The paintings of Will Alsop — ‘a mischievous breath of fresh air’
The exuberant architect viewed the canvas as both an escape from architecture and a route into it, a way of exploring ideas. Christie’s is offering six of his works online, with proceeds being directed by the Marco Goldschmied Foundation to support young architects
The British architect Will Alsop (1947-2018) always considered himself different from others in his profession. ‘It’s surprising how many architects dress as though they’re accountants and behave like accountants,’ he once said. ‘They manage to make something that should be thoroughly enjoyable into a rather dull grind.’
Alsop himself was a renowned bon viveur who loved fine wine and good food. He was also a keen smoker and wore his hair long.
It’s fair to say that Alsop’s buildings reflected his personality. They were, in a word, exuberant.
One of his most famous was the Sharp Centre for Design (2004), part of the Ontario College of Art & Design University in Toronto. A black-and-white structure raised high above the ground on spindly stilts, it has been compared to a giant Dalmatian.
Levitation plays a part in another of Alsop’s major buildings: Peckham Library (1999) in south London, which won him the prestigious Stirling Prize from the Royal Institute of British Architects. It comprises a cantilevered structure (containing the library itself) which hangs 12 feet above an open-air public plaza at ground level.
When Alsop passed away in May 2018, his obituary in the Guardian referred to him to as ‘a mischievous breath of fresh air’ in the world of architecture. The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, claimed it was ‘the artist in Alsop that [had] set him apart from… his fellow practitioners’.
‘Where Will saw conventional architectural drawings as being rigid and closing down conversation, he saw paintings as a way of opening one up’ — Matthew Goldschmied
He certainly thought that buildings should be artistic as well as practical; they should be admired and enjoyed, not just lived in and worked in. As part of an unrealised plan for the transformation of the northern English town of Middlesbrough, Alsop designed a set of apartment blocks in the shape of Prada skirts and a hotel modelled on a champagne bottle.
His love of art showed itself beyond the buildings he conceived, however. Alsop was an avid painter, citing Matisse and Goya among his favourite artists. From 23 February to 9 March, six of his canvases will be offered in the First Open: Post-War and Contemporary Art Online sale.
Alsop painted throughout his career. A Royal Academician, he saw his painting practice as very much complementary to his architecture. He even set aside a month each summer for painting trips to the islands of Mallorca and Menorca with his friend, the artist Bruce McLean.
As an architect who also produced art, Alsop might be regarded as a successor to the likes of Le Corbusier and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Let’s not forget that Renaissance artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo worked as architects, too.
In Alsop’s case, he saw painting as having a twin purpose: both an escape from architecture and a route into it.
Which is to say that, at times, he put brush to canvas simply for pleasure, as a means of switching off from his day job. ‘One of the reasons for painting is that you’re not really in control of what you’re doing,’ he said, ‘and that interests me a lot.’ Alsop saw this in marked contrast to architecture, where there is ‘a specific starting point’ that ‘leads through… to a designed building’.
On countless other occasions, however, he used art as part of his professional practice. Alsop liked to draw or paint daily, believing that this was a key way of exploring ideas.
‘Those ideas might relate to a building he was currently working on, or might only end up useful on a commission months or years down the line,’ says Matthew Goldschmied, managing trustee of the Marco Goldschmied Foundation. (It’s the foundation — set up by Matthew’s architect father, Marco, a long-time friend and occasional collaborator of Alsop’s — that is offering the five lots for sale.)
‘Where Will saw conventional architectural drawings as being rigid and closing down conversation, he saw paintings as a way of opening one up,’ adds Goldschmied. ‘Paintings were about giving a general sense of atmosphere or place, which could easily be conveyed to colleagues and potential clients.’
Of the works in First Open, one — Hôtel du Département (1990) — was clearly painted with a future building in mind: the regional government’s headquarters in Marseille. Opened in 1994, this is colloquially known as Le Grand Bleu, though its official name is the Hôtel du Département des Bouches-du-Rhône.
Other paintings, such as Untitled (Green Rectangle on Blue) and Untitled (Coloured Blobs on Amber Background), enter the realm of abstraction. They boast bold, bright Matissean colour — as well as a vibrancy that calls to mind the St Ives painter Patrick Heron.
Interestingly, Alsop was also a fan of colour in his architecture. He told an interviewer in 1997 that ‘a hundred years ago the palette was largely brick, timber and stone. Now, plastics, glass technology and powder-coated aluminium give us a huge colour range.’
Alsop’s paintings function rewardingly as works of art in their own right. However, those who know his buildings will also, perhaps inevitably, seek proto-versions of these on canvas. For example, in Untitled (Coloured Blobs on Amber Background), can we see an early hint of the multicoloured hanging pods that serve as bars and restaurants in Alsop’s Gao Yang cruise-ship terminal in Shanghai?
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The answer is yes and no. Alsop saw art and architecture as two sides of the same creative coin. He once said, with typical candour, that ‘making polite, inoffensive buildings is, in my view, offensive’. One imagines that he felt similarly about polite, inoffensive paintings.
The Marco Goldschmied Foundation will use the proceeds from the sale of Alsop’s paintings to support young and aspiring architects through a new bursary at the London School of Architecture and through the Stephen Lawrence Prize