Interview: Will Alsop (Winter 2002)


with George Kapelos


Interview 1
Swansea Literature Center (competition 1993)

KAPELOS: What led you to architecture?


ALSOP: I want to start by saying that I never remember not wanting to be an architect. Why that should be I have no idea. I grew up in England in Northampton near a Peter Behrens house. It was one of the first modern movement houses in the UK, built around 1926 and it had an interior done by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. As a child you were always aware of this house. My parents had different views on this house. My mother thought it was incredibly ugly, while my father, who was 64 when I was born, hated Victorian architecture. Their views influenced me. I got to like the house—I even found it fascinating—it was comfortable and I responded to its ambiance. Plus it had extraordinary furnishings, so I guess this is where I started.


KAPELOS: What were your earliest experiences with architecture?


ALSOP: My father died when I was quite young—I was 15—and I went to work for a local architectural firm. This office was not what I considered to be ‘architecture.’ I measured buildings and did rudimentary working drawings. The practice was disappointing. One of the partners, Brian Pennock, thought of the design process as first getting the plan right and then designing the building’s elevations. It struck me curious that you wouldn’t think of the building as a whole. The plan and the object were one, in my thinking. Pennock was trained along the lines of ‘form follows function.’ In this line of thinking everything would come from the plan. Pennock, in my opinion, was deliberately obscuring his sensibility. I have been suspicious of this or any methodology ever since. You can teach people to build, but ‘architecture’ is something else. That’s what I want to be paid for. The something else, that’s where you put the most value.


Pompidou Centre

Second Place, Centre Georges Pompidou competition (1971)


KAPELOS: What about your early exposure to art and sculpture?

ALSOP: To refresh my sensibilities, after my not-so-exciting early experience in architecture, I went to art school at the age of 17 or 18 in Northampton. This was a crossover with the pre-diploma course. Going to art school deprogrammed me, allowing me to explore painting and sculpture. At art school I learned new techniques, both of conceptualization and of representation. At art school I had a draconian drawing instructor. We drew a brick for three months, and this, even without shade or shadow! The training stood me well. It was a balance with the practical I had learned in an architect’s office. I also became interested in sculpture and applied to the AA and St. Martin’s School of Art at the same time. I was accepted at both, and decided to pursue architecture.


KAPELOS: What was your early education in architecture at the AA like?


ALSOP: I began my training at the AA in 1968. That was the time of the great influence of Archigram and all six members of this group taught me. Archigram was interested in science fiction and the work of Karl Popper. Architecture was both an exploration of the fantastic, as well as a problem-solving activity. What I discovered there was what the plan was to Pennock, the section was important to Archigram. The section told the story. The connections between the function, the program and the object are more so in the section. It’s the vertical dimension that counts. The AA was a very lively place. The AA presented me with an engineering framework. The British ‘high tech’ movement came out of the AA in this day. The AA also introduced me to Cedric Price and Conrad Wachsman. Project’s such as Cedric Price’s’ Fun Palace for Joan Littlewood influenced things like the Centre Pompidou. There’s no doubt of that in my mind. These were the
Influential years, and the beginning of the British high tech mode of design. It was never seen as a ‘style.’ High tech became a style when engineering got designed. People like Grimshaw are more interested in a joint than they are in a building. In 1971 I entered the competition for the Centre Pompidou and won second prize (This was submitted under Dennis Crompton’s name, Will’s tutor at the time). This spurred me on. I won the Rome prize in 1973 and spent the year writing a science fiction novel (which, thankfully has never been published!) and came back to London to work.


0248_1017 Marseille
le grande bleu, Marseille, France (Competition 1994)


KAPELOS: What about your teaching in art and sculpture?


ALSOP: When I returned to London I started to teach sculpture at St. Martin’s School of Art. I stayed there teaching for 8 years, until 1981. I also started to work part-time for Cedric Price and teaching at the AA with David Green, as his assistant. This was a good time. Being on campus as an instructor, working with Cedric Price, teaching art, these all were my second course in architecture. It was broader and better. And besides, I was getting paid for it too. I also got to teach in the United States—at Ball State in Muncie, Indiana. It was my first exposure to the states.


KAPELOS: How did Cedric Price influence you?


ALSOP: When I returned from Rome, I started to work at Cedric Price’s office, as a project architect on a community center. Price is a complicated man. It was challenging figuring out what he was trying to do. It was during this time that English pragmatism came into its own. The focus was on technical solutions, and high tech architecture was just beginning. One of the things now is that you can see through high tech architecture and see what’s wrong with it. Architecture is an art. As such, it is not completely logical. At its best, it does not follow a logical course. Knowing this comes with a certain level of confidence. No wonder they say that architecture is best practiced by people who are in their sixth decade.


