During my meetings with Will Alsop—two at his London studio in 2008 and 2010, and during our four-day trip to Moscow where I organized his lecture for SPEECH Magazine in winter 2011—he impressed me as having the most genuine, artistic, and free-spirited soul of all the architects I met. Calatrava, Hadid, and Gehry may strike one as great artists, but no matter how inventive they are, they are all involved in shaping buildings. Alsop, on the other hand, would find himself engaged in working in a completely boundless and unrestricted manner as a true artist. It seems that his whimsical works—”blobs and daubs,” as he called them—are imagined as pure fantasies to be transformed into architecture much later by his staff. Eventually, he would have to “sell” them to his clients as buildings that function.
Alsop’s creations bring magic to the real world; they connect realities and dreams in the most fantastic ways. I never thought I would like his buildings though. I saw their renderings and photographs as cartoonish, until I visited them in person in London and Shanghai, among other places. Then my preconceptions dissipated. These structures make people feel happy and curious; they disarm the harshest critics and enrich our experiences. The following conversation with Alsop, who passed away on May 12 at age 70, is a condensed interview version based on two of our multi-hour meetings.
Will Alsop: …I like to think that I don’t have a particular style. I do very different things and in different ways. Some people say there is an Alsop style. It is an insult to me because I like to avoid it. I have gone away from the idea of what architecture should be. My job is to discover what architecture could be. And that voyage of discovery involves other people and I like working with people who live or work in the area of my projects to hand them the pencil or the paintbrush. Then you can have real fun trying to make sense of these engagements.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Your work is always different because the people with whom you interact are different.
WA: That’s right. Also, what I noticed is that the politicians, especially, often say that the people don’t want change and that they always prefer the status quo. In my experience from working with people—this is not true. People embrace change and are becoming more and more comfortable with the idea that some of the new architecture is as good as some of the greatest monuments from the past. And sometimes it is even more interesting from the experiential point of view. Because of the plasticity of these new extraordinary spaces, new ways of achieving wonderful light, and a greater range of materials. You can make a very good, honest building with materials alone.
VB: What is a good, honest building?
WA: When it has a good quality of construction, good lighting, and particularly—paying attention to what is happening at the bottom, because that is what most people experience. If I were a politician, I would make a law in every city that everything from the ground to ten meters and higher should float and not touch the ground.
You could still eat and drink at the ground level but there would be no buildings. The ground should be given to people and gardens, not buildings. It would make our cities much happier. Think of Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles, which is where I built my first elevated building, the Hotel du Departement.
VB: What kind of architecture do you envision in the future and what is your main ambition in life?
WA: I don’t think I can talk about the future because if I knew what it would be I would be doing it. We are locked into the age we live in. For example, many architects are preoccupied now with climate change and issues of sustainability and ecology, but that is just general awareness. It doesn’t make architecture. It is important, but some architects market themselves as green architects.
Well, we are too, but I want my clients to pick us for other reasons. You never pick an architect because he is good at plumbing. But when plumbing was first invented maybe there were architects who would say “we understand plumbing.” In the future, I would like to see more sharing of ideas and on occasions, I would like the idea of working with other architects. And as far as ambition, I would like to do a hospital. I think hospitals should be beautiful so when you come out you would fall in love again.
VB: Do you think colors play a specific role in your work?
WA: On one level, it cheers people up. There is nothing in architecture books that says it cannot be fun. I think color has a very direct effect on the way we behave and the way we feel. Colored glass casts colorful shadows. If there was no color in my buildings, it would be a completely different experience. Architectural critics think that fun and architecture don’t go together. But I always ask why not? Where in the rule books does it say these things don’t go together? The fun aspect of architecture is a very serious part of it. There is no right way to make architecture, and I think that is good.
Our cities should have diversity. Uniformity makes life less interesting. It makes people bored. Architecture is not about just having a roof over your head, but about a feeling of belonging and feeling comfortable. Sometimes, it is very difficult to explain how to do that, but I have had people tell me that my buildings are very comfortable. They would come to me and ask, “How do you do that?” I don’t know, and I don’t want to know, because if I did, all the fun and exploration about making architecture would be destroyed. You have to have fate.
