Tribute

Will Alsop

The British architect spoke to CLADmag in Berlin several months before his death. As a tribute to a remarkable career, we revisit the interview, in which he reflected on his art, the role of public space, and taking fun seriously


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British architect and artist Will Alsop died on Saturday 12 May aged 70, following a short illness. Alsop was known for his colourful and often avant-garde buildings, including Marseille’s bright blue Hôtel du Département and Peckham Library in London, for which he won the Stirling Prize in 2000.

He was also known for his imaginative, controversial and often unrealised city masterplans, such as a proposal to flood the centre of Bradford. As a respected columnist and academic, he was a strong advocate for a bolder approach to design.

Tributes poured in from around the world for Alsop following his death, from the likes of Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and his colleagues at aLL Design.

On the role of architecture
Architecture is about ideas and thoughts and examining things. Sometimes you’re lucky and find something quite new, but the climate we have at the moment goes against that. People get very afraid of failure, and that prevents them from trying new things. I don’t care about that though!

On taking fun seriously
I often get criticised because I talk about fun a lot, but fun is actually a really serious business. And it’s not easy [designing in a way that encourages a sense of fun]. You really have to work at it. It’s easy to follow a set of rules, but that’s not how it works.

When I’m designing buildings, I ask myself, ‘What would you enjoy?’ Once I’ve got somewhere, I can ask other people. But I’m a user as well as a designer, so my response is as important as anyone else’s, actually.

On creating successful leisure spaces
I think it needs to be a place where people can feel relaxed. That’s really important.

I see a lot of spaces which are over-designed, and that actually inhibits you. I’ve done a few art schools in my life and they always had to be rough and tough, internally, so you don’t inhibit students doing whatever they want to do. And you need social contact, of course.

On the role of art in his work
I’ve always painted and created art. It used to be sculpture, but it’s hard work, sculpture. Exhausting. I suppose it was 1985 when I started to paint as a way of discovering what a piece of architecture could be.

My paintings aren’t illustrations of what the architecture will look like; I paint to free up the mind. It’s a form of exploration.

I have a big board in the studio, with two big canvases, or sometimes one huge canvas, on it, and I work away on that. I just sit and quietly smoke and have a lager if I can; I look at it and think about it. As I get further advanced, I get other people on the team to come and add to the painting.

I like it, because it gets those guys off the computer. Computer screens are depressing. Everyone uses them, of course, but are they really the best thing for designing? The old fashioned way of constructing a model, playing with a few bits of balsa wood and tissue paper is nice because you’re inventing as you go along.

On Peckham Library
I go past it quite often. I haven’t actually been in it for four or five years, but people meet me who do use it, and it sounds as though it’s used very much in the same way it was originally.
Too many people use it, but I’m not going to complain about that.

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Tribute: Will Alsop
As a tribute to Will Alsop, we revisit his thoughts on public space, his art, and the important business of having fun