Alessandra Orlandoni - You studied at the Architectural Association and then worked for Cedric Price, who died in 2003, a man renowned for his theoretical projects and the influence he had on Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. You started your career in the post-swinging London of the seventies. What do you remember of that period?
William Alsop - Well I remember a lot. I started at the A.A. in 1968. I didn’t apply to any other school of architecture since Peter Cook and Archigram were teaching there, so that was the place to go. Cedric’s studio was just round the corner and he was often around. The A.A. was a vital place with a very open agenda on what architecture was, much more than any other school in England and maybe in the world. I was there for 3 years before I ever even thought about designing a building. We didn’t know what to do with architecture: somehow it became boring because it couldn’t achieve our dreams of changing society. We were just interested in society, the arts and only their reflections in buildings. Cedric Price, for whom I later worked, was a very important man. He was like a conscience reminding architects they were simply decorators or designers rather than getting to the heart of what the question might be. London in the beginning of the seventies still had some of the swinging sixties; it was an exciting place to be. But in 1975, the economy started to fail, people started to get more boring and that was the beginning of personal visions in architecture. In 1984 Prince Charles made his famous speech at the 150th Anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects and suddenly the world of architecture and some other worlds took a step backwards, in my view, although, on reflection, it raised the profile of architecture itself. It was because of Prince Charles’ speech that quality newspapers started covering architecture and urbanism arousing general public interest. But that has taken 20 years to come to some fruition. I think it has come about through the political agenda: some politicians, not all, saw that the architect could assist renaissance and regeneration, something that forms a large part of my agenda still today: how to repair broken places, how to re-enliven them. So that was an important period. Then it become a bit sad. And don’t forget the yuppies produced by Thatcherism and greed, when people became more interested in getting wealthy. I am not talking about architects now, but about a generation of people who started to emerge and stopped dreaming. It was the rise of the project manager, marketing and all of that. Of course a lot of that is still with us today, but at least it is moderated by a greater interest in what we do.
A.O. - Alsop Architects was created after your collaboration with Jan Stormer. It was then that your artistic bent came to the fore, leading you to highlight the creative aspects of architectural planning and design. You replaced the word “office or practice” with the word “studio” to give a better idea of your multidisciplinary approach and the sense of fun you bring to your work. Does this philosophy somehow relate to Bauhaus?
W.A. - Jan Stormer is a very nice man and for a long time we worked together, both in Hamburg and London. We were quite successful. But in a way, a different type of architecture started to emerge from the Hamburg office. Not that it’s bad architecture; it just wasn’t my architecture. So I thought we had to split, and in 2000 we did. That was very important. I think you are referring to a sort of separation between the rational and the creative. To a certain extent that was absolutely true. My vision that grew during the ninetees was that architecture as a studio needs to include many different disciplines, and in Germany they didn’t see it that way. So we have now grown up. We have film making, graphics, some products too. A little bit more Italian in that way. The studio is a community of creative people aware of what everyone else is doing - and that’s very important. For me it is all architecture. I now have a separate studio for painting and exploring ideas that are not always related to a particular project. I think it’s important just to think about the world, and architecture sometimes. Clients can get in the way of thinking. So sometimes it is good to be your own client and just work. As to Bauhaus, it succeeded in bringing together many diverse well-known people with different skills. I just think they must have had a marvellous time together, and that’s a good reference for me; that’s what I relate to. Somehow we do live for now really.
A.O.- “In dreams begin responsibilities”(1*). You always dreamed of being a builder of things. Your current projects demonstrate a consistent link with the initial ideas from which the whole process springs. Do you think that realising architecture that expresses one’s own concept of things is also a way of paying tribute to all those radical theorists who for years have continued unswervingly to advocate their ideas, refusing all compromise?
W.A. - I never remember not wanting to be architect except when I was round eighteen. I had been working in an architects’ studio for two years and took myself off to art school to somehow de-programme myself from what I’d learnt in the architecture practice. I think that was perhaps the most important thing I did, though I didn’t know it at the time. It wasn’t a rational move but it allowed me to see the world through the eyes of an artist, which is very different to the architect’s. Artists find it much easier to observe things and respond, they don’t have to have theories. They learn by doing. And to me that is an important side of the architecture I produce today. I like to start up a project not knowing what I’m doing. It’s perfect, the best way.
A.O. - Then you find out later what you want to do...
