Architect Interview | Will Alsop

After a (not so brief) interlude, I’m going to get back to writing! Not that I’ve stopped writing, bearing in mind that my day job is as a journalist. So please forgive me for my silence, dear reader, and trust me when I say my words have been spilled elsewhere.

With that in mind, I’m breaking the blogging seal by cheating and publishing an abridged version of one of the chats I had during my absence, an interview with architect grandee Will Alsop. Alsop is known as a rebel of the regeneration world, irreverent, artistic, most likely to be found with red wine and cigarette, even in meetings. Apocryphal tales abound, of Alsop entering a board room, putting a banana on top of a crisp packet and declaring “there is your building!” He was a pleasure to talk to, and an inspiring character.

“Make every building as interesting as possible”

Will Alsop photo by Malcolm CrowtherAs he returns to Manchester for his first project in the city since 2009, architect Will Alsop talks to Place North West about the vision for the Great Northern warehouse, his views on his increasingly “conservative” profession, and the “potential nightmare” of expanding cities.

Alsop has gained a reputation as a maverick of architecture, on the back of striking modernist designs and counter-cultural ideas. He is engaged on large-scale projects across the world, and last year was appointed as the architect to lead on the mixed-use redevelopment of the Great Northern warehouse in Manchester.

In 2002 Alsop famously designed the Cloud, a diamond-like 10-storey globe which would have been a new addition to the Liverpool waterfront, but was scrapped in 2004 when the public sector agencies behind the plan said it would cost too much money. With his precedent for such adventurous proposals, can Manchester expect something similarly eyebrow-raising at Great Northern?

“I don’t know if the scheme should be a shock, it’s not always appropriate to do that,” said Alsop. “But some people will find what I’m doing surprising.”

When asked if he experienced difficulties getting his more innovative designs through the planning process, Alsop said that “I’ve had no real difficulties getting planning permission to do what’s appropriate.”

The only Alsop design in Manchester is the Chips building in New Islington, which was completed for Urban Splash in 2009.

“I enjoyed doing Chips very much,” said Alsop. “There were no planning problems, and we worked with the community, which gave it strength.

“I believe the average man and woman on the street are up for interesting buildings, but they’re generally not asked at the right time. They see the designs once they’ve been watered down and then they don’t like them.”

Alsop’s last project in Manchester, the Chips building for Urban Splash, opened in 2009

Those familiar with Alsop’s research into a ‘super city’ from Liverpool to Hull, published in 2004, will be feeling déjà vu when it comes to the Government’s latest pet project, the creation of a Northern Powerhouse.

“I’m just delighted people are paying attention to the idea,” Alsop asserted. “It doesn’t matter whether that’s because of the zeitgeist, the Government, or local authorities driving the idea.

“I do worry about Greater Manchester and its conurbations though. We don’t want there to be buildings on green fields, we need to increase densities in cities and town centres rather than extending the boundaries.

“I fear the potential nightmare that one day there will be non-stop buildings between Liverpool and Hull, with no sense of identity. I’ve never advocated urban sprawl, in fact the exact opposite. And if we need to build entirely new towns or villages, these can be new places with their own distinct identity.”

Read the full version of the interview on Place North West here

Gallery | Barbara Hepworth Museum

Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden | St Ives, Cornwall

Visiting the Barbara Hepworth Museum is like seeing an old friend. I’ve been coming to St Ives since I was a child, and the grande dame of British art’s sculptures feel almost ubiquitous in the sun-drenched, whitewashed seaside town.

When I went to Tate St Ives as a teenager to see a Hepworth retrospective, with the sweeping windows of the main gallery space allowing a panoramic view of Porthmeor beach to be seen between Hepworth’s undulating wooden and stone carvings, it was a eureka moment. Her work defies the traditional and clinical gallery setting unlike any other artist I have ever seen. It is my firm belief that the only way to truly appreciate a Hepworth is to view it surrounded by nature. Preferably, nature at its most dramatic, and wild. 


