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‘Colourful, messy and sometimes pyromaniac’: profession pays tribute to Will Alsop

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Tributes have flooded in from the profession following the death of ’charismatic provocateur’ Will Alsop

Stephen Hodder, former RIBA president and winner of the first Stirling Prize
’I was a judge for the Stirling Prize in 1997 when arguably his Grand Bleu in Marseilles should have won, and on the RIBA Awards Group in 2000 when Peckham Library did win. I came to know Will for his ebullience, wit, and orthodoxy-challenging architecture.

’Two memories particularly come to mind. Firstly, we were in a discussion together where we were asked to identify 21 “icons” that defined 21st Century Britain. Will chose Coventry Cathedral, because it is ‘a marvellous example of integration between art and architecture’. This seemed to capture his whole approach to designing buildings.

‘But I also remember his presentation for the competition to design Lichfield Art Gallery, in which he concluded that, should his entry win, he would insist that site meetings be accompanied by cheese and wine.’

Ben Derbyshire, RIBA president
’Will Alsop is a sad loss. He was a free spirit with a creative genius of colourful independence. And his work had an underlying theme of great generosity – to liberate as much as the ground plane as possible for human occupation.

‘I well remember attending an Architecture Club event with my HTA partner Sandy Morrison. It was on the subject of drawing. As Sandy points out, while everyone else was talking about drawing, Will was working away in the corner on a huge colourful canvass. Maybe that is the point about Will – while we all talked, he just got on with it.’

He was a free spirit with a creative genius of colourful independence

Will alsop sandy arch club event

Will alsop sandy arch club event

John Lyall, former business partner
‘Will and I started collaborating in our second year at the AA, where we had the Archigram tutors David Greene, Ron Herron, Denis Crompton and Warren Chalk. While we were still at the school we formed a “practice” or collective of sorts, called Multimatch, and precociously built structures for the first Glastonbury Festival in 1971 and got a joint second place on the Centre Pompidou competition in Paris.

’The 1980s saw us form the practice properly as Alsop & Lyall. We were the night-shift in the Rogers office in West Kensington – thanks for the start, Richard – moving on to do slightly PoMo stuff at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, then as Alsop Lyall & Stormer, when Jan joined us with our work in Hamburg.

’From small beginnings the firm got bigger and bigger, with successes in Europe and the North Greenwich Jubilee Line Station in London, until we parted company in 1991.

‘It was a heady start to our careers, which eventually went in different directions, but the work at the time always had an edge and a radical artist’s feel, due to Will’s influence. The same applied to architectural teaching, which we sometimes did together at the AA and at Ball State University in Indiana in particular. His influence was always colourful, messy, and sometimes pyromaniac.

‘My heart goes out to his lovely wife, Sheila, and his children Oliver, Nancy and Piers at this sad time.’

Will Hunter, founder and director of The London School of Architecture (LSA)
’Alsop had been involved in the school from very early on, and his practice aLL Design was one of the first practices to sign up. 

‘He had been my first boss, and I joined Alsop Architects, as it was then, for my year out in 2002, a heady time in the office shortly after the Stirling Prize win for Peckham Library, and with commissions flooding in. Every week, I’d grab the AJ to read his column, and scan BD to read more about his visions for Barnsley or Liverpool. He seemed to be challenging the establishment from inside the gates, right at the centre of things.

’It was the intoxicating mixture of design, art and writing – and Will’s own encouragement – that led me to the Royal College of Art, and to Nigel Coates’s influence. The time in his office was my first proper formative experience of architecture.

‘Later, when I was trying to interest him in the LSA, I showed him a very Alsopian diagram, covered in blobs, colours, and curious patterns that tried to tell him what we were about. Such a new and improbable-sounding venture appealed to his renegade spirit, and he became a firm advocate and sounding board.

Such an improbable-sounding venture appealed to his renegade spirit

’He was always forthright and articulate, but in conversation, I will always remember Will being at his most communicative not with words, but his wide range of “hmmms” or “ahms”, which could variously be deciphered as “yes” or “maybe” or emphatically “no”, and be anywhere between twinkly-eyed enthusiasm to furrowed-brow scepticism.

’He was a very generous supporter – with his encouragement and his enthusiasm, his time and his wine – memories I will cherish. He had five LSA students in his office at the last count – Dan, Tim, Jacob, Alex and Aleks. He took a lucky dozen of them to Spain last summer for a weeks-long workshop so they could get their hands dirty making things. His practice led a Design Think Tank each year.

‘There will be lots of reflections and tributes to his work in the coming days and weeks. For now I wanted to say he will be hugely missed by the school and its students, and by me personally.’ 

Nick Johnson, former deputy chief executive of Urban Splash
’Will reinvented my belief in architecture at a time in the late 1990s when we were – at Urban Splash – in danger of becoming a predictable parody of ourselves, a cliché of all things slick, all things modern. I have too many stories to tell about my friendship with Will; what I do know is that all the colour and gymnastics belied three things: a profound knowledge of the history of architecture; a plan that actually worked; and a fascination with people and their idiosyncratic, dysfunctional, imperfect ways.

Will was one of the talented few who wanted to celebrate, not condition, human behaviour

’Too many architects seek to condition human behaviour. Will was one of the talented few who wanted to celebrate it. A rare, undervalued commodity in a profession that continues to add distance between it and the people it’s meant to serve.’

Kate Goodwin, head of architecture and Drue Heinz curator, Royal Academy of Arts
’Alsop was a charismatic provocateur, an agitator who enjoyed upturning the status quo in his interactions and his architecture. He was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 2000, the same year his striking Peckham Library won the RIBA Stirling Prize. The Academy was a place Alsop could discuss ideas over a drink with artists and architects, where he would enjoy the ceremony and associated fanfare, but would equally prod a little at the “institution”.

’Alsop was only interested in boundaries in order to erode them, creating a space (physically and metaphorically) where art, architecture and life would coexist. He would use painting as an integral part of the design process, helping to explore the ideas which would find their way into forms. He would submit his paintings each year to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, regularly disturbing some of the artists in the process.

Heliport Heights model by Will Alsop at the Royal Academy

Heliport Heights model by Will Alsop at the Royal Academy

Heliport Heights model by Will Alsop at the Royal Academy

’Despite not being prone to joining committees, Alsop was a loyal member of the Royal Academy Forum for more than a decade. The group brought artists, architects and academics together to discuss ideas, and formulate interdisciplinary public events. It was the perfect outlet for his energy and intellect. With his maverick attitude, the Forum benefited greatly from his contributions.

’Alsop had a generous spirit and was hugely supportive and encouraging of others in whom he could see potential, especially architects of a younger generation. I also recall very early on during my time at the Royal Academy his encouragement to “shake the establishment”. He inspired me to be bold and pursue ideas outside the box. He ran workshops with A-level students that had them throw paint at walls and no doubt completely unravelled their conceptions of architecture forever.

‘He will be missed at the Academy but his courageous spirit will remain with us.’

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