W.A. - Exactly. You discover what you want to do and what is possible, rather than having an agenda. I never really trusted architects who write manifestos. It’s a terrible arrogance, because they think that the whole world should be headed like them. At the moment we are in a wonderful architectural position. Architects can do whatever they like. There is no a predominant style, although there are some less interesting architects who would like to make new rules just at a time when we don’t have to have rules. I think it’s a much richer environment as a result. I’m very happy that all architects – although I might not like their work very much - can put their work alongside my work. It can all exist as long as it’s done well. Going back to Yeats, the idea of allowing yourself enough time to have dreams is a responsibility. Many architects skip through the dreaming part very quickly and therefore, sooner or later, feel no sense of responsibility. I would also like to say that I like compromises. They’re a form of cultural agreement. Every project is always full of compromises which should be commuted into positive, not negative things. I like to change things, as you know. It’s something I learned from Cedric Price. He said: “you should never take a decision until you really have to”. I think that was good advice. As to radical theories... I am glad they existed, because it was right they existed at that time but I don’t think radical theories have much place today.
A.O. - If, on the one hand, we consider your sweeping pictorial works that contain the essence of a project and, on the other, the achievement of an actual building, to what extent has modern technology influenced your ability to visualise and especially realise projects that for years had remained only on paper?
W.A. - I think this is a very important point. What the Archigram were drawing in the sixties couldn’t be made then but can now. Today it is easier to look at a greater range of possibilities. The world has become much richer in its materials and processes so almost everything you choose to draw, you can build. Money might get in the way, but in terms of technology and materials, you could do it. For example, Etienne-Louis Boullée (2*), who conceived the cenotaph for Newton, drew this vast monumental sphere in the 18th century when it couldn’t be built because the technology wasn’t there. In a way that was one of the first theoretical pieces of architecture: something you could see but not make. The interesting point of that time was you could think beyond what you could do, and I like that a lot. Of course today it’s more difficult to think beyond what you can do because you can do so much!
A.O. - So it is more difficult to think because it is easier to do things ?
W.A. - Exactly, or maybe. I see that a lot in Vienna where I teach. They do beautiful things with the computer. But the computer is only a tool and you should be able to draw as well. It sounds very old fashioned but I think it’s true. I like to paint, although sometimes I use the computer. But the painting and drawing lead you to unpredictable results. Once you see something because of the painting then you can go to the computer and see what you can make of it.
A.O. - Unlike some of your colleagues, Rem Koolhaas or Nigel Coates for instance, who see the city as a dangerously fascinating, and hence an erotic, sensual place, you don’t seem to subscribe to this vision. Your view seems to derive more from a certain romantic idealism...
W.A. - I think I’m interested in the phenomenon of the city, but I’m not certain whether the city is really the true expression of our society. I appreciate Nigel’s interest which is very different to Rem’s in many ways and they both uphold the city as a wonderful gesture. But when I travel around, particularly in Europe, I see a lot of places that are not cities but behave as if they were. It doesn’t really matter if you live in Canterbury because somehow you are connected to Brussels, Paris and London. I would argue that it has become an urban environment, just with more trees. So I am more interested in how you occupy the surface of the world. I’ve never understood why a really big, highly dense building can’t be placed on top of a hill overlooking the south coast of London. You would wake up to fantastic views and not take up much of the earth’s surface; the building would mean something to its community and be connected to other places. We should be living in very beautiful places. That’s probably why you think I’m a romantic idealist!(3*) But you have to hang on to some of these things. I see beauty and ugliness very often, but you can’t design ugliness in that sense because it’s something that derives from a whole series of events inside or outside a city. So you must design something more beautiful.
A.O. - Recently you have been involved in small-scale temporary projects that require a different approach to the large-scale works you have been used to for so long. I refer, for instance, to what you are doing for the Montreal Biennale (September 24 to October 31, 2004). Do you think these are simply different aspects of architecture?
W.A. - Yes, I am just working on the project for the Montreal Biennale, where we are doing what I call a “multi-functional urban drinking device”. It is a street with a bar whose top level can take events from fashion shows to hairdressing salons. The underlying concept is transforming one thing into another, extending this to transforming a whole street. In this particular case I’m going to have lots of buckets of paint so people can throw paint at the canvas on the floor and walls. There is also a roof in case it rains.
At the end, after the Biennale, the canvas will be hung on the side of the building as a huge painting. So the result is also part of the process. Thinking on this scale teaches you a lot. It’s more immediate and there’s a different type of architectural involvement. Conventional architectural exhibitions do not work since they provide information suitable for a book or magazine. At exhibitions there is no time to sit - or stand usually - and absorb the information. So I would ban all architecture exhibitions!