The Zany, Playful Brilliance of Will Alsop

Will Alsop, who died last weekend at the age of 70, was three-dimensional in a world that seems to reward the one-dimensional.

It cannot be said that the Stirling Prize-winning architect failed to succeed, given a number of acclaimed buildings and a beloved status among his peers and pupils. But there is a certain incompleteness looking back at his life and work. Too many of his designs went unbuilt, too many of his ideas were allowed to dissipate. And yet the incompleteness and imperfection are key to why he has been so influential and inspirational to so many.

Alsop was initially guided by the visionary catalyst of Postwar British architecture, Cedric Price, who he spent four years working for. Price was instrumental in Alsop’s thinking beyond the confines of tradition and into more conceptual and technological realms while developing a spirit of adventure and fun. This spirit was evident in his buildings right from the beginning. His Hamburg Ferry Terminal, designed with Jan Störmer, seems poised to suddenly rise out of itself, like the insectoid paper architecture of Lebbeus Woods brought to life. It appears to be not just in the docks but of it. That’s something he’d achieve yet again with his Carnegie Pavilion, which, in a favorable light and perspective, seems to emerge from its checkered cricket pitch. In the now-demolished Cardiff Bay Visitors Center, it’s as if Alsop took one of the futuristic luxury pod homes of the Space Age and stretched it into a cylinder. Again and again, there are elements of assemblage that disguise sometimes clunky forms. The colored shapes of De Stijl and the colored windows of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel are pixelated and dispersed like static. It gives Alsop’s work a dynamism, perhaps even the tension of imminently falling apart. He was comfortable—perhaps too comfortable—with impermanence.

The difference between Alsop and visionary architects to whom he might be compared is that he actually built some of his ambitious designs. There’s an integrity to the process of realizing a dream, and whatever flaws existed in Alsop’s buildings, they also worked. Tatlin’s Tower can be romanticized not just because it was an innovative design, but because it was never built. It’s hard to be disappointed by an unrealized idea, which remains immaculate in the imagination of its creator and consumer, and never requires maintenance.

But it is important to recognize the limitations and delusions in the untested. Here, Alsop is a rare exception. When his Fourth Grace design for Liverpool was unveiled, beating Norman Foster and Richard Rogers (who, along with Renzo Piano, had beaten him in the commission for the Centre Pompidou), it was met largely with critical derision. “The Cloud” was condemned as an unwieldy, discordant abomination, especially next to the other Graces. Alsop’s design was eventually shelved, ostensibly due to unexpected costs. And yet, there is the sneaking suspicion that, as feverish as it looked, there is something about the plan that might just have worked. It was a brave and bold focal point and there is a power in occasional, thoughtful disharmony. If realized, it may have been, if not critically rehabilitated, grudgingly accepted and eventually embraced as his initially-embattled The Public in West Bromwich was. Certainly, the fact that the vast majority of Alsop’s work went unbuilt was a source of frustration for the architect but also a loss for everyone else. Working in such an idiosyncratic way, Alsop was particularly exposed to criticism. Satirical U.K. news magazine Private Eye made him the target of a couple of “Worst New Building” awards. Such was the risk in a risk-adverse environment.

Alsop’s successes in the built environment were considerable. His breakthrough project the Hôtel du Département des Bouches-du-Rhône, better known affectionately as Le Grands Bleu, was a startling composite that surpassed his earlier work. It was nominated for the Stirling Prize, as was his similarly ultramarine North Greenwich Underground Station. He won the prize with his daring Peckham Library, and his use of elongated pilotis found its zenith in his Sharp Center for Design in Toronto, which won the 2004 RIBA Worldwide Award. Just as Alsop could build hi-tech architecture without losing his soul, there was a refreshing absence of the smarm that infests some Postmodernism. These were brash statements, certainly, but they were also invitations.

There are subjects—housing for instance—where the importance of being earnest matters. But in many other areas—education, entertainment, tourism—the parameters are perhaps looser. Alsop was ahead of the game in proposing eye-catching, surrealist-tinged visions for slowly-stagnating towns and cities that treated planning and architecture as a kind of civic and totemic art. The failures of his approach were also ahead of the game, as they’d slide with ease into expensive vanity projects or vacuous follies. One person’s iconic or at least semi-rational statement (a Museum of Digital Media inside a giant Space Invader) could be another’s grotesque gimmick (an office block resembling Marge Simpson’s hair). Proposing structures that seem to have escaped from a theme park reminds us that places designed to play in are better to escape to than to permanently reside in. It’s a testament to Alsop that even in his most hare-brained schemes, there was still a method to the madness; uncovering a buried river in Bradford Park or reconfiguring a post-industrial site in Greater Middlehaven.

While Alsop’s designs are full of frivolity, they are rarely frivolous. His dedication to sculpture is evident in the abstract adornments to his Ben Pimlott Building in London. His interest in painting is evident in his use of color throughout his career, including another London project, the Blizard Building. His approach to budgets may have been somewhat bohemian as well, but he had a real and continual commitment to substance; consider the chromatic texture he achieved with the angular weathering steel of Pioneer Village for Toronto’s subway, or the copper patina of Peckham Library. These are buildings that seem instantaneous and yet are built with the passage of time in mind.

With his passing, architecture has lost an individual, a style, and a spirit. Naturally, not all of these influences will be completely positive. It’s already evident what the retail park designers can do with stretched pilotis and delusions of sculptural grandeur. In the wrong hands, especially those armed with shipping containers, a bold construction like Alsop’s Chips building in Manchester can lead to untold horrors and mediocrities. Even these show the breadth of his influence. He was a character of generosity and curiosity; an occasionally prickly but largely Falstaffian rejoinder to the myth of English architectural sobriety; a figure who created initially-baffling structures but ones with humanism at their core. He was a dash of color in an age of philistine monochrome. His love of discussing and exchanging ideas may have lead to a mishmash or two but sometimes it produced brilliant synthesis, and crucially it diluted the legend of the monolithic architectural auteur.

Despite having had such a long and varied career it always felt like Alsop was beginning (as seen in his more recent pivot to China). He was always discovering while leaving behind a distinctive fingerprint. You knew a building was his the second you set eyes on it and yet he still managed to surprise. That’ll always be needed in architecture and it’s why he’ll be greatly missed.