Why we’ll miss Will Alsop

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Who will take on Will Alsop’s legacy of genial sceptic and serial bon viveur?

Will Alsop. You could never hear the name without smiling appreciatively. His recent death at 70, when his collective practice aLL Design was busy from Canada to China, came as a shock to a profession that had perhaps taken his existence for granted as the perpetual licensed outsider, the creative force who did things his own merry way, and to hell with the accountants. This was the man who could say a bad word on camera at the Stirling Prize ceremony (he won it, for his Peckham Library) and then defuse the situation with his characteristic chuckle.

This was the man who could say a bad word on camera at the Stirling Prize ceremony and then defuse the situation with his characteristic chuckle

It’s worth considering what Will stood for. Having worked for Cedric Price, he inherited Price’s mantle as the genial architectural sceptic with a think-before-you-build attitude, for whom a drink or several with friends was certainly more important than obsessing over a shadow gap. He thought big, and he thought ahead and he painted, often on a large scale, and well. He was one a true artist-architect, a surprisingly rare breed.

Just like Cedric, Will believed that over-planning was a curse, that happenstance should be allowed to take its course, and that sometimes – often, in fact – it is better either to design nothing, or to design lightly and generously, allowing for change. ‘We spend a lot of time NOT doing projects,’ he told me, the last time we profiled him for this magazine.  His contradictory tendency was to regard plainly no-hope projects as all but completed. But unlike Price he did get a surprising number of buildings built: the Alsop Lyall and Stormer ‘Grand Bleu’ government building in Marseilles being his breakout project. His loose part-built masterplan for Urban Splash’s New Islington development in Manchester reminded me of his unbuilt 1992 design for Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz which would have allowed the city to heal itself naturally, over time.

Will believed that over-planning was a curse, that happenstance should be allowed to take its course

Northern Powerhouse? Will had the whole Transpennine Supercity thing sorted years ago. He made a book and a 2004 TV programme about it, chatting away at the wheel of his Range Rover, flicking his ciggy ash out of the window as he went.

Everyone speaks of Will’s generosity – with his time, with his patronage of small emerging practices, with his ideas.  Some say he could be boorish and that he had little time for those who didn’t buy into the Will way. You couldn’t always guarantee that he’d turn up but when he did – for instance, to help judge our annual Eye Line drawing competition a couple of years back (this year’s deadline June 12, everyone) – his contribution was both laconic and transformative.

For me the canonic Will building no longer exists, though it existed for four times as long as it was originally meant to, moved locations during its lifetime, and was partly redesigned by him in the process. The oval shrink-wrapped marine plywood tube of the Cardiff Bay Visitor Centre was an agile enough design to outlast certain ‘permanent’ office buildings, say.  Well done and thanks for everything, Will. To make a rock comparison, you were the Lemmy of architecture.

 

Reread our profile, Will Alsop rebooted