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Obituary: Will Alsop 1947–2018

Will alsop istanbul 1976 image courtesy of alsop family crop
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In the AJ’s official obituary, Jeremy Melvin looks at the life and work of the Stirling Prize-winning architect who died earlier this month

Will Alsop had a penchant for difficult projects, awkward sites, inadequate budgets and unformed briefs. If this risk-taking led to occasional failures, it also led to triumphs such as the Hôtel du Département des Bouches-du-Rhône, and the Peckham Library, both of which challenged and reconfigured the conventions of their building types and won numerous plaudits, including the RIBA Stirling Prize for the latter. 

Most architects work iteratively through ‘options’, but Alsop could conceive an imaginative field of objects, possibilities and emotions in which architecture could come into being as a frame for enjoyment and fulfilment. ‘I like people and I hope it shows,’ he said.

William Alsop was born in Northampton on 12 December 1947. A provincial town, it nonetheless had hints of a wider cultural world, with two theatres, an art school and gallery, and a civic museum. Walter Hussey as vicar of St Matthew’s Church commissioned works by Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore in the 1930s. There were buildings by proto-Modernists Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Peter Behrens, both homes for the toy-maker WJ Bassett Lowke. Henry Bird of the art school gave Alsop drawing lessons, based around drawing bricks, while artist and journalist Caroline Coon was life-modelling for Bird in another part of his studio.

Will alsop pompidou 1

Will alsop pompidou 1

Aged 23, Alsop entered the Pompidou Centre competition with fellow AA student John Lyall, coming second

In the mid 1960s Alsop progressed to the Architectural Association in London, then undoubtedly the leading creative architectural school in the country. The AA’s education obviously achieved something as in 1971 Alsop was runner-up in the competition for the Pompidou Centre. After a short while with Maxwell Fry, Alsop went to work for Cedric Price. Price’s intellectual precision, social commitment and sense of fun meshed with Alsop’s own creative energy, but he added a desire to build on a large scale. He left Price’s office after four years, forming Alsop and Lyall with John Lyall in 1981.

These were turbulent times. Margaret Thatcher’s government ended the flow of publicly funded projects and so undermined architecture’s economic base, while Postmodernism challenged its theoretical beliefs. Though he was never a Postmodernist himself, its rise opened up opportunities for Alsop’s exuberance, which conventional Modernism and conventional clients would have found problematic. There was a swimming pool in Sheringham, Norfolk, and a visitors’ centre at the Cardiff Bay Barrage. 

Riba9588

Riba9588

Source: Emmanuel Thirard / RIBA Collections

All-blue regional government headquarters in Marseille, won in competition, completed in 1994. Le Grand Bleu, as it becomes known, is subsequently shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize

Winning the competition for the Hôtel du Département des Bouches-du-Rhône outside Marseille in 1990 launched his practice as an international force. Having beaten Norman Foster into second place, Le Grand Bleu, as it became known, emerged from the ground like a swiss roll on stilts, yet it managed to combine the administrative and political spaces (including a debating chamber) into a memorable image of contemporary democracy.

Alsop’s artistic sensibilities were fundamental both to his life and his practice as an architect. He was an accomplished painter, seeing painting both as an artistic practice in its own right, and having a close relationship with architectural design. He had longstanding collaborations with artists, notably Bruce McLean, and for many years taught sculpture at St Martin’s. Painting and architecture were tools of exploration between which ideas and motifs could leap or remain fixed in one medium while still exerting influence on the other. The Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, a deceptively simple form raised on slender, inclined poles and of riotous colour, combined art and architecture in physical as well as imaginative space, while the art space he created around his Battersea studio showed works by artists often overlooked by commercial or publicly funded galleries. Events there were enlivened by the Doodle Bar, showing that generosity and hospitality facilitated cultural discussion. 

562 1540 604 38a15798ef45935436a1b0036b52f30c

562 1540 604 38a15798ef45935436a1b0036b52f30c

Source: Richard Johnson

Sharp Centre for Design, Ontario College of Art & Design, Toronto, Canada opened in 2004

As chairman of the Architecture Foundation in the early 2000s, he actively promoted a Zaha Hadid-designed home intended to interweave culture and sociability. As this project foundered, he turned his support to the World Architecture Festival, designing a bar for the event which animated its social activity for several years.

