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‘Mischievous’ architect and artist Will Alsop dies aged 70

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Avant-garde architect, artist and academic Will Alsop, who won the 2000 Stirling Prize with Peckham Library, has died aged 70 after a short illness 

Often controversial, Alsop is known almost as much for his unrealised schemes and ‘mischievous’ opinions as his built work and paintings.

Among his more contentious proposals were a 2002 masterplan for Barnsley, based on a Tuscan hill town, and abandoned plans for a Cloud-like zoomorphic structure on Liverpool’s waterfront, dubbed the Fourth Grace (2004). An ambitious vision to flood central Bradford was only partially implemented.  

However during his career, which effectively began when he left school at just 16 to work for an architect, he helped design and deliver many distinctive and bold buildings. These ranged from his early High-Tech projects such as the Hamburg Ferry Terminal (1993) and Le Grand Bleu in Marseille (1994) to the multicoloured Ontario College of Art & Design (2004) with Alsop’s trademark stilts.  

Other notable schemes included the 2005 Stirling Prize-nominated Fawood Children’s Centre, his troubled The Public scheme in West Bromwich, the Chips housing scheme for Urban Splash, and stations around the globe such as the Stratford DLR (2007), North Greenwich and a number of recent completions in Toronto.

Born in Northampton in 1947, Alsop was taught by artist Henry Bird at Northampton Art School before studying at the AA. 

He worked for a short time for Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew before spending four years with Cedric Price. In 1981 he set up Alsop & Lyall with AA classmate John Lyall and the pair were later joined by Jan Störmer. Following Lyall’s departure in 1991, the practice was renamed Alsop & Störmer.

Alsop and Störmer split the firm into separate practices in 2000 with Alsop forming Alsop Architects

He was made a Royal Academician the same year, and over the next 18 years his practice went through various iterations – he sold the Alsop brand to the SMC Group (the architectural conglomerate later renamed Archial) in 2006.

His outfit operated under the Alsop Sparch banner, but Alsop left in 2009 saying that he was retiring from architecture to focus on painting.

However, he later admitted that this was a smokescreen to divert public attention away from a top-secret deal to move to commercial giant RMJM.

In 2011 he broke away from RMJM to set up a new one-stop-shop design studio with Scott Lawrie in Battersea under the banner aLL Design. Lawrie left in 2013.

Marcos Rosello, director and co-founder of aLL Design said: ‘It is with great sadness that I must inform you that on Saturday, Will passed away after a short illness. On behalf of the studio, we send our condolences to Sheila, Will’s wife, and to his three children, Ollie, Piers and Nancy. Our thoughts are with them.

He added: ‘Will has inspired generations and impacted many lives through his work. It is a comfort to know that due to the nature of Will’s work and character, he will continue to inspire and bring great joy. He had an exceptional ability to recognise particular strengths in individuals which he would draw out and nurture. His design ethos, essentially to “make life better”, is evident in the architecture of his buildings and their surrounding communities.

‘We will miss him greatly.’

Section b b

Section of Peckham Library

View images and drawings of Will Alsop’s work in the AJ Buildings Library

Tributes

Former AJ editor Isabel Allen

Will was the first columnist I appointed when I took over as editor of the AJ. It was a controversial choice. The magazine – and the most vocal of its readers – had a taste for understated Modernism: Stanton Williams; Allies and Morrison; Sergison Bates. Will – just like his buildings – was deemed too populist, too mischievous and to be having too much fun. In time-honoured fashion, those who disapproved the most became his most avid readers, transfixed by the combination of big ideas and bonhomie – and by his international lifestyle.

Will was deemed too populist, too mischievous and to be having too much fun

His columns would invariably be drafted on a long-distance flight to another extraordinary project in some far-flung corner of the globe. Some were written by hand on a napkin and given to an unsuspecting secretary to decipher and write up. It was up to me to work out which parts of the column had been scrambled in translation and what might have been left out. I didn’t always get it right, but he never seemed to mind. I’d get a cheery message: ‘Thank you for my column. You made a very interesting point.’

Carnegie Pavilion, Headingley Carnegie Stadium, Leeds, by Alsop Sparch

Carnegie Pavilion, Headingley Carnegie Stadium, Leeds, by Alsop Sparch

Carnegie Pavilion, Headingley Carnegie Stadium, Leeds, by Alsop Sparch

Jeremy Till, head of Central Saint Martins, pro vice-chancellor research, University of the Arts London

What a loss! Personally, he was always very generous to me, supportive and curious. As an architect, the way he brought his originality into the mainstream eye gave many others the licence to play with and question the orthodox Modernist canon. He should be recognised as someone who shifted the sands through his painting, writing, teaching and designs.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Chris Roche

    Will Alsop epitomised the art of the possible if not the architecture of the improbable. His legacy is not the limited number of projects completed in his name and in his lifetime but the unlimited number of projects he inspired both nationally and internationally - both in the recent past, and into the future. Every generation provides a small number of truly great architects, and Will Alsop will be remembered by many as one of the greatest of their generation.

    Chris Roche / Founder 11.04

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  • No mention of Will Alsop's die-stamped bon viveurship in AJ's short report. I recall the unexpected question that Jean Nouvel asked me as I settled down to interview him after he received the Riba Gold Medal: "Do you know ow I can contact Will All-soap?" The inference was obvious: the French genius wanted a drinking buddy. Like Nouvel, Alsop was always the most engaging of lunch or dinner hosts, and in the Premier League of wine consumption. Alsop's personal conviviality and his dry humour always seemed in some way generative of his architecture. I therefore could never think of him as a radical architect because he wasn't assiduously polemical. But he was one of the few among his cohort who could only ever be a designer of visions. And some, it must be said, were highly original, functionally. Jay Merrick

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  • So so very sad , indeed a character that filled a large part of our profession - was also part of RMJM for a short while - a true free spirit - like Zaha he has left a part of his character with us , his peers and no doubt the future generation - RIP

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