Mimicking the forms, or more broadly, trying to capture the suggestions of nature, was at the root of Hepworth’s ideology. She said herself, “all my sculpture comes out of landscape”. Her place as part of these surroundings was very important, and how a human experienced and interacted with nature even at its most threatening piqued her curiosity.

If I’m ever going to get thrown out of a gallery (and let’s face it, it’ll happen at some stage, it’s just statistically likely), it will be because my tactile nature has got the better of me. My hands twitch when I’m wandering around an exhibition, especially if there is sculpture involved. I want to reach out and experience the texture of the surface, understand the craft process and feel whatever the artist felt when they were making the work. 

This is particularly difficult when surrounded by Hepworth’s work, because she totally understood the interactive and almost sensual power of a sculpture. Whatever it is made of, a three-dimensional object exists in the physical world and exhibits the same type of gravitational pull as any other physical form. Surrounding it with glass or a rope barrier is just asking for trouble.

That’s why (although touching generally is still frowned upon), the garden at the Hepworth Museum is one of the most perfect places to experience her sculpture. This is where Hepworth lived, worked and died in a studio fire in the 1975. There’s still an essence of her indomitable spirit about the place; you expect to find her leaning against an unfinished block of marble somewhere, cigarette perpetually in hand, chisel poised, wiry grey hair held back with a scarf. 

Wandering around the greenery is a garden of delights for any sculpture lover. Stone, bronze, wood and plaster figures are hidden between trees, next to ponds or behind screens of bamboo. The man-made forms make perfect sense next to the natural ones; in a Hepworth which would otherwise seem completely abstract, the recognisable shape of a tall tree, a twisted branch, or the sweep of a bird’s wing becomes visible. 

When it comes to art, context is key. In the case of Hepworth’s work, the context is as important to the viewer’s understanding as the sculpture itself. Landscape and nature shaped Hepworth as an artist throughout the entirety of her career. Forty years after her death, we have to let landscape and nature continue to shape our appreciation of the sculpture she left behind, or else risk losing its meaning entirely. 


Painting | Head VI

Francis Bacon | Manchester Art Gallery

In my earlier blog on Grayson Perry’s wonderful ‘Jane Austen in E17’, I mentioned the artist’s particular skill at creating a work that catches the eye of a viewer, even in a crowded gallery, even when the visitor is moving through at speed, as I often am.

Even more powerful than a piece which stands out while the visitor is in situ, is one which leaves a lingering impression long after it has been left behind. With fingers itching to write and the frustration of being trapped on a train for eight hours – I’m off to St Ives, the artists’ Mecca, so the pay off will be worth it – I find myself wandering through my mind-gallery of such artworks to find a worthy subject to satisfy my creative urge. 

(I’m well aware that the fact that I have this list of favourites that I can recall at will, while on a train when most sane people would be napping, is the mark of a true obsessive. What can I say… everyone needs a hobby.)

From Rubens to Rembrandt, Klimt to Klein, via Picasso and, of course, Perry, I’ve amassed quite a collection over the years. But to keep it close to home, until my inevitable post on the wonders of Tate St Ives, there is one piece that stands out; ethereal, dramatic, frankly quite scary, it’s Francis Bacon’s Head VI from 1949, on display in Manchester Art Gallery. 


The first of a series of paintings based on Spanish artist Diego Valazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, with imagery drawn from medical textbooks on mouth and facial diseases, the result is a jarring clash between formal, traditional composition and ghostly, nightmarish delivery. 

The blurred but obviously still papal form screams out of its frame, the remnants of a manic wide-eyed stare just visible before the top part of the face is wiped into obscurity. Not usually one to be drawn to images that are so obviously pained, Head VI catches me off-guard every time I am near it, it is so arresting, yet a visual embodiment of something inherently disturbed, and disturbing.

