National News

Will Alsop, Architectural Provocateur, Is Dead at 70

Posted May 20, 2018 7:21 p.m. EDT

Will Alsop, a British architect who brought zany playfulness and bold colors to his designs of commercial and residential buildings, subway stations and urban master plans, died May 12 in hospice care in London. He was 70.

His firm, aLL Design, confirmed the death but gave no other details.

A Falstaffian provocateur, Alsop believed that his visually spectacular projects brightened their landscapes, and that architects had a calling to inspire the public.

“Lifting the spirit, whether you’re working in a building or walking past it every day, is the job of the architect,” he told CNN in 2005.

Alsop often said he was quite serious about having fun as an architect. In school, he was an acolyte of Archigram, a group of avant-garde, neofuturist architects in Britain in the 1960s who were inspired by pop art, science fiction and psychedelia. Architecture became a way for him to solve problems and explore the fantastic.

“What’s remarkable when you see his buildings is how wild they really are,” Alex Bozikovic, architecture critic of The Globe and Mail in Toronto, said in a telephone interview. “He had over-the-top ideas, but he had the political smarts and technical ability to make some of them happen. And he created some genuinely amazing places.”

Alsop designed the Peckham Library, in southeast London, in the shape of an upside-down capital L, creating an overhang supported by seven slanted pillars. One face of the library is sheathed in colorful glass; the others are clad in pre-patinated copper. The roof is topped by what looks like a giant orange beret.

“The real fun does not begin until you are inside, though,” The Guardian wrote in 1999, shortly before the library opened early the next year. Inside were three giant enclosed pods — “space-capsule-like creations on legs” — for the children’s activity center, an Afro-Caribbean literature center and a meeting space.

Alsop won the Stirling Prize, Britain’s most prestigious architectural award, for his design of the Peckham Library.

While most of his successful buildings were in Europe, Alsop’s effect was also felt in several projects in Toronto.

For one of them, the spectacular Sharp Center for Design at OCAD University, an art school, Alsop devised a two-floor slab for classes and offices, covered it in a crossword-puzzle-like pattern of corrugated black and white metal squares, and perched it nine stories above the ground, partly over an existing building, supported by a dozen lean, angled pillars of yellow, red, black, blue, purple and white. It was completed in 2004.

“To design a building that resembles a fancifully decorated tabletop but doesn’t look ridiculous is no small accomplishment,” architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in The New Yorker in 2007. “Alsop’s shrewdest move is the seemingly chaotic slant of the legs,” which, Goldberger noted, created a “sense of rhythmic movement” that vertical columns would not have provided.

When Alsop’s Sharp Center design won the annual award of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2004, the judges described it as “courageous, bold and just a little insane.”

Last year, Alsop brought his idiosyncratic style to the design of two subway stations that extended the Toronto system into the suburbs. One station features two oddly shaped entrances that were designed as sculptures using red enamel panels and weathered steel.

Discussing his use of eye-popping color, he told the newsletter ArchNews Now in 2010: “A field of poppies or the beautiful colors of tree leaves in the fall. These colors are spectacular! But people fear colors in the built environment. I wonder why?”

William Allen Alsop was born on Dec. 12, 1947, in Northampton, England, to Francis and Brenda (Hight) Alsop. His father was an accountant, and his mother was a homemaker. As a child, he and his parents lived next door to a family whose house was designed by the modernist German architect Peter Behrens — igniting a love of architecture before he knew what architects did.

“My mother always commented that it was an ugly house,” Alsop told Vladimir Belogovsky of, an online Russian architectural publication, in 2008, “but I found it interesting because it did not look like any other house around. An older couple lived there, and they often invited my sister and me for delicious ice cream, so it always felt good to be there.”

He began working for a local architect at 16 and, at 23, while attending the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London in the early 1970s, entered the competition to design the Pompidou Center art museum in Paris. He finished second to the team of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano.

His entry in the competition drew praise after his death from the British architect Norman Foster, who told Dezeen, an architecture and design magazine, “The undulating ground plane of the scheme echoed an inherent playfulness that would go on to become the hallmark of his work.”

Alsop opened his first architectural firm in 1979. It was one of several he would be part of during his career. Some of his wildest ideas turned up in the unrealized master plans he created for various cities, mostly in Britain.

He envisioned Barnsley, in south Yorkshire, as a futurist version of a walled Tuscan town, with modern buildings surrounding the town center. Central Bradford would be partly flooded to create a pool, fountain and other water features. In the North Yorkshire town of Middlesborough, The Guardian wrote in 2004, Alsop imagined “a primary school in the shape of a giant spelling block, a Rubik’s cube cinema, even a 10-story office block affectionately nicknamed ‘Marge Simpson’s Hair.'”

More practical was the imaginative regional government complex he designed in Marseille, France, near the Mediterranean shore. Quickly nicknamed “Le Grand Bleu” for its striking hue (called International Klein Blue for the French artist Yves Klein), it consists of two office blocks linked by an atrium. A separate structure, a cigar-shaped council chamber, is attached to the complex by walkways and escalators.

“Le Grande Bleu,” architect and author Michael Spens wrote in The Independent in 1994 when the complex opened, “is, despite its radical appearance, a direct descendant of those highly embellished French town halls of the 19th century, when civic pride was at a premium.”

Alsop is survived by his wife, Sheila (Bean) Alsop; his sons, Oliver and Piers; his daughter, Nancy Alsop; three grandchildren; his sister, Sue Moore-Thompson; and his brother, John.

Reflecting in recent years on his design of the Sharp Center — one of his most enduring and whimsical — Alsop said he had been reluctant to compete for the job and fell asleep on the flight to Toronto while reading the school’s outline for the project. But the finished project — which he called a “box on legs” — helped define him.

“The amount of attention that building has gathered around the world is almost embarrassing,” he told The Toronto Star last year. “I just came back from China last week — people were still asking me about that.” He added: “What I’m proud of is that people in Toronto either love it or hate it. There’s not much indifference toward it.”