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Battle of Wills: writing about Alsop could be a hazardous exercise

Will Hurst
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Will Alsop’s fame and business problems made him irresistible to journalists but he wasn’t above playing them to his own advantage, writes Will Hurst

Walking into a high-security prison was somehow less intimidating than it should have been in the company of Will Alsop.

It was the winter of 2005 and, as a young reporter at Building Design, I’d jumped at the chance to drive up with him to a site visit to HMP Gartree in Leicestershire as part of his Creative Prison project which would involve prisoners themselves in improving the design of lock-ups.

Battle of wills

Battle of wills

My point about Will was not due to his physical bulk – although there was that – but his supreme confidence around people of all walks of life, including those serving life sentences for murder. Once we were inside the forbidding walls of Gartree, I witnessed that confidence again as we sat among a small group of ‘lifers’ and saw how he put them at their ease before skilfully soliciting their thoughts on how a less forbidding and institutional environment could be created.

Will – then at the height of his fame despite business troubles and the scrapping of his Fourth Grace in Liverpool the previous year – had faced ridicule in the newspapers and sharp criticism from other architects for the Creative Prison endeavour. But he believed in it and wasn’t going to be swayed.

‘These prisoners have done bad things,’ he told me. ‘But their punishment is being locked up for quite a long time. To treat them badly is punishment on top of punishment.’

While we saw eye-to-eye on the rehabilitation of offenders, we had clashed on other matters, mainly related to my documenting his travails in business – never his strongest suit.

One of the first major architectural stories I broke was about how, a year earlier, he and other directors at Alsop Architects had sold 40 per cent of the practice to a venture capitalist after being forced into receivership by financial crisis.

He was obviously not happy about that front page. But he knew reporters like me had a job to do and we continued to meet up for enjoyable lunches or a drink at his studio in Battersea. There, I would often find him with a paintbrush in one hand, a glass of red in the other, standing in front of a huge canvas where his ideas would find messy and colourful form.

Will’s attitude was that journalists like me were exploitative and could thus be exploited in return

He revelled in telling me that his philosophy concerning public buildings and places could be summed up as ‘what the fuck is that’ architecture – the simple notion that highly original form-making would spark curiosity and bring people in like a magnet.

Will could be unscrupulous as well as charming, and we fell out in 2009 when he invited me to his office for an interview about how he was leaving Alsop Architects (then part of Archial group) for a career as a painter.

While my ‘scoop’ was picked up by the Times, we were both left with egg on our faces when Will admitted several weeks later that his comments had been a ‘smokescreen’ to conceal a top-secret deal to join Peter Morrison’s RMJM. I was furious that I had been used in such a way while Will’s attitude was that journalists like me were exploitative and could thus be exploited in return.

I was probably better at holding grudges than him because he continued to greet me warmly whenever we spoke, something that gradually chipped away at my righteous indignation. Even now, I can hear him picking up the phone and exclaiming ‘Hello old fruit!’ when I called.

Our last encounter was when I invited him to join the judging panel for the AJ House of Colour competition at the end of last year. He was on good form and proudly showed me a photograph of him hand-in-hand with his young grandson. I will remember him for his intellectual and creative bravery, his interest in other people’s opinions and his joie de vivre.

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