Will Alsop has spoken of his anger after the £72 million arts centre he designed as the lynchpin of the regeneration of West Bromwich was remodelled into a sixth-form centre
The architect said the conversion of The Public had ‘decimated’ the building, leaving him ‘very upset’.
Alsop won the design competition for the arts venue in 1998, but its budget spiralled from an initial £35 million amid funding crises and design changes, and it never fully achieved its cutting-edge ‘interactive’ brief.
The building opened in 2009 and closed four years later after Arts Council England ended its funding and Sandwell Council stopped a £1.5 million annual support package.
Alsop said the ‘unjustifiable’ and ‘political’ funding decision had ruined the building’s ‘deliberately very complicated’ interior.
He said: ‘All local authorities are short of money, but [you] can produce a two or three-year plan to reduce the subsidy to something more manageable. On reflection, it is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money: [the authorities] squandered it.’
Council leader Darren Cooper said Alsop’s comments were ‘a bit rich’ in light of Alsop Architects’ 2004 insolvency and the design issues that had beset The Public.
He said: ‘The council was forced to rescue the project and pay over £17 million to finish it. Given the massive cuts in funding imposed by government the council couldn’t afford to keep paying the £30,000 a week in subsidies.’
The Public drew together funding from the Arts Council, former regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, Sandwell Council, and the European Regional Development Fund.
After the venue’s opening, MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee said the Arts Council had ‘played a major role in a gross waste of public money’ during its involvement with the project.
A ‘lessons learned’ report commissioned by the Arts Council in 2011 observed that the body had ‘agreed to fund a building that was not fit for purpose’, but chose to proceed rather than insisting on a radical downscaling of the vision or the project’s cancellation.
Report author Anthony Blackstock wrote: ‘The Arts Council became so persuaded by the transformative role of the project – for art, society and the built environment – that it was prepared to override due claims of prudence.’
Following Alsop Architects’ liquidation, and the plunge into administration of gallery developer The Public in 2006, Sandwell Council took an increasing role in the project to drive its completion.
After the Arts Council announced the cessation of funding in 2009 the authority was its only significant source of revenue.
A 2012 all-options review of the building’s future concluded that while a reduction in funding offered to The Public was feasible, ‘the long term problem persists of a building that does not have a true purpose or direction’.
The following year the authority’s cabinet agreed to fund the building’s conversion into a sixth-form college with arts facilities that would be open to the public.
Sandwell Council’s view, by leader Darren Cooper:
‘I am sorry Mr Alsop does not appreciate the alterations that were necessary to make the building work as a sixth form college. I think it serves that purpose wonderfully and the architects who worked on the building are to be congratulated on their sympathetic approach to the conversion works.
‘A lot of people thought The Public was a huge waste of public money squandered without due consideration. Now for the first time since the project was conceived the building has a sustainable future and might be considered to be serving a useful and inspirational role. It will serve generations of students and visitors for decades to come.
‘[Alsop’s reflection that The Public was a huge waste of money] is a bit rich given the fact Alsop and the team building The Public massively overspent and went into administration.
‘We couldn’t have an unfinished building sat in the middle of West Bromwich: The council were forced to rescue the project and pay over £17million to finish the building.’
Arts Council England’s view, by Midlands area director Peter Knott:
‘Between 1995 and 2003, the Arts Council ran three capital programmes that attempted to address decades of underinvestment in the arts infrastructure of England. The vast majority of projects were completed very successfully, including landmark buildings like The Sage, The Baltic and The Lowry. The Public is a clear example of a project where the execution did not reflect the original vision, and as a consequence that project suffered significant difficulties. It is clear that mistakes were made, but lessons have been learned.
Elements of the original vision have not been realised as envisioned by Will Alsop. However, while the context and primary use of the building has changed, there continues to be a focus on the arts that involves young people, as well as the wider local community, which was part of the original concept for The Public.
It is a great opportunity for young people studying at the college to experience art and culture right on their doorstep. The building now sits in an area of West Bromwich, which over the last few years has seen considerable economic regeneration, and it continues to benefit the local community, which is something to be proud of.