VB: You once said: “Painting has helped me rediscover what architecture is and what it is not.” How does painting help you to discover what architecture is?
WA: I work on a very big scale, and when I paint, I try many things, and it may look like I am in control, but I am not. I discover things as I go. A painter has a mind of his own. I paint, I sit, I look, and my paintings often suggest what the next step is going to be. I never know for sure. I move from initial paintings that are very abstract and suggestive to paintings that are more specific. I don’t know if my work can be called art. Some people like it. Some people don’t like it. It doesn’t matter. In more recent years, I began doing art for its own sake.
The process of painting takes me away from myself. There are different ways to achieve that. Some people fiddle with pieces of paper; others play with small study models. In my case, it happens to be painting. What I don’t like to do is to think my way into a solution. The idea of waiting for inspiration doesn’t work. I need to try many things before I know what I want. And, again, I try to work on a big scale. To me, it is illogical to fit on a small piece of paper ideas of what the huge thing is going to be like.
VB: Do you allow other people to participate in your painting and design process, or is this very personal for you?
WA: Sometimes, my work becomes eclectic, and a painting might become a collective work with different people reflecting on our discussions and ideas. In the very beginning, it is usually just me, and then, other people in the studio might contribute.
VB: Contribute with words and comments or by adding bold colors to your canvas?
WA: Sure, they paint over my work. That’s fine.
VB: Do you ever depict context in your paintings?
WA: There is nothing more frightening than an empty canvas, so I like to put something there that has no meaning at all—just something to work with. I also have a studio in the country where I work on large pieces of paper. As I am working on one piece of paper, I have another piece on the floor. The things that drop—paint, charcoal, dust—start the next painting. This takes away my fear of the white empty page. Sometimes, I stand on a piece of paper. One of the reasons for painting is that you are not really in control of what you are doing, and that interests me a lot.
VB: Could you talk about how you won your Ontario College of Art and Design project in Toronto?
WA: Their brief was very detailed. I read it on the plane on the way to my interview. It was really boring. Every room was prescribed, and all functions were listed in minute detail. So, I came for my interview and told those people that I read the brief, and I can’t figure out how you know this is right and that this is what you really want. There were sixteen or seventeen people, and I said to them, “Put your hand up if you really believe in this brief.” And only one person raised his hand. He was the guy who wrote it. So, I said, “Hmm… so you don’t really believe in this brief?” At that point, I tore it up right in front of them and said, “Well, if you give me the job, here is what I would like to do—I want to work with the students, the neighborhood, and the staff, and we’ll figure out what you want.”
VB: You said: “The problem of architecture is that architects think they have a responsibility to society and not to themselves. The architects must be selfish. Once this lesson is learned the architecture can begin.” Could you elaborate?
WA: I think this is true. Clearly, we architects have responsibilities. Most architects from around the world practice architecture with the best intentions to serve their society. Usually, the names of these architects are forgotten. But seriously, at least half of any architect’s responsibility is to figure out who you are, because you didn’t become an architect just to assemble different things. You didn’t, or at least, I hope you didn’t. Because you have an attitude, a view, and you have a sense of judgment. That’s what you are trained to do, and that’s what you have become.
Therefore, the process of architecture-making is an act of selfishness. I like getting involved in various discussions, but, in the end, architecture must give me pleasure. It might give other people pleasure, as well. I don’t know how it happens, but I know that many people like my buildings and enjoy being in them. I know, because many people have shared this with me. Architecture is the art of compromise, and therefore, the basis of the compromise must be strong. It can only be strong if you have the freedom to dream and not to conform to society’s dreams.
VB: So, that’s your answer—architects must be selfish.
WA: I don’t want to generalize, but I would say yes. Of course, purely selfish people are horrible, but you need to be selfish in terms of forming the work and making critical decisions. You can open up things to a debate, and you can enjoy it and learn from it, but there comes a point when it is you, the architect, who must make a decision. That’s the art of architecture—putting everything together in your own way.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.