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Will Alsop on 'the works of Gordon Bennett'

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Andrea Wulf reviews...

At some point most lecture audiences have to endure the hardship of utter boredom or intellectual diarrhoea. Not so with Will Alsop's AJ/Spectrum lecture, entitled 'the collected works of Gordon Bennett', at Spectrum 2002. This was a truly enjoyable, entertaining and thought-provoking occasion, Alsop proving again that he is as playful and visionary with thoughts as with his buildings.

Alsop took his audience on a journey to dour Barnsley and it turned out to be exciting. Asked to prepare a proposal for the regeneration of the 'Tuscan hill village' in Yorkshire, he turned to the people of Barnsley, their dreams and aspirations.

Instead of compiling another lengthy report nobody would read, Alsop made a film about this collective dreaming.

Full of little gems, the film is amusing, revealing and stimulating. He lets the northern folk fantasise and somehow managed to bring the grey and empty town alive. Although not on the must-see lists of most tourists, I now want to visit Barnsley.

What Alsop shows is that he believes in people and their visions - he dares them to be extravagant and special. The people of Barnsley know that they do not have the pyramids, but they dream of Thai foot massages, Kenneth Branagh playing Richard III and mass execution of pigeons. They envisage the regeneration of their once-famous market as a theatre of trade during the day and a theatre of culture during the evening. They want to get rid of the privet hedges and would love to have a Centre Pompidou.

Yeats' quote that 'in dreams begin responsibility' is taken seriously by Alsop and the people of Barnsley and becomes the slogan for the discussions and drawing sessions. But there is a twinkle in Alsop's eye when two kids try to explain what architects do. One of them just scratches his head and the other says in his best posh accent: 'Oh, let's have it tall and let's have lots of windows.'

Alsop has big visions, for his profession and for the rebuilding of Britain. His proposal for Barnsley could be a model for the regeneration of many other deprived British towns. His way of working with the community and the process of sharing thoughts should become part of every architect's brief.

Alsop asked the people in Barnsley how they would spend £150 million on their town and 80 per cent wanted free parking. That must have been a bit of a blow, but maybe this triggered his idea for the 'Honey, I shrank the town' proposal - Alsop suggests that Barnsley's 100,000 suburban inhabitants could live in the town centre, instead of today's 2,400.

A wall around it would mark the literal and metaphorical boundaries of the town and could leave former suburbia as fields, forests and parks.

A shimmering halo above the centre will be the first step and symbol for a town which has the vision to be special and unique. Gordon Bennett!

Will Alsop's AJ lecture took place at Spectrum 2002 at the Commonwealth Galleries, London, on 15 May

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