It’s not a huge leap of the imagination to suggest that this tortured figure echoes the mental state of its creator. Passionate and impulsive, a heavy drinker and gambler, gay at a time when it was illegal to be so and involved in a series of doomed relationships with emotionally unstable younger men, Bacon’s life was certainly not an easy one. Aside from his own, Bacon also witnessed the impact of others’ demons, including lover George Dyer’s six-year demise and ultimate suicide. One can expect an unhappy artist to make unhappy art, and Head VI is no children’s party. 

The rough, sketch-like quality of the painting adds to the impression of a sudden, emotional release. A thinly drawn white cube cages the figure, in a weak attempt to contain the sheer strength of feeling. This is not the kind of face that is meant to be shown to the outer world, and perhaps Bacon acknowledges this as he blurs the figure into the background of the canvas. 

It’s hard to look at Head VI for long without feeling some of its darkness creep over you; the fact that Bacon lived into his 80s working on such spectres every day is testament to his strength if character. There is no happy ending with Bacon, all of his art is bold and brutal, he turned bodies into carcasses and faces into deformities. But the appeal of his work is that it was brave; as if he had lifted the veil on humanity’s fear of its own mortality and, instead of running, he stared it in the face.

And then he decided to paint it. 

Pottery | Jane Austen in E17

Grayson Perry | Manchester Art Gallery 

I love Grayson Perry. I confess it’s been a slow-burn kind of love; as a final year Art Historian tired of the Renaissance my head was turned by Grayson’s peers; Young British Artist bad boys Jake and Dinos Chapman. They may have been shortlisted for a Turner prize but Perry had beaten them to it, which meant he was just too mainstream for my tastes at the time. The irony is not lost on me.

However my natural inclination towards a well-crafted, interesting and visually appealing work of art soon reared its head. And with his engaging combination of wit, insight, character, historical references and sheer force of personality, my love of Perry was inevitable.

Whatever material it is made of, Perry’s work stands out in any room that it is displayed in, and its creator is recognisable on sight. That’s why it was impossible to miss the large ceramic vase ‘Jane Austen in E17’ as I made a dash through Manchester Art Gallery. With its intricate engravings, overprinting, jewel-like colours and sheer size, it is an incredible object.

The ornate drawings on the surface of the vase, of bonneted ladies from Jane Austen novels, are like book illustrations, and are simple but disarmingly engaging. The joy of a three-dimensional object means that the images can be viewed in a continuous loop as you circle the vase, admiring the quality of Perry’s work from every angle.

In the gallery notes next to the vase, Perry explains that it is about linking past and present, showing quintessential examples of the prim Georgian middle classes alongside images from gossip magazines and photos from the trendy East London. However, he admits that actually this sort of analysis of the piece is “post-rationalisation of my own work. Embarrassing as it is for an artist to admit nowadays, I was really striving for beauty”.

This desire to create what is quite simply a beautiful object without shrouding it in obscure intellectual justifications is one of the best things about Perry. Even in his earlier works which dealt with issues such as abuse, child sexuality and pornography, with a penchant for inserting penis symbols onto any available space, the draft of Perry’s work was undeniable. Embracing a variety of mediums, whether painted miniatures, pottery, tapestry, screen-printing, his own transvestitism, everything at it’s very core is aesthetically pleasing.

I’m a great advocate of the view that being high-brow, pretentious, over-educated or well-read has nothing to do with the appreciation of art. A gut instinct is as powerful as any footnoted thesis. I’m aware that this line of argument is making my three years holed up in a library seem even more pointless than many would believe it to be already. I did learn so much, and one was the belief that art should be for all.

By “striving for beauty”, Perry’s work taps into a person’s most basic, magpie-like, attraction towards something pretty. There’s a child in all of us that, when we see something we like, has the impulse to reach out and say “I want it”. So many artists (like the aforementioned enfants terrible of the 90s, the YBAs) veer off in the opposite direction, creating art to shock. This shock factor often isn’t as a tool to drive home some profound point; rather it’s an attempt to stick the middle-finger up to the establishment by causing a ruckus in an art gallery. Viewing a piece by a contemporary artist which causes pleasure rather than discomfort is a refreshing change.

