A tribute to Will Alsop RA: 1947 - 2018

Published 15 May 2018

Architect Will Alsop RA was known for blurring the boundaries between art and architecture. Following the sad news of his death, the RA’s Head of Architecture and Peter Cook RA reflect on his career.

  • Will Alsop RA died on Saturday 12 May, aged 70. He was elected as a Royal Academician in 2000 – the same year his Peckham Library won the RIBA Stirling Prize. Both a painter and an architect, Alsop was recognised for his colourful and bold proposals which pushed the boundaries of architecture. His many projects include Cardiff Bay Visitor Centre (1990), Le Grand Bleu in Marseille (1994), and Fawood Children’s Centre in London (2005).

    Here, the RA’s Head of Architecture, Kate Goodwin, and fellow architect Peter Cook RA pay tribute.

    • Kate Goodwin, Head of Architecture

      Will Alsop RA was a charismatic provocateur, an agitator who enjoyed upturning the status quo in his interactions and his architecture. He was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 2000, the same year his striking Peckham Library won the RIBA Stirling Prize. The Academy was a place Alsop could discuss ideas over a drink with artists and architects, where he would enjoy the ceremony and associated fanfare, but would equally prod a little at the “institution”.

      Alsop was only interested in boundaries in order to erode them, creating a space (physically and metaphorically) where art, architecture and life would coexist. He would use painting as an integral part of the design process, helping to explore the ideas which would find their way into forms. He would submit his paintings each year to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, regularly disturbing some of the artists in the process.

      Despite not being prone to joining committees, Alsop was a loyal member of the Royal Academy Forum for more than a decade. The group brought artists, architects and academics together to discuss ideas, and formulate interdisciplinary public events. It was the perfect outlet for his energy and intellect. With his maverick attitude the Forum benefitted greatly from his contributions.

      Alsop had a generous spirit and was hugely supportive and encouraging of others in whom he could see potential, especially architects of a younger generation. I also recall very early on during my time at the Royal Academy his encouragement to “shake the establishment”. He inspired me to be bold and pursue ideas outside the box. He ran workshops with A-level students that had them throw paint at walls and no doubt completely unravelled their conceptions of architecture forever.

      He will be missed at the Academy but his courageous spirit will remain with us.

      Will Alsop RA, Fog is an Urban Experience

      Will Alsop RA, Fog is an Urban Experience, c.2007.

      Part of the RA Collectionacrylic, florescent and iridescent colours over graphite, on two layers of wove paper with attached collage pieces. 1520 mm x 1220 mm. © Royal Academy of Arts. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited.

  • Video: Will Alsop RA leads a workshop with A-level art students

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    "You don’t need to be afraid... Nothing is forever; you can always change it. But the most important thing is to do it, and do it with energy."

    – Will Alsop RA

    • Peter Cook RA

      The untimely death of Will Alsop RA seems to snuff out the light of wit, exuberance and naughtiness on the European architectural scene. It leaves us remembering a myriad of projects that were skilful beneath their audacity, commentaries that were informed beneath their provocation and anecdotes that slowly added up to a serious statement of position: urging us to grasp the opportunities of life, space, the city and the event.

      A larger than life character (who some might have dismissed as a Falstaffian figure), he was a continuing inspiration to those who knew him well. Just a couple of his words could sum up a situation – particularly if it was dreary. The great thing about Will was that he became an antidote to correctness, circumspection and the predictable carefulness that pervades the architectural scene of late.

      For most of his life Will was associated with west London; he only plummeted towards the east through circumstances and the proximity of Squint Opera, founded by his son, Ollie. His generosity towards other architects and creative spirits found substance in Battersea, where his office and the early Squints could be found among a crazy gallery-cum-event space calling itself Testbed and a “beach” at the Doodle Bar, which attracted many who would have never ventured into that part of London. That the Doodle Bar was pretty tatty, the events fairly spontaneous and its “beach” a flat roof overlooking a muddy creek was all part of the optimism and charm of the Alsop world. Things were always just about to take off (and over the years they sometimes did).

      James Hunkin, Will Alsop R.A.

      James Hunkin, Will Alsop R.A., 2002.

      Part of the RA Collectionsilver gelatin print, Kodak Ektalure paper. 305 mm x 240 mm. © Royal Academy of Arts. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London.

    • His 1990 competition-winning scheme for Le Grand Bleu in Marseilles (a project he won early on against architecture’s Big Boys) was in every sense a “proper” large building – with some knowing tweaks. His 2005 additions to Goldsmiths University suddenly enlivened this droll corner of south-east London. Often thwarted and certainly not the world’s best businessman, several original works did nonetheless pop up around the UK, in Hamburg and in Toronto (where very recently some of his rather chirpy subway stations have been completed). Yet most memorable is Peckham Library – a Stirling Prize-winning scheme that seems to demonstrate Vitruvius’ three important conditions for a good building: “Commodious, Firm and Delightful”. Poised well above ground, colourful and filled with cheeky pockets, it claims the best of all architectural achievements: popular with the public.

      Will stuck to his guns in many ways. He functioned best after at least one glass of red wine, continued to smoke cigarettes and trot up to Sheringham, Norfolk, where he inhabited a relaxed house and garden that contrasted with his small flat in the west of the Kensington/Chelsea village. He gave wonderful, unfettered lectures, cheered things along – and undoubtedly irritated the “worthies” – in a way that was gentler but equally as honest as the late Zaha Hadid RA.

      For me, with architect Cedric Price, then Zaha and now Will leaving us, the scene will be gasping for spirited air. We’ll have to search high and low for some cheeky kids like Will and his Multimatch design group – those who have rapidly emerged out of the Architectural Association and are punching far above their weight.

      His wife Sheila (a great trouper too), and his talented brood remain as a living reminder of a Great Bloke.

      Peckham Library, London, by aLL Design

      Peckham Library, London, by aLL Design

      Photo: Roderick Coyne