08 Aug, 2009

Swapping blueprints for paintbrushes

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Alsop has abandoned architecture for art, but a distinguished line of figures before him prove it’s not such a radical step

Hold the front page. Stop the clocks. Will Alsop has decided to give up architecture – for a bit anyway – and concentrate on painting instead. Well, for two days a week. Saturday and Sunday, perhaps. A weekend painter, then? Funny that. Many architects have been doing much the same, or the equivalent – teaching, writing, reading, looking after the children, watching white plaster walls dry (architects don’t much like wallpaper) – as the recession digs deeper than the foundations of Alsop’s colourful Peckham public library.

It’s an old story really. Architects have been giving up the graft of building, or trying to get their designs built, for centuries and turning to some other cultural pursuit instead. Some, like Alsop, have been sparky talents. Think of Charles Rennie Mackintosh: he designed buildings of immense character, ingenuity and, yes, artistry – most notably the Glasgow School of Art – but vanished with an empty wallet, and in a haze of alcohol, to Port Vendres in the south of France where he painted beautifully for five years before cancer killed him. It was the difficulty of finding work at a time of recession that had turned Mackintosh, one of Britain’s most original architects, against his chosen profession.

Equally, though, think of Le Corbusier, an architect far more controversial than Will Alsop, who felt he had been fighting the establishment his whole life before he died swimming into the sun – very probably a form of ritual suicide – off, yes, the south coast France. Le Corbusier, however, had worked simultaneously as architect, polemicist, urban planner and artist. He painted prodigiously for much of his life. And, whatever we might think of his views on urban planning, he was, without doubt, one of the greatest architects of his, ours, or any other generation. An architect, as Le Corbusier proved, can work as an artist and as a designer of charismatic buildings at the same time.

One of Le Corbusier’s last assistants, the Greek-born Iannis Xenakis, was also a radical composer, musician, musical theorist, engineer and – yes – architect. But then, I suppose, one of the greatest architects since they’ve been known to us by name was Michelangelo – a sculptor, painter, poet and engineer, too. Renaissance man personified.

So, perhaps Alsop needn’t give up the day job just yet; he can be both artist and architect. History abounds in precedent. Even if some of his complaints about the state of British architecture do ring horribly true.

Alsop’s is a maverick talent. A sociable and intelligent man who enjoys robust debate, I have a feeling he might just be back at the drawing board when the economy picks up again, and somewhere out there a client comes along wanting a sculptural, painterly building a little out of the ordinary. As an architect, Alsop delights some people and riles others; here, though, is that rare thing – an architect who dares to speak his mind in public, and who will be missed by fellow professionals if he decides to take up the brush full time.

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