Interview 11
Alsop/Störmer  Hamburg Ferry Terminal


KAPELOS: Could you talk about Post Modernism, High-Tech, and Style?


ALSOP: I opened my practice on August 20, 1979 at 9:30 a.m. When I started, ‘high tech’ was recognized as a ‘style,’ but I was uneasy about this. Now Post Modernism was a style, and this was an important moment. It created a dialogue about what was important. As a name Post Modernism is great. But as a style it is terrible. What I mean by that is that Post Modernism became a style when private investors saw it as cheaper and easier to build. I am not being autobiographical here, but it is important to remember this. In 1979 architecture, from a stylistic point of view, was in a hiatus. The first building that I designed, that had consequence, and was mine, but never built, was post-modern. The activity of ideas is underestimated. Most magazines are interested in what is built, not in architectural ideas.


KAPELOS: In a recent lecture at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, you said that you ‘hated’ architects, because they suffered from the notion of things being too precious. What led you to that conclusion? Your own work has a certain level of preciousness to it. How do you reconcile the two?





Alsop.5 Alsop.7

Ontario College of Art and Design (2002/2004) photos: courtesy OCAD


ALSOP: You might want to paraphrase that, I might have said that I hated architects, but what I meant is that the idea of architecture with a capitol A is the architect’s worst enemy. For me the ‘lazy’ architect can fall back on the recognizable, which is usually a style. But what is harder to find is something beyond that. If you don’t let go, you won’t be hampered. You can’t pursue a line of inquiry that may or may not be successful, but another line of inquiry my come into being. I may have said I hate ‘architects,’ but what I really feel is that I am not fond of architects who suffer from the notion that their work is too precious. Before 1995 architects in the UK were hated because they were arrogant—they thought they knew better and were non-consultative. After 1995 there was a transformation of sorts. If you work with people, you have not preconceived a style or an idea. Planners are hell bent to prevent your best work. Working with people is a process. You draw, paint and talk with them. This process is a discovery. In fact, people don’t want to be like anywhere else. People don’t want consistency. Style is the enemy of the good. Globalization is damaging architecture. People want identity with where they live. Take the Rotterdam project. More recently there has been a growth in the number of bureaucrats who manage a project. Architects want to say ‘yes’ to a community, while the planners tend to say ‘no.’ Often you want to somehow meet in the middle. In Rotterdam, the planners have been the greatest vandals. They tend to subdivide activities, rather than join them together. In Rotterdam the harbor has expanded and the city is growing as part of a larger ring of cities—the Randstadt. Our plan calls for an iconic building—we aren’t quite sure of the use yet.


KAPELOS: What do you mean by ‘a line of inquiry’?


ALSOP: It’s about making a judgment about what you discover. This doesn’t happen often enough. Certainly it’s not the case with speculative office buildings. On public projects people have dreams and aspirations. As an architect you can act as a catalyst. In that regard, I use a line of inquiry in making architecture. I don’t design a building, but rather I discover what a building wants to be. This is what I call the ‘public’ dimension of our projects—when you share the process with the people with whom the project has some consequence. You have to go into the layer of people’s dreams. Without going into that layer of people’s dreams, people usually answer by what they know. The ‘line of inquiry” process emerged out of advocacy planning and community architecture. This process allows new things to surface. I don’t want to be responsible for creating a style. I don’t want that. You can recognize an Alsop building when you see it. But there’s always something to be discerned by the process. The details of this process allow people to eat and drink and talk all at the same time. I draw during this process and this brings ideas out too. I need to contextualize this too. In the mid 1980s I became friends with Jean Nouvel, Otto Steidle and Massimiliano Fuksas. In my friendship with this group, I was moved from my English to European sensibility. I guess I needed to escape my English-ness.


KAPELOS: How so?


My Englishness is a formal thing. We don’t rock the boat; we conform. It’s no accident that the Peter Behrens house in Northampton was as late as 1926. Modernism came late to England. In Europe people will consider things more readily than they will in the UK. My experience has proven this out. I have done a lot of things in Northern Europe—four new buildings in Moscow, six in Hamburg, Germany in co-authorship with Jan Stormer, in Marseilles, and three in the Netherlands. With Nouvel and others I share a willingness to avoid a certain style. People like Nouvel have a certain way, but I always find his work surprising. Nouvel also taught me that your detailing could be crude. Buildings could still be tough. This was a revelation to me. It was the antithesis of a high tech building. I believe it is more interesting to look at a wider range of possibilities in architecture.

0532_1021 Peckham (2)


0532_1021 Peckham (4)  0532_1021 Peckham (6)
Peckhem Library – Images courtesy aLL Design


KAPELOS: How does your painting inform your architecture?


