As he prepares for a new TV debut, Will Alsop speaks to Alexander Larman about his changing relationship with art and architecture, and why he’s made amends with the borough of Kensington & Chelsea
Interviews with most architects don’t take place on a makeshift beach in Battersea accompanied by lashings of wine. But then Will Alsop isn’t like most architects. Since winning the Stirling Prize for his witty design for the Peckham Library in 2000, Alsop has been synonymous with flamboyant use of colour (his is a profession that traditionally favours grey), audacious design that redefines the status quo and… a certain irreverence.
This has led to both celebrity and controversy, thanks to Alsop’s refusal to check himself when it comes to making public statements; notoriously, he declared ‘F*** the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea’, where he has lived for the past four decades, live on television in his 2000 victory speech.
Notoriously, he declared ‘F*** the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea’, where he has lived for the past four decades, live on television in his 2000 victory speech
It is, however, television that brings us together and Alsop will soon be appearing in a new Channel 4 series, Ugly House. An upmarket version of the home-improvements programmes so beloved of commissioning producers, it sees a number of architects work with homeowners to transform their nondescript houses into something special.
As a frequent expert on high-profile arts shows, most recently Jonathan Meades’s Bunkers, Brutalism, Bloodymindedness, Alsop is used to the ‘fairly artificial’ process of making television, contrived moments of conflict and all, but he still enjoys it. ‘When you’re surrounded by fantastic professionals, as I was, it’s a joy to be involved in,’ he says.
Another major television project that Alsop spearheaded ten years ago provided a platform for him to present his so-called ‘Super City’ hypothesis, a vision of an enormous city stretching from Liverpool to Hull that would amalgamate millions of people in one conurbation and thus wipe out uninteresting urban sprawl. Although the project, which included an accompanying exhibition, attracted enormous publicity, it was never implemented. It is, then, not without wry amusement that he notes its striking similarity with George Osborne’s much-discussed ‘Northern Powerhouse’ strategy.
‘I presented a TV series about it, and it was a highly conceptual project that came out of the work that I’d been doing in the North; I observed how busy the M62 was, and how the people who lived up there used the cities as if they were one enormous metropolis. Which gave me the idea of building small villages, each with their own character, and linking them all together.
‘If you could get someone from Hull supporting Liverpool, then we would have created a place where people’s identity would have shifted.’ He remains, however, lukewarm on Osborne’s plans – ‘he’s viewing it from an economic perspective, whereas my interest was always social’ – but still believes that a version of his original idea could come to pass, not least because, ‘you’re going to have regional mayors, who can unite and implement some interesting ideas.’
80% of my buildings have never been built, and that’s not because I’m an idiot, it’s a question of finances and situation
Alsop’s interests and work have taken him on a global journey, not least via his involvement with China (‘it was becoming obvious from the late 90s that it was too big to be ignored’), but also on account of extensive work in countries as diverse as Canada, Singapore and Russia, on the latter of which he says, ‘I was there as much to observe the process of change as to build anything.’
When he’s not airborne (his nickname in architectural circles is ‘BA Flight’, on account of his former column in a trade weekly, where he would sign off with the flight number he happened to be transmitting his musings from), he works as an artist, a discipline that he says not only complements, but is integral to, his work.
‘While I think of myself as an architect, I’ve increasingly spent time on art, which has always been part of my world. The two disciplines influence each other. I put a lot of colour in my paintings, and I enjoy feeling the lack of constraint. Nonetheless, the most frightening thing is always an empty canvas, or a big piece of paper. The real art, I suppose, is knowing when to stop the creative process.’
He’s highly respected as an artist, holding shows all over the world – the next one in Rome in 2016 – and as an active Royal Academician, he regularly includes work in the RA’s Summer Exhibition.
Despite Alsop’s successes, he is sanguine about the disparity between ideas and reality; as he puts it, ‘80% of my buildings have never been built, and that’s not because I’m an idiot, but it’s a question of finances and situation.’
Nonetheless, the 20 per cent that have come to fruition remain some of the most intriguing buildings of the past 50 years. Riding high after a series of successes – ‘I’m being asked to design as many buildings in Britain as I ever have’ – it’s a good time for him both professionally and personally, with 2015 seeing the weddings of his two eldest children.
And, in the spirit of ‘what goes around comes around’, his former nemeses at Kensington and Chelsea have now become reconciled with him. ‘I sit on the board of the architectural advisory board there now.’ A twinkle, and the pouring of another glass of wine. ‘They still haven’t built any of my projects, though!’ One can only hope that, for an architect who burns with a zeal and enthusiasm that would shame many half his age, this does not remain the case for long.
Images: Roderick Coyne, Richard Johnson, Will Alsop