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

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.