Out to lunch with Will Alsop RA

Published 9 November 2010

The architect and Academician enthuses over a dish called Heaven and Earth, and tells us why fun is important in architecture.

  • From the Winter 2010 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    As I walk to our interview, the photographer texts to say he’s stuck on a train; then the restaurant rings to say they’ll need the table back quickly, so our time will be limited. On a day when the best laid plans are unravelling, I am glad to be meeting Will Alsop – cool, unflappable and as close to improvisational as an architect can be. As I enter Hix, a short walk into Soho from the RA, Will is sitting calmly at a corner table, nursing a whisky and working on his iPhone. We’ve arrived early to shoot his portrait, but with the photographer missing, Will makes a brave effort to enjoy the eerie ambience of an empty restaurant. It’s an unlikely atmosphere for an architect whose creative process thrives on what he calls The Noise, which is also the title of an illuminating new book on his work.

    What does Alsop mean by ‘The Noise’? “Buzz, chatter, sharing experiences, creating a lot of stuff around an architectural project. I get people together to talk about what they want, draw it, paint it. It should be fun, like a big party.” Alsop listens to ‘The Noise’ then takes it all away to look at in silence “because I need to have a go at ideas, to paint them.” He is renowned for painting vast, colourful, abstract canvases both at work and in his Norfolk studio.

    We have chosen Hix because Alsop has requested British food. He has just flown in from China, where he has projects in Chongqing and Shanghai, and he’s desperate for a change. Hix specialises in locally sourced modern British cooking. It’s also full of contemporary art by the likes of Damien Hirst, Noble and Webster and Sarah Lucas.

    We share a starter of half a dozen oysters, then Alsop is itching to order Heaven and Earth, an almost unfindable dish that Hix has resurrected. “This must be one of the only places in London that serves it,” he says of this exotic German speciality. It is in fact an enormous globe of black pudding (earth) sitting on a creamy bed of stewed apples and mashed potatoes (a squashed version of heaven?), a mix of salty and sweet. Alsop loved it so much he drew it on the napkin.

    Alsop has resurfaced after selling his architectural practice and then going into partnership as Will Alsop at RMJM, an international architecture firm. He is now globe-trotting, particularly to China, on several projects. Nearing completion is his Gao Yang dock complex in Shanghai, where restaurants and bars hang in glass balls over the water. Alsop’s biggest project is a master plan and buildings including the world’s tallest twin towers in Chongqing, the fastest growing city in China. The city has been memorably recorded by the award-winning photographer Nadav Kander, who also showed in the RA’s 2009 Summer Show.

    Alsop has been an RA since 2000, an annus mirabilis in which he also won the Stirling Prize for architecture for his Peckham Library and exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale. He loves being an RA because it allows him to combine his artistic and architectural sides. “I have wanted to be an architect since before I knew what an architect was. But I enjoy submitting work to the Summer Exhibition and having it shown in the painting galleries.”

    While his work is often described as avant-garde, colourful and risk-taking, Alsop does not adhere to any style or school. “Style, like fashion, goes out of fashion,” he says. “Architects need to have no agenda. For me, architecture is always a compromise, which means agreement, therefore it’s positive. I try to be wide open, which is easier said than done.”

    The Noise describes his tenets as “diversity, individuality and naughtiness”, to which I would add fun. It is impossible to look at his buildings like the “Chips” housing development in Manchester and the bright blue Peckham Library, without smiling. “There is a tendency, particularly in the British, to dismiss something because it looks fun: if it’s fun it can’t be serious. There’s nothing more serious than fun.”

    Speaking of fun, as we share a dessert of chocolate pudding with honeycomb ice-cream, he tells me he is converting the cavernous ground floor beneath his Battersea studio into Testbed 1, a “space without an agenda” for performance, art, music and socialising. “Bruce McLean did the first performance and our official launch is in February, with composer Gavin Bryars and Tom Waits.” It has Nick Serota’s endorsement, while Alsop describes the neighbours – a new RCA campus, Vivienne Westwood’s studio, Norman Foster RA – as a creative community in need of a hub. An ideal opportunity for Alsop to make noise and have fun. “I like people. I hope it shows in what I do.”

  • En Route: Will Alsop, The Architecture Space, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 13 January - 13 March 2011.
    Will Alsop – The Noise by Tom Porter (£29.99, Routledge) Testbed London

    Sarah Greenberg is Editor of RA Magazine.



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