A large, exuberant and generous man, with periodically disciplined longish dark hair, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, his physique as well as his personality made him noticeable. He loved controversy. ‘Form’, he avowed in direct contradiction to one of Modernism’s central tenets, ‘has nothing to do with function.’ Instead form was about framing experience and opportunity, giving people something to enjoy as well as use, rather than the mere functional prescriptions.

Barnsley tuscan 2002 credit amodels

Barnsley tuscan 2002 credit amodels

Source: Amodels

In 2002 Alsop revealed his masterplan for Barnsley – a concept based on a Tuscanhill town featuring an encircling habited wall. It was never realised

Alsop could also work on an urban scale. His masterplan for a massive area of inner Manchester, New Islington, managed to meet prescriptive regeneration targets without compromising invention. Even larger visions covered Bradford, Barnsley and creating a single city in strip from Liverpool to Hull. These proposals prefigured and would have greatly invigorated the Northern Powerhouse. Through the 1990s and early 2000s Alsop’s office (he split with Lyall in 1991 and with a German partner Jan Störmer in 2000) was emerging as a major international architectural force. It won competitions in new markets such as China, but his propensity for risk – always in the search for better architecture – worried conventional clients and he was never able to build the formidable machines of Norman Foster, Richard Rogers or his near contemporary Zaha Hadid. Even so there is a tremendous and growing body of work, with two metro stations in Toronto opening last year and several projects pending. Appointed OBE in 1999 and elected to the Royal Academy in 2000, he is survived by his wife Sheila and their three children.

Will alsop painting in norfolk studio image courtey of alsop family

Will alsop painting in norfolk studio image courtey of alsop family

Source: Alsop family

Will Alsop painting in his Norfolk studio

Tributes

Norman Foster

Will Alsop was a truly unique individual. The exuberant and inimitable style of his buildings reflected his larger-than-life persona. His skills as a gifted designer shone through at an early age, he was runner-up in the Pompidou competition when only a student at the AA. The undulating ground plane of the scheme echoed an inherent playfulness that would go on to become the hallmark of his work. Will was always an optimist, forever believing in the intrinsic power of architecture to ‘deal in joy and delight’. 

His attempts to make his buildings ‘float’ were born out of a deep sense of civic responsibility, to give the ground over the buildings and gardens in an effort to make the cities he worked in happier places to be. 

The exceptional Peckham Library and the equally distinctive Ontario College of Art and Design remain the most successful illustrations of his philosophy. I was delighted when he set up his studio in Battersea, contributing greatly to the creative and social energy in the area. Will Alsop added colour and diversity to the British architectural scene throughout his career, and will continue to be an inspiration for young architects for generations to come.

Richard Rogers

Will was a wonderful, warm, brilliant architect and friend. A genius and a colourful and creative maverick who challenged mainstream Modernism whilst being a true Modernist. I remember going with him to see Peckham library when it was completed in 2000. It is a wonderful public space. Seeing it standing on slim columns, I was amazed at what it offered not to just those who use the library, but also to the highly responsive passer-by. A good friend of Cedric Price, he shared many of Cedric’s intellectual qualities. I shall miss him. 

Mirko Zardini, director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture 

I like to remember Will as anything but boring. I really appreciated his idea that architects peddle joy; that they are neither accountants who deliver bad news nor lawyers who get all their money from other people’s problems. We are remembering Will as someone who peddled joy. 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I owe Will a great personal debt because it was his generosity in giving me distinctly post-modern images of Alsop Lyall & Stormer's proposals for the redevelopment of Riverside Studios (a somewhat unlikely speculative commission from Gerald Ronson I recall) that enabled me to sell the story twice - once to Time Out and once to a new magazine enticingly entitled Chartered Surveyor Weekly (now Property Week). The story got me my first job in journalism. The meeting in Will's upstairs studio at Riverside was an unforgettable introduction to the louche and creative world Will inhabited, only rivalled for intellectual gymnastics by a couple of breakfasts I later enjoyed in Cedric Price's all-white rooftop studio (known as East Grinstead). Both involved smoking and drinking very good red wine. Will (and Cedric) imagined an architecture that I hope future generations of architects will be inspired to realise. One driven by hedonistic delight, fuelled by rigorous, rebellious intellectualism. Here's to you Will. It was always fun to meet you.

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