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Acts of Will

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Will Alsop: Book 1 By Kenneth Powell. Laurence King, 2001. 208pp. £40 In 1971,

Will Alsop and his collaborator Norah Cohen came second in the competition to design the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The competition was, of course, won by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano - an event that, without exaggeration, can be said to have changed the course of architectural history. A dream commission for a couple of young and relatively inexperienced architects, it sent the High-Tech style off on its triumphant progress through the next two decades.

Had Alsop and Cohen won the competition it would have been even more like a fairy story, since they were both still students and had been obliged to submit their scheme under the name of AA tutor Dennis Crompton.

Alsop had to wait 19 years to get his own back on High-Tech, by beating Norman Foster in the 1990 competition to design the H¶tel du DÚpartement in Marseilles. This book covers Alsop's career up to the Marseilles competition scheme, but stops short of the realisation of the building, which will appear in the projected second volume.

Kenneth Powell's workmanlike text tells the story in a straightforward biographical manner. We learn a little about Alsop's upbringing in Northampton, about the year he spent at art college, his student days at an Archigram-dominated Architectural Association, and the time he spent working in offices as different as Fry and Drew, Cedric Price and Roderick Ham. In 1981, when he was 34, he set up in practice with John Lyall, a partnership that was to last 10 years. It is a story of struggle more than success - a struggle to find work and also a struggle to find an architectural 'voice'.

Alsop seems to have been determined not to commit himself to either of two dominant styles of the period - High-Tech and PostModernist - though he flirted with both. It was only when he began to make a direct link between the inner world of his paintings and the objective realities of architecture that the now well-known Alsop style emerged. Powell sums it up as, 'Bold shapes, often circular or oval ('blobs', some call them), an uninhibited use of colour, a desire to give buildings presence (and their users a view out), by elevating them on platforms or legs.'

Alsop paints his buildings first and then designs them - a method which allows the irrational subconscious to shape the building. He deliberately rejects any kind of consistent theory and his work is full of contradictions. He says he prefers landscape to buildings, yet his buildings draw attention to themselves like pieces of sculpture. He claims to believe in a radical kind of public participation, yet his design method is personal and introverted. He regards 'the accepted dogmas about the hegemony of the architect' as obsolete, yet he presents himself as the sole author of his designs.

Most monographs of this kind are more about the designs than the designers, presenting the work of an office rather than an individual. This monograph concentrates exclusively on Alsop. Of his last partner Jan St÷rmer, for example, we learn nothing, and even John Lyall remains in the shadows. And the awkward fact is that Alsop completed only a handful of buildings during the period in question.

The swimming pool at Sheringham (see picture), Tottenham Hale Station, the Hamburg Ferry Terminal, Cardiff Bay Visitor Centre - none of these represents his mature style. So instead of detailed presentations of projects and buildings, we have a kind of scrapbook with pages and pages of paintings, often enlarged more than they deserve, interspersed with slogans in big letters ('The establishment of rules has been the death of architecture') and photos from the family album. No doubt volume two will offer more substantial fare.

Colin Davies is a professor at the University of North London

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