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Allford on Alsop: ‘A global figure but also a maverick’

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Simon Allford of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris remembers Will Alsop, a ‘vociferous and distinguished outsider’, who has died aged 70

Will was a big man, with a huge talent for architecture and living life large. When I think of him I see a large, almost cherubic face, a smiling face, many vivid colours, a painting dripping with life, a bottle of red wine, cigarette smoke and some seriously good and ambitious architecture. His personal aphorisms, delivered in a style simultaneously conspiratorial and headmasterly, have long been, and long will be, regularly referenced in many of my architectural conversations. 

I first engaged with him at a workshop on Glasgow. There he decided early on that ‘perhaps the best thing we could do is dye the Clyde cadmium yellow’!

Later he memorably declared, mischievously, but also most seriously, that there were few projects that could not be formally configured using only the contents of your jacket pockets. He went on to prove this in Cardiff, Marseille, Toronto, Hamburg and, in his adopted London, in the more edgy parts of Peckham, Whitechapel, New Cross and North Greenwich. 

For Will was a global figure, but also a maverick; one who, regardless of burning through partners and offices – his partnership with John Lyall being the exception to the rule – was often through sheer strength of personality alone able to both think and build big. His debt to Cedric Price was clear and acknowledged in his approach to life and architecture and in his personal style – Old Town worker’s suit, white shirt and a long mane of swept-back dark hair.

Unlike his one-time employer Price, however, perhaps even as a reaction to his pupillage at Alfred Place, Will always wanted to build. Partnerships came and went but big ideas generating big buildings were the constant. Both were defined by his use of colour, the contents of his jacket pockets and his delight in the celebration of the theatre of everyday life – even in Barnsley.

Though Will was fêted by clients, students and architects alike, he operated as a prolific, often vociferous and distinguished outsider. Rejecting powerful cliques, he preferred instead to engage with those who he believed shared his need to be pushing at the edges. Such was the force of his personality that the many who chose to operate in his orbit ensured that his world became an alternative establishment, one of family, friends, collaborating artists, architects, film-makers and clients. His sons engaged in architecture by making films and he enjoyed the fact that, in the familial world he built around his Doodle Bar – first set up in Battersea then latterly rehoused in Hackney – their studio outgrew his. As an architect and painter brought up in Northampton, he was also happy to be a Royal Academician.

Will was very generous with his time. A few years back, he did not hesitate to accept an invitation to join a few of us for a stay in Le Corbusier’s Unité in Marseille to show us around his Le Grand Bleu. Remarkably, two decades on from its completion, I was struck by quite how grand and blue and powerful it still was. Indeed the only thing missing was Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime (which had been on a loop at the AA show of the competition-winning design). 

Writing last night, having heard the sadly not unexpected news of his death, it is still very hard to realise I won’t see him again. Thankfully I had the opportunity to write him a letter last week and tell him how important his optimism, wit, style and architecture was to myself, my partners and those of us who were lucky enough to spend time with him – happy and memorable time talking of architecture and life over cigarettes and alcohol.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Memorable days at Flood street working on the Grand Blue... Im sure the whole team will always remember how influential Will was to us all...

    Jason S-D

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