‘Jane Austen in E17’ is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Perry’s oeuvre and a tiny insight into what he is capable of an artist. But it is a beautiful insight nonetheless, as successful as the artist could have hoped, and Manchester is lucky to have it.

Outside | Liverpool

I love Liverpool. It’s probably not very cool to admit to that, especially when I live in the centre of Manchester, a city which inspires a competitive loyalty greater than any football team. I don’t know what it is; the tendency towards sunshine, the monumental buildings, the melting pot of cultures, or the borderline-aggressive niceness of its inhabitants, but something about Liverpool just feels good for my soul.

From an architectural point of view, Liverpool cannot fail but to impress, with a variety of scale and heritage that is rarely seen in such a confined space. The mixture of buildings along the waterfront alone is incredible, with the Victorian Liver building next to Art Deco air vents, 60s office blocks and the contemporary Mann Island, with breathing space between to allow views across the water and along Albert Dock. The sheer variety means that the cityscape feels fresh and interesting, unlike many cities where the visitor falls victim to skyscraper fatigue and is too overwhelmed to lift their eye above the parade of generic shop fronts.

The Cunard Building and Royal Liver Building at Pier Head

The Cunard Building and Royal Liver Building at Pier Head

In a day spent in a series of meetings, walking around Liverpool brought a genuine pleasure even while I was manically checking Google maps for the location of my next rendezvous. Prolonged contact with Liverpudlians makes you realise just how much a love of the city runs through the veins of its inhabitants. Even the people who grumble about it complain in a manner normally saved for family members; in a ‘no one insults my Mother but me’ kind of way.

For someone that enjoys digging below the surface of what makes a place tick and how it works, Liverpool could never be boring. It remains astounding to me that within a 20 minute walk I can go from glass-towered offices, through Chinatown, the Victorian warehouses of Baltic Triangle, the Tate’s world-class art collection, high street shopping malls, and along the waterfront to be faced by the gravitas of the Three Graces and the grey profile of Birkenhead across the river.


The view along the waterfront to Mann Island and Pier Head

As a city abandoned to recession by the ruling powers until very recently and a victim of ‘managed decline’ in some parts, Liverpool has retained a sense of heritage and honesty that many towns and cities have lost in the face of gentrification. There are bars, cafés and restaurants that have a real spirit and rawness that you wouldn’t find in Manchester or London, where ‘rawness’ has become a forced aesthetic that equates more with gratuitous exposed brickwork and steel girders than any genuine history.

Ringo Starr said, ‘people in Liverpool don’t move very far you know’, and once you spend any time there you learn that that is not because of a lack of ambition. Liverpool was the powerhouse of transatlantic cruise travel, the origin of pensions, the home of architecture that enabled the creation of the skyscraper. While its heyday may seem long gone to some, Liverpudlians are no fair weather friends, and will stick by their city until its glory years come round again.


Old warehouses in Baltic Triangle

Exhibition | Artists in the Frame

Manchester Art Gallery | 21 May – 31 August 2015

How many times do you look at yourself a day? For some, a perfunctory glance in the mirror first thing in the morning is enough, and they’re usually later found with toothpaste on their chins. For the selfie generation (and here I raise my hand), we see our faces copious times a day, pouting at our reflection either on our phone screens or in a Facebook status.

If you really want to get to know your face, and yourself, do a self-portrait. I tried it a few years ago, and by the end of the process I can honestly say if you’d held up a picture of me next to one of Quasimodo I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. Raising your face up to that much scrutiny, first from yourself, and then anyone else looking at the finished article, is an anxiety-inducing process. 

But it is exactly this ‘bare-faced’ nature of the self-portrait that has made it so appealing to generations of artists, and also allows us as viewers a privileged insight into not only how the artist sees themselves, but also how they want to be seen by the world.

Due to open next week at Manchester Art Gallery, the exhibition ‘Artists in the Frame: Self-portraits by Van Dyck and Others’ centres around Sir Anthony van Dyck’s self-portrait which was recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and is on its way through a three-year national tour. There will be 20 other artist self-portraits alongside it, covering the themes of self-expression, self-analysis, social status, and artistic identity.

