IN SET – Drawing Matter

James Gowan (1923–2015), From Sketchbook: Berkshire farmyard grouping, with set design for student pantomime at Kingston School of Architecture, 1949, 1976. Pen and ink with colour pencil on paper.

James Gowan, Sketchbook: Assorted building types, c.1976, DM 2660.19 IN SET – Drawing Matter

James Gowan (1923–2015), Page from a Sketchbook, c. 1976. Pen and ink on paper.

James Gowan, From sketchbook, Ground floor workshop, Engineering, Leicester University, 1976, DM 2660.35 IN SET – Drawing Matter

James Gowan (1923–2015), From Sketchbook: Ground floor workshop, Engineering, University of Leicester, 1976. Pen and ink on paper, pasted into sketchbook.

The ingenious set of a sci-fi themed student-skit, designed when its author was enrolled at the University of Kingston in the 1940s, finally finds a record thirty years after the event. More intriguing still are the many post-facto revisions of the Leicester Engineering Department, the potential loss of its spectacular but functionally suspect tower being a subject of particularly extensive enquiry. Elsewhere, we encounter elaborate structures of enormous scale – usually signalled by the appearance of a helicopter or Alpha Romeo – but no clear programmatic imperative. Pragmatic and fantastical explorations jostle for space on the same page, conveying both James’s absolute command of the technical aspects of his discipline and a readiness to pursue an idea solely for its graphic appeal. Like his hero, Marcel Duchamp, he maintained a conviction that the creative process necessitated an openness to both the rational and irrational parts of the mind. In his sketchbooks those sources intersect in ways that are constantly surprising and provocative, as they no doubt were to him.

– Ellis Woodman


On Housing and the City, four post-1963 projects by James Gowan and Alvaro Siza exhibited at the Architectural Association in spring 2017 curated by Ellis Woodman and Maneul Montenegro; on the eponymous publication; for the drawing book SB6 by James Gowan, downloadable as an iBook; on a sketch by Gowan's early partner, James Stirling; and for more on sketchbooks, our Line of Enquiry.