03 Nov, 2009

Architecture’s enfant terrible

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Three months ago Will Alsop said he was giving up architecture for painting. Now he says that was all a ruse

Only in the world of architecture could a 61-year-old merit the description enfant terrible. But in the absence of any significant competition, Will Alsop persists in fitting the bill. What’s he done this time? Not a new, eyebrow-raising ensemble of his trademark blobs and stilts, nor a provocative proposal to rebuild Croydon out of cheese (in 2007, he suggested flooding the south London suburb as part of a regeneration scheme). In fact, he’s done the very opposite: in August, Alsop announced in the Guardian that he was giving up architecture altogether. He was going to teach instead, as well as launch “a serious inquiry into painting”. It was a dramatic end to a career, although not an entirely surprising one. Alsop’s love of painting is well known, and financial difficulties had already forced him to sell his practice to a larger firm a few years back. Now architecture had become “like pulling teeth”, he complained.

But three months after his shock exit, Alsop is back. He has opened a new office under the umbrella of RMJM, another major British architectural firm. It turns out that the “going off to paint” line was just a ruse to throw his previous employers, Archial, off the scent, while he did some behind-the-scenes manoeuvring.

He smirks when I ask him to explain himself. “A: I didn’t lie, and B: I have no obligation to the press,” he says. “I was painting, and there’s quite a bit of work in my Norfolk studio to prove it. On the other hand, you could say I always paint anyway. I’ve also been doing a little bit more teaching, at Ryerson University in Toronto. So I wasn’t lying there. It’s just that I didn’t say what else I was doing.”

He is now heading up RMJM’s London office, which is to be known as “Will Alsop at RMJM” (“It sounds a bit like Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, doesn’t it?”). For the moment, his new Battersea studio looks more like a workers’ canteen; the former industrial space is still mostly empty desks. There are fewer than 10 employees here, and one telephone line, although they will soon be joined by staff from RMJM’s existing office in east London. There is, however, a chipboard wall already plastered with plans and sections of a new skyscraper (new projects in the Middle East and South Korea is all he will reveal), while a few of Alsop’s large, colourful, semi-abstract paintings lean against the walls. “Once we’ve got it organised, it’ll feel like an Alsop studio,” he says. “Paintings and models, slightly scruffy, which I think is important. This space isn’t roughed up enough yet. It should feel like a workshop.”

Alsop has always been the frustrated-artist type of architect. His built work is like his paintings: full of bold gestures, bright colours and patterns. When it works, it’s playful and unique, like his Stirling prize-winning Peckham Library in south London, with its copper-green cladding and jaunty orange “beret” sitting on top, the whole top-heavy form held up by wonky stilts. When it doesn’t work, the failure is all the more public, as with, The Public, West Bromwich’s faltering interactive art gallery, where Alsop’s brash black-and-pink, blobs-and-all design only drew more attention to its technical and financial troubles. The Public is now up and running, at last, but not before it had made another dent in Alsop’s increasingly battered reputation. Even with a bog standard building type, you can count on Alsop to inject some of his considerable personality into it, as with his recent Palestra in south London – a top-heavy office block with jazzy glazing patterns, or his new Chips apartment block in Manchester, its bright-coloured facades emblazoned with giant lettering.

Marking your spot on earth

Alsop doesn’t see the point of architecture that simply blends in. “I have done lots of work with the general public, and what I hear over and over again is that people are looking for something that marks their spot on the earth’s surface. Something that has an identity which they don’t share with others,” he says. The trouble is, it’s become harder and harder for him to be the free-thinking architect. “Very often the principal [architect] spends more time filling in VAT returns than getting on with what they spent seven years training to do,” he says. “It’s distracting. You need time and you need relative relaxation in order to work your way into a project, and if you don’t do that you just end up repeating what you’ve already done.”

Perhaps if Alsop had spent a little more time filling in those VAT returns, he might still be running his own practice. For 25 years he worked independently, his career a steady accumulation of awards and bigger commissions – until about a decade ago. The tipping point was probably a commission for the “Fourth Grace” for Liverpool’s historic waterfront: Alsop beat Norman Foster and Richard Rogers to win the prestigious competition with his radical “cloud” structure, but it proved a poisoned chalice. His design drew fierce public criticism, major changes were called for, costs spiralled, and then finally the scheme was shelved in 2004. Several other projects fell through shortly afterwards (a building in Bangkok, a development in Manchester) , and there just wasn’t enough money to see the practice through its lean patch. “We should have been covered and we were not covered financially. That pissed me off,” he says. “I paid the price for my disinterest in that side of architecture – as a business.”

In 2005, Alsop sold a 40% stake in his firm to venture capitalists. A year later, Alsop Architects was bought in its entirety by SMC, a publicly listed new architectural group that was then aggressively acquiring small regional British practices. Within a couple of years, SMC became the fourth largest architectural firm in the country, with Alsop the jewel in its crown. But they were plagued by internal issues that saw SMC’s founder, Stuart McColl, ejected and the name changed to Archial. Then the credit crunch bit, and Archial posted a loss of £4.3m for the first half of this year. “I don’t think the plc as a model works very well in architecture,” Alsop says of SMC/Archial. “Rather than architectural intent, a number of decisions were made purely on a financial basis. The main board only had one architect on it.” Alsop still had creative freedom, but his offices in Toronto and Singapore were closed down. “I had my wings clipped.” Did it become acrimonious? “No,” he smiles. “Just boring.”

On the face of it, there’s not a huge difference between Alsop’s previous role and his new one. But RMJM has a better pedigree: it was one of the key modernist firms of the 1950s and 60s, and has made a huge impression on the landscape of postwar Britain, from university campuses and housing estates to London’s Commonwealth Institute, right up to the Scottish Parliament. Like SMC, it has also stepped up its expansion drive under new CEO Robert Morrison (a former army officer and a non-architect). Morrison thinks the industry is due for a major shake-up. “You saw it in marketing in the 70s, where WSP and Saatchi came along and looked at an industry which was largely made up of small companies. This is a very fragmented sector, and I strongly believe that over the next decade or two that’s got to change dramatically, and the emergence of one or two superfirms is an inevitability.”

As well as Alsop, RMJM has collaborated with other well-known architects, such as Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel, although nothing has yet come of these partnerships. Perhaps Morrison’s vision really is the future of architecture: a handful of global “superfirms” with the odd star name attached for a dash of creative flair. But most architects hope not.

Drawing, painting, dreaming

Only 10% of RMJM’s work is now in the UK; it is involved in several major international projects, such as Gazprom’s controversial skyscraper in St Petersburg. Critics say the firm’s growth has come at the cost of its identity, and that it is producing less remarkable work these days.

Of course, it would be good to see Alsop return to form. His Stirling Prize was nearly 10 years ago. But even if he’s no longer quite the enfant, his appetite for the terrible seems to be undiminished. He’s looking forward to doing what he enjoys most: “drawing, painting, dreaming and working on architecture”, albeit with the benefit of a large safety net. Professionally, this new marriage might turn out to be a happy one. Or it might last as long as Alsop’s previous engagement.

Either way, there is no chance of him ever really giving up architecture to go off and paint, Alsop admits. He will never retire. “Painting to me is a way of exploring architecture, anyway,” he says. “It’s all the same thing. If I spent all my time painting, it wouldn’t mean I’d given up thinking about architecture. I can sit in my studio on a Saturday morning and find something on a large piece of paper, and the feeling that you get is almost as good as having finished a building that’s turned out all right. It’s not about designing something, it’s about discovering what something could be – and I think that’s a very important distinction.”

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