Van Dyck’s piece is heralded by the art world as one of the most remarkable self-portraits ever painted in Britain. While many wax lyrical about the poise and finesse of Van Dyck’s style, it is more the artist’s position as Charles I’s court painter and his role in raising the status of art in polite society that makes him significant. 

This portrait will be the ‘headline act’ within the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery this summer, but I confess that it’s the ‘and others’ that I’m particularly excited about seeing. The ‘supporting acts’ list is impressive and spans centuries of British portraiture, including William Hogarth, Angelica Kauffman, Wyndham Lewis, Chris Ofili, Sarah Lucas, Julian Opie and Grayson Perry. While the ornate golden frame surrounding Van Dyck’s work is touted as impressive, I suspect the traditional painted portrait will show its age when seen alongside more modern mediums such as photography, digital and graphic works. 

The press preview is next Wednesday and I’ve wrangled my way in. Will the contemporary offering herald a new era for self-portraiture? Or despite their best efforts, will Lucas, Perry and Opie languish in the long shadows cast by Van Dyck? Stay tuned…  

Design | Property brochures

Extracts from my day job | Place North West

Big budgets are back in the property world, and with it the ability to spend lots of money on sexy brochures that everyone will want lining their reception tables.

If ‘sexy’ and ‘brochures’ is not a word combination that you ever thought you would read, perhaps this is not the piece for you. Or perhaps it is. Proof that even dirty-under-the-fingernails property types have quite good taste. And can’t say no to a slab of matte perspex masquerading as a book cover.

Either way, allow me my moment of indulgence as I lift the veil on the not-so-mysterious world of property marketing as balance sheets go back to black….

The kind of stuff that gets me all excited...

The kind of stuff that gets me all excited…

Architect Interviews | Sue Emms, BDP and Rachel Haugh, SimpsonHaugh

Extracts from my day job | Place North West

One of my favourite aspects of my day job is getting to talk to architects about their designs, motivations and what gets them up in the morning. They’re a mixed breed of people; some very much the tortured artist, some acutely aware that their work serves a practical and important purpose.

A couple of weeks ago I met with an architect who definitely falls into the latter category. While it wasn’t a meandering  conversation on the pros and cons of a particular aesthetic or philosophy inherent in her designs (and let’s face it, I probably do more than enough of that already), talking with Sue Emms was refreshing. She was certainly passionate, but focused on what is arguably the sole purpose of a building – it is used by people, so it needs to work for those people.

Read my interview with Emms here, where we chatted university buildings, humanistic architecture and why client praise is more valuable than any award… 

If you enjoy that, I had the pleasure of meeting with another inspirational architect back in January, Rachel Haugh of SimpsonHaugh & Partners, a starchitect practice that has worked on projects as iconic as Manchester’s Beetham Tower and the Battersea Power Station redevelopment in London.

I won’t do them the disservice of saying that Emms and Haugh are impressive women in property – they are just impressive architects, full stop.

Art | Transforming Still Life Painting

Part of Home, Land and Sea Art in the Netherlands 1600-1800 | Manchester Art Gallery | Until 29 May 2015

This is not a painting.


No, really. I don’t mean that in a Rene Magritte, ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’ kind of way. This is not a painting. In fact it doesn’t use any of the traditional artistic mediums. This is an homage to a painting; a three-hour long looped film being shown on an Apple Mac cleverly concealed inside a wooden frame. It’s an exact replica of one of the most famous Dutch still life paintings, ‘Vase with Flowers in a Window’ by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, 1618.  

Dutch still life paintings from the 17th century used to be a particular soft spot of mine, but you’ll be relieved to hear that after I made the mistake of committing to write 5,000 words on the subject based on source materials in Swedish, German and Dutch (three languages I don’t understand), it’s kind of out of my system. I’m more likely found in the Contemporary, Modern, Impressionist or at a push Pre-Raphaelite rooms of a gallery these days than trying to decipher the possible allegories within a Dutch still life.  

