Monday December 8, 2003
He detests planners, thinks Bath is boring and says his fellow architects are 'terrible people'. But why does Will Alsop, the man behind some of Britain's most exciting buildings, hate Tate Modern?
Alsop - 'the absence of joy is the biggest threat to our society.'
The phrase Will Alsop least likes to hear is "it's a bit big," and in his line of work he hears it a lot. Other words he dislikes: "avenue," "boulevard", "vista," and "local authority planner," which he associates with the death of the imagination, ie Milton Keynes. The 55-year-old architect likes things to be big and bold, such as his silver-panelled, space-age design of Peckham library, his Dusseldorf Harbour Tower (18 storeys, multi-coloured fascia) and his Fourth Grace, which will sit like a diamond knuckle-duster on the waterfront at Liverpool. Alsop is himself quite a giant, in the style of Meat Loaf or Orson Welles, and a little louche, slouching in his chair and running a hand through the crinkle-chip waves of his hair. We are in his studio in Battersea, which he discourages his 93 staff from calling an office. "Office," he growls, "sends out all the wrong messages."
By his own admission, Alsop is an untypical architect. Architects, he says, are "terrible people, they like rules" - all that squared paper and thin-leaded pencils - whereas he takes a more chaotic approach to building design. He studied as an artist. "I like painting, I like painting big." Alsop used to teach sculpture at Central St Martins and if he is stuck for ideas, loosens his mind by painting huge, abstract canvases. He talks in great, winding sentences that find their point by a process of elimination. When he wins a public buildings commission - he is the architect in charge of "rebranding" Barnsley, not a term he likes, but one he recognises the publicity value of - the first thing he does is call a town meeting and hand out the crayons. "Painting, drawing, sploshing, all that sort of thing. If they have a glass of wine inside them, or two, they begin to relax and begin to say things they would never say to the normal guys who go out and do consultations." His David Bellamy-style enthusiasm gets interesting results and Alsop Architects has become one of the most influential firms in the business.
It is a good time to be an architect in Britain, he says, because the public is just starting to forgive his profession for the ugly building spree it went on in the 60s and 70s, typified, he says, by a block of yellow-brick flats outside his window. "I'm thinking of blocking [the window] up." If Brits are shy of new architecture, it is because the concept of "new" has until recently been associated with monstrously bad buildings. Alsop thinks this is finally changing. "Generally speaking, it's a better time to be an architect in this country than it's been for years. There is no predominant style any more. Suddenly we're in this period in the beginning of the 21st century when there would appear to be no rules. And that's very healthy. It's where you get buildings that are all the same that things get boring. Even if it is all Victorian, or all ... I suppose Georgian towns are perceived to be quite nice - look at Bath. Actually I think Bath's quite boring. Too many hanging baskets in Bath."
Alsop has offices in Rotterdam, Toronto, Singapore and Shanghai, 120 staff in all, a small outfit compared to the mega-operations of Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, both of whom he beat for the commission for the Fourth Grace. Norman, he says, is "often very good. Quite slick. He has a house style," whereas "Richard's a bit more messy. Which is also good. It's good to be up against them, they're very satisfying to beat."
His real enemies are not business rivals, but cultural attitudes, which differ from country to country. The Dutch, for example, drive him crazy with their fondness for meetings. "You can end up, literally, talking about whether a building should be 10 centimetres to the left or right - we're not outside that danger in this country." In France, he says, it has been difficult for a foreign architect to get work since the country moved to the right. And in Britain, it comes down to the local authority planners who, says Alsop with painful restraint, "by and large don't have a lot of vision."
His dislike of planners is part of a more general suspicion of people who define value in purely financial terms. Accountants, management consultants, civil servants, all generally offend him because they "don't make any connection between value and delight." With the same, dry understatement, he says "the rise of the project manager has not been useful." Alsop thinks that the financiers carping about running costs on the new Scottish parliament building should chill out and "just say, 'It costs what it costs, you'll get a jolly good building,' then move in and get on with it." In any case, he says, it's not the architect's fault, it's whoever set such a low budget for such an ambitious building.