I use drawing, painting and sculpture to ‘fiddle and diddle’ and unburden myself from what I know. My paintings are now getting bigger. I paint in another location, although my office feels like an art studio. I am interested in the way people behave. By that, for example, I am interested in the subject of a house. In a house we seem to have distilled human activity into a number of words: kitchen, bathroom, living room etc. What about ‘flower-arranging room’ or ‘boot-polishing room?’ All these activities have a level of pride and enjoyment. The conventional titles, such as kitchen or bedroom don’t reflect us. They are distilled titles. For example, we don’t have a ‘doing nothing’ room. There is something about the particularity of these things. The list of particularity sets you apart from others as individuals. That’s what my painting is all about. We behave in different ways. Painting is not about projects, but about seeing things differently. We are doing drawings about houses that don’t work. We forget that we are doing drawings about places where life exists. I think that we want to be astonished by space. We look for pure rapture in space. People go to cathedrals for the pure sensation of the space. My paintings and big drawings have a certain scale. Within this you deprogram yourself. It helps you see things in different ways.


KAPELOS: Other architects, such as Le Corbusier, have painted…


ALSOP: I don’t think of myself as an artist, but as an architect who happens to paint. I think of this when I paint whether I’m in Spain or in my shed at the bottom of the garden. For example, if I have a design brief – such as the Master Brief for Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, I have to start by painting. That’s how I absorb it all. The whole of my proposal on that project came from painting. You can see the architectural implications within the painting. As architects we are always predicting the future. We can never interview all the users. I don’t know how students will like the building. You can’t do more than that.


Interview 2
Berlin Potsdamer Platz Competition (1991)


KAPELOS: You won a number of projects through public competitions. What projects are you currently working on and how did they come about?


ALSOP: In the mid-1970s in the UK there were very few competitions, almost none, to my recollection. Now after the mid-1990s there are lots of competitions, and there should be more. For my part, I don’t like them, by and large. I do very few open competitions, and then only when the subject is of interest to me. Still I do some competitions and even win some too! For me the disadvantage of the competition process is that you don’t get to work with the users. You can’t design a project without the users. A detailed brief was part of my job on the Cardiff Opera House. For me the relationship between the client and me is an evolving conversation. There is a new form of competition evolving—the limited one, where you quickly become one of a short list of five or six. I like limited competitions, as this allows you to get to know the client. In this way the client gets to choose the architect, not the design. I think there should be more competitions. In reality there are many competitions, but there is always an element of predetermination.


Blizard Ext Night ©Morley Von Sternberg


Blizard Int ©Morley Von Sternberg   Blizard Open_Laboratory1_High_Res ©Morley Von Sternberg


Blizard Pod Int ©Morley Von Sternberg
Blizard Labs  photos: ©Morley von Sternberg

KAPELOS: Like the project underway for the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD)?


ALSOP: This is my first commission in North America. I am pleased to be doing this. It seems to me that North America is now an interesting place for me to work. For a long time in North America, the commercial sector has made it difficult. There was a pragmatism wrapped in producing a product geared to that sector. In the public sector there has been a broadening of interests, combined with a slightly less myopic vision about international ideas. That’s something to get involved with. In the OCAD project we were invited as part of an initial expression of interest. We met with the client and what evolved was a relationship. I am delighted and honored to be awarded this commission. An art college is very close to my heart. I believe such institutions are a vital part of our society and economy, as the graduates from an art school have a huge capacity to give joy and delight as well as create wealth. The OCAD project is evolving. Originally the vision was for three towers, which would house different functions. Now, we are looking at a building that will sit above the existing building.


KAPELOS: What can older architects do for the next generation?


ALSOP: The more established older architects can do lots for younger architects. For example, how many jobs do well-known architects, such as Foster, turn away? Foster cannot afford to do a one-off house. The question is how to engage the young. As it is now, you often don’t get your first job until you’re over 40. The Architect’s foundation in the UK, for example, is looking for young talent to design new schools in deprived areas. This helps. I also hand on projects we can’t do. I won’t make this a rule, but I do this when I can.


George Thomas Kapelos FRAIC, an architect and planner, teaches architecture and planning at Ryerson University.  He is a tenured faculty member at the rank of associate professor in the Department of Architectural Science.  Since 2005 he has been a Visiting Professor at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture at the University of Toronto.  A native of London Ontario, he received a Bachelor of Arts from Princeton University (magna cum laude), a Master of City Planning from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and a Master of Architecture from Yale, where he was a CMHC scholar.
He most recently authored the book, Competing Modernisms: Toronto New City Hall and Square (2015)