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Do bullies make the best community architects?

editorial

On this week's letters page, Phil Summers of the Irwell Valley Housing Association applauds Will Alsop's quest to revolutionise social housing, but takes issue with his dismissal of housing associations as unimaginative and reactionary. Still licking his wounds from the Aylesbury Estate fiasco, Alsop has accused housing associations of aesthetic and cultural conservatism.While there are notable exceptions, too many new housing projects exemplify the familiar domestic mediocrity which is deemed to be the benchmark of public taste.

Alsop's contempt derives from his belief that people are excited by the outlandish and receptive to the new.

There is no doubting his idealism, or his commitment to public participation. Just as there is no doubting that, in Alsop's hands, any amount of public consultation would result in the inevitable conclusion that residents'needs and desires would best be met by a design which was recognisably and quintessentially Alsop. But does this undermine his status as a community architect? Is the architect who simply aspires to translate others' aspirations into three-dimensional form somehow more public-spirited? While the former may be a stylistic bully, the latter jettisons any obligation to demonstrate expertise, talent - even genius - suggesting that years of experience and study leave the professional equipped to be little more than a conduit for reaching an acceptable compromise between collective desires.

Alsop's ability to combine public consultation with his own, very personal, aesthetic is easily dismissed as a means of manipulating a sceptical public into believing that his brand of architecture is what they wanted all along. Certainly, he is convinced that, given sufficient opportunity, he could have gained the support of the tenants of the Aylesbury Estate. And he probably could.

Not because of his ability to 'trick'an unsuspecting public, but because residents expect to be convinced before embracing the unknown. Communities which end up with an Alsop building are aware that, while they may have influenced the brief, the building reflects Alsop's vision rather than their own - giving it the X-factor which they have every right to expect from a talented architect.

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