The maverick architect Will Alsop died recently at the aged 70. His passing has left a hole in the architectural profession, where his skill, charisma and passion brought a breath of fresh air to the world of architecture.
His work wasn't to everyone's taste but he put forward some bold and daring designs, which captured the imagination of many. Locally, he was perhaps best know for the Halo of Light in Barnsley where he wanted to create a modern version of a Tuscan wall by having a circle of modern buildings surrounding Barnsley's Town Hall. His vision in 2003 included beaming a halo of light hundreds of feet into the air to capture the South Yorkshire town in a
Critics said it was pie in the sky and sadly so it proved but Alsop had sown a seed of rejuvenation, which is with us today. The idea of reimagining Barnsley as a Mediterranean-style village was perhaps overly ambitious at best, but what it did was start a discussion about its future and from this Barnsley Council developed a framework to create a thriving market town. For me this was Alsop's real strength =- to suggest an idea so bold and zany, but one which captured the imagination of many.
I have been fortunate to hear him speak on a number of occasions. Often accompanied by a large glass of red wine, he was an engaging communicator with the ability to inspire. I was enthralled by his charisma and vision in portraying ideas so abstract, yet ones, which captured the very essence of design to inspire and enhance our lives.
He was the architect who dared to be different. He often employed bold forms and bright colours, where he created distinctive architectural designs, buildings which stood out from the grey concrete blocks around them. “Architects are the only profession that actually deal in joy and delight – all the others deal in doom and gloom,” Alsop once said. One of his most notable buildings was Peckham Library, where his futuristic building design took form around an upended “L” shape, with its upper part supported on steel stilts, spaced seemingly at random. The exterior façade covered in pre- patinated copper, glows a vivid pale blue. The project was opened in 2000 and won him the coveted Stirling Prize. It has been credited with enticing even reluctant readers to the library.
As part of the £260 million Peckham Partnership regeneration project, Southwark Council asked Alsop to ‘create a building of architectural merit that would bring prestige to the borough and a welcome psychological boost to the area'. The Architect's Journal revisited the library 13 years after its completion to see how it was performing. Original criticisms of the radical decision to elevate the reading room to the fourth floor, and the fear that the lack of a ground-floor “shop window” would discourage people from visiting have proved unfounded.
In the year ending March 31, 2013, Peckham Library received 457,512 visitors, three-and-a-half times the target of 12,000 visitors a month. Library membership is above the borough average in all age groups.
This shows the power of architecture to shape and influence lives. This type of architecture should not be commonplace, since there is also a need for restrained buildings but in our world of box ticking mediocrity, there is a need for visionaries like Will Alsop to truly inspire and shape thoughts of the future. He will be sadly missed.