In the case of this work by Rob and Nick Carter from 2009-2012, it is the non-still life aspect of the piece that brings the appeal. Seemingly static, if the viewer looks at the screen closely they can see almost imperceptible movement, as if the flowers are moving slightly in the breeze, opening and closing depending on the time of the day, truly bringing the work of an Old Master to life. 

The piece was made through digital visual effects, and provides a bridge between the original living subject matter of the work, and the finished painting, which is currently hanging in The Hague. There are various schools of thought as to the meaning behind still life works from this time; originating from a Protestant culture where religious iconography was banned, artists turned to objects in everyday life. Whether the incredibly detailed images were simply a celebration of the beauty of nature, were endowed with some kind of biblical meaning, or took a more morbid turn to become a Memento Mori (roughly ‘remember death’) has been the subject of much discussion.

Carters’ piece cuts through all of the white noise of this debate, and roots the subject matter back in pure-and-simple reality. The vibrancy and beauty of the picture, with a constant subtle shimmer, made me want to gaze at a real vase of flowers with the same intensity, hunting down any little twitch of movement. And in my book, any piece of art that encourages the viewer to go out into the world with fresh eyes and a fresh appreciation of beauty is a wonderful thing.

Exhibition | Eastern Exchanges

Manchester Art Gallery | 2 April – 21 May 2015

“The East has a lot to teach us about attitudes to art,” curator Janet Boston explained as she looked around Eastern Exchanges, the exhibition that she has spent the last 10 years developing and researching.

Like much of the artwork around her, Boston’s description was something of an understatement. Across two large gallery rooms, the exhibition is a whistle-stop tour of the breadth and depth of East Asian art, from the monumental and traditional to the modern and the minimal.

There are 17 lenders to the show, and a lot of objects drawn from collections at Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester Museum and Bolton Museum. Alongside the historic pieces, there are works from individual and young artists, to reflect the most recent work that East Asia had to offer.

You’d have to be a particularly stubborn artist not to find some inspiration within the almost overwhelming array of objects, with armour, textiles, pottery, wooden and ivory carvings and furniture showing the best of 1500 years of Chinese, Japanese and Korean craftsmanship.

It is this extensive history that most attracted Boston to the subject of East Asian art. “The Western canon of art is about 500 years old, while the East has an ancient tradition stretching back 1000s of years. We have a lot to learn from that.”

Despite the exhausting range of the objects, from seemingly disparate parts of East Asian history, there is an undeniable shared aesthetic amongst all of the forms. Everything is so beautiful, detailed, neat, and efficient. Nothing is surplus to requirement.

“Eastern design is special,” enthused Boston. “There’s a sensitivity towards balance, form and line drawn from a heritage of calligraphy. Despite being very modern, East Asia has tradition, and respect for that tradition.”

The pottery by Jin Eui Kim epitomised the minimal yet beautiful East Asian approach to design.

The pottery by Jin Eui Kim epitomised the minimal yet beautiful East Asian approach to design.

This coherency is one of the most powerful aspects of the Eastern Exchanges exhibition, and is an important lesson to be learnt. The past 200 years of Western art in particular has been largely defined by each new school of artists creating a rupture with tradition, developing a new style which starts rebellious and then is inevitably absorbed into the establishment, creating yet another tradition to be broken away from.

Based on Eastern Exchanges, each subsequent generation of Chinese, Korean and Japanese artists has felt the weight of history behind them, but rather than being restricted by this have acknowledged the font of inspiration at their disposal. The copious exquisite objects currently on show at Manchester Art Gallery are testament to the success of that process.

Boston’s enthusiasm for her finished product was clear. “I’m really proud of this. When I first had the thought 10 years ago I would never have dreamed that it would actually happen.

“For Western audiences, East Asian craft is less familiar, takes us out of our comfort zone and makes us see things in a different way.”

Hear, hear Janet!