It seems a little unkind to expect a project's accountant to share the visual flair of its architect, but then, says Alsop, with camped-up despotism, they shouldn't stick their nose into his business. He rather enjoys playing the role of high-minded artiste, but beneath the huffing is quite serious. He cites as an example an experience he had in West Bromwich, where he held a town meeting to field ideas for a new arts centre. "The planner started to say things that planners always say: 'It's a bit big. What about the context? There's nothing else like this around.' Oh, God. And an ordinary member of the public interrupted, and said, 'Excuse me, it's our town, it's our money, and it's our bloody building. Who are you protecting?' And I thought that was a brilliant question."
But then, unexpectedly, Alsop blames another group entirely for what he sees as one of the biggest missed opportunities in architecture of the past decade. I ask if he likes Tate Modern, and after a long pause he says, "I think they should have pulled the existing building down. I think that, to be honest, when I go around it, I feel that I'm being guided in the same way that I might be guided round a shopping centre. I'm being manipulated. If you come out and you've left your handbag - not that I have a handbag - in one of the cafes, to get back to it is a real bugger. Cos it's not back the way you came." The mistake, he says, was to consult the artists themselves about whether they wanted a new building or not. Alsop thinks most modern art is "pure ersatz", that the Turner Prize is dull, and that artists, when it comes to architecture, are "the most conservative clients you can have. Because they make decisions according to the places they like to work in; an old warehouse or something that has historical value. But that does not have the same function as a gallery. Therefore I think London missed out on getting something very new. Behind that I suspect that there was a notion that it would be less expensive to convert an existing building than to build a new one. Serota and co had to find the money, had to make their business case. I always wonder about the business case for art; it's not a business, it's sheer joy and delight."
Any mention of focus groups, or critical consensus or the tools of management as a means of decision-making induce the same, droll contempt. He thinks the Arts Council should be scrapped and instead tax breaks given on all donations to artistic causes. "I quite like the idea that there are a number of wealthy people who all have different missions and ideas, some very traditional, some very modern. I'd rather take my chances with them than the official view of what good architecture or art is. The only thing we have is our individuality. That's the only thing we can give to the world. And then you die." He shrugs cheerfully.
If there was one thing he could do to make life in London easier, I ask, what would it be? He thinks for ages. "Well, London's such a big place." There is another long pause. "I suppose I'd like to see greater diversity in new architecture. As a single thing. And I'd like to see the City of London opened up. I don't understand why the City's riverwalk, which is on the sunny side of the river, is such a tragedy. Compare that with Southwark, one of the poorer boroughs - they've done fantastic things with their river edge. I think that's unforgivable; one of the world's most expensive bits of real estate and the people who own it aren't offering a great deal back."
He has another idea too, which relates to his observation about value and delight. It is not to do directly with architecture, but in the same way as his painting feeds tangentially into his work so, too, does his exploration of unrelated ideas. To Alsop, architecture is the junction at which all other disciplines meet - art, science, philosophy, technology. He even talks about TV as a "public space."
Out of this cauldron of interest, comes the following idea: "I would change working hours and our attitude towards holidays. Particularly with young accountants and solicitors." As well as three children, Alsop has a niece, who is a lawyer in the City. "I said I'd take her to the theatre and for a nice meal. She said, 'Oh, I'll have to ring up and see if I'm allowed to do that.' She rang back, 'Oh, good news, I can come. But I'll probably go back to work after we've finished.' This is terrible. A body of people using the young as slaves; and they do it because it was done to them. Either they can afford the right number of people to do the job, or they're badly managed. It's criminal. It creates people who are only about work and sleep. And they all have to go to the gym for a couple of hours to wind down - which is terribly bad for them." Alsop smiles to acknowledge the lack of gym work that has gone into his own physique. "I think it leads to a miserable society." And suddenly, while he talks, his idea starts to curl and find shape and eventually, to work its way back to his professional life. "Long working hours create a life without joy, and the absence of joy is the biggest threat to our society." He pauses. "It encourages the notion of a non-visual culture." There. Alsop looks pleased. He has made today's mark on the canvas.