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Will Alsop – an independent voice who will be sorely missed

Paul Finch
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Paul Finch recalls Will Alsop, who died at the weekend, aged 70

I last had dinner with Will Alsop at the end of January this year – a convivial social occasion with Sheila Alsop, Peter Cook, Yael Reisner and Susanna F. For the first time I could remember, Will neither drank nor smoked. ‘Having tests’ was his laconic explanation. I feared the worst.

So his death at the weekend was no surprise but still a shock, coinciding with the announcement that Tessa Jowell, former Culture Secretary, had died. Other than their age, I don’t think they had much in common, except that they both fell into that important category of people – the ones who make a difference. In the case of Tessa Jowell, she will chiefly be remembered for her championing of the 2012 London Olympics, though she would have been the first to acknowledge that it was in fact Ken Livingstone (now written out of the script) who really got things going. Nevertheless her support was crucial.

Will Alsop made a difference by remaining fiercely independent throughout his career in thought, word and deed, an attitude nurtured in his early practice years in the Cedric Price office. This independence stood him in good stead in respect of the brilliance of his design ideas and the ability to think laterally in ways that duller minds dismissed as whimsy. It was less helpful when it came to mundane questions of business management, especially in the changing world of tick-box procurement. His chequered financial trajectory over many decades resulted in lost work and the unfulfilled promise of greater things to come. He lost his much-loved house in Sheringham to one of his commercial owners, though managed to get it back again. Needless to say he was not invited nor encouraged to design anything for those London Olympics.

The British tend to be frightened of ideas – until we get accustomed to them, by which time the source is forgotten or discounted. The Greater Northern Power House can be related directly to Will’s concept of links; the redevelopment of Croydon is at least in part based on masterplanning work he did for the council a decade before the area started regenerating in earnest; Birmingham New Street station is a design and build version of his competition-winning design.

I first met Will in the early 1980s while editing Building Design. Then in partnership with John Lyall (a rock who Will should have stayed with), the practice’s great triumph was the ‘Grand Bleu’ project in Marseille, won in competition in a shoot-out with Norman Foster. There was great excitement in the office, partly because, having seen all the drawings, we felt that Alsop & Lyall would win, and partly because this was an example of the new generation after Foster, Rogers et al actually beating one of the big names in a competition. Travelling by cab to the A&L victory party with Cedric Price and Frank Newby (CP’s favourite engineer), the conversation was a nice mix of admiration and the knowing comments of mentors. ‘Nice to see all those 1950s ideas again,’ murmured Frank in his inimitable mock-cynical fashion. It was a design triumph, but to meet the construction budget it involved the office going through endless design iterations without additional payment. Will once told me the job made a loss. All one can say is that it was – and is – magnificent.

A sort of maquette version appeared as the Cardiff Bay Visitor Centre. Typically, Will claimed that the design was based on his cigarette lighter, and it probably was. Functionally, it was less than perfect, with the sort of fencing used in sheep pens deployed to stop accidents involving children and curved sides, but it was hugely popular as an icon, and remained in place for months after it was supposed to.

The Peckham Library turned planning convention on its head (you were supposed to walk straight into the book area) but did so brilliantly; what Peckham needed wasn’t a book store, but a sense of identity and optimism, and this was the answer. The area has never looked back.

Will famously claimed that ‘form has nothing to do with function’ (my headline take on this was ‘Form swallows function’). He did not, of course, mean that buildings should be unusable, far from it, but he did view the narrow idea of functionalism as a menace, because it appeared to focus entirely on what went on inside the envelope, rather than including the idea of visual delight or, indeed, shock as being part of the architect’s palette.

‘It falls on the verge of wallpaper’. Alsop in front of Large Decoration with Masks (1953). Image: Anthony Coleman

‘It falls on the verge of wallpaper’. Alsop in front of Large Decoration with Masks (1953). Image: Anthony Coleman

Image: Anthony Coleman

It was the shock of new ideas which some found hard to take. The Barnsley ‘Halo’, or the creation of a lake in the middle of Bradford, were seen as fantasy projects, but were far from it. You had to interpret the ideas in the case of Barnsley, and pay attention to the serious hydrological survey work carried out in respect of the Bradford ideas, beautifully presented at a Cabe design review by David West with Will sitting in the background, listening.

David, along with Christophe Egret, were key designers in the Alsop office at the time, and you can see traces of Will’s thinking in their work, just as you could see Cedric P’s influence in Will’s, the key difference being that CP didn’t build much, whereas Will had a strong desire to keep on building. He once told me that, while in CP’s office, he designed a new building every day – in his notebook.

With Cedric gone, then Zaha, and now Will, the brightest lights of my life as an architectural journalist are being snuffed out, too early. Let’s hold on to who we’ve got, celebrate and reward talent while we still have it, and avoid that all-too-frequent British condition of attacking the big figures while they’re alive, sentimentalising about them once they’ve gone.

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