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Will Alsops Lessons for a Young Architect 01
Will Alsop speaks at Ryerson University. OCAD’s Sharp Centre for Design appears on a slide behind him. Photo: Norm Betts/Ryerson University.

When iconoclastic British architect Will Alsop died after a short illness at the age of 70 on Saturday, he left behind a legacy of pioneering buildings with outsized impact and a vocabulary all their own. Never entirely appreciated in his native Great Britain, he nonetheless delivered at least two groundbreaking projects there and went on to do some of his best work in foreign cities such as Toronto, where he opened an office in the early 2000s (it was closed after a few years) and his most recent creations – a pair of unusually eye-popping subway stations – opened this past December.

“Will Alsop was one of the true free spirits and creative iconoclasts of contemporary architecture, with an exuberance that reached full flower in the Sharp Centre at OCAD [University] in Toronto,” critic Paul Goldberger tweeted shortly after the architect’s death was announced. Like many of Alsop’s buildings, OCAD’s Sharp Centre for Design simultaneously electrified and made itself at home in its otherwise mundane setting, instilling a sense of both wonder and welcome.

This architectural alchemy – combined with a liberal and unabashed dose of weirdness – defined almost all of Alsop’s finest projects, regardless of typology.


North Greenwich Tube Station, London

Opened in 1999, the London Underground’s North Greenwich station, a stop on the Jubilee Line Extension in the borough of the same name, was the first of several transit stations to bear Alsop’s distinctive stamp. Designed when he was partnered with John Lyall and Jan Störmer, North Greenwich boasts a striking tiled interior punctuated by hulking cobalt-blue columns. The cartoonish grandiosity of the space and the old-fashioned attempt at awe foreshadowed future designs for stations built in Canada. “You had curious tourists buying tickets and getting off at every station,” the architect told Azure earlier this year, recalling the popularity of the London project when it was unveiled. Enthusiastic public responses would become hallmarks of Alsop’s work.


Peckham Library, London

Completed a year later, Peckham Library in southeast London was the project that heralded Alsop as an architect to watch. Clad with pre-patinated copper and shaped like an upside-down capital L, the building features an elevated reading room supported by slender steel pillars set at seemingly haphazard angles, the space below forming a de facto public plaza. When it opened in 2000, it became an instant cause celèbre, winning the Stirling Prize for Architecture. The Stirling judges especially liked the way the reading area had been situated above ground level, shielding it from street noise. That gesture and others suggested how thoughtful Alsop’s outré work could be, that there was method to his apparent madness.


Sharp Centre for Design, OCAD University, Toronto

Photo: Thomas Hawk

Despite his early triumphs in London, few of Alsop’s designs were being realized in England, prompting him to seek opportunities overseas. At the beginning of the millennium, the U.K.’s loss became Canada’s gain. Alsop’s design for OCAD University’s Sharp Centre – a checkerboard slab floating above an existing school building atop tilting multicoloured pillars – proved an overnight hit, redefining not only the university and its neighbourhood, but opening the door to bolder architecture in what was previously a conservative city. “Growing up in Toronto, it’s impossible to underestimate the impact that Alsop’s Sharp Centre for Design had on the local design culture,” V&A curator Brendan Cormier wrote recently on Twitter. “It arrived like an alien, broke with cliches … and changed how we thought cities could look like.”


Gao Yang Cruise Terminal, Shanghai

Not all of Alsop’s transportation projects were focused around train tracks: The Gao Yang cruise ship terminal, completed in Shanghai in 2010, features a host of his signature touches – soaring pixellated atria, blob-shaped sculptural elements – on a prestigious riverfront site north of the fabled Bund. Alsop liked working in China, he said at the time, because it was more risk-averse and architecturally ambitious than Britain. Part of “a rich mix of uses” across a 68,000-square-metre site, the terminal is the architect’s most successful and important project outside Europe and North America.


Finch West and Pioneer Village Subway Stations, Toronto

Finch West Station. Photo: Wylie Poon

Grandchildren of Alsop’s nineties-era North Greenwich station in London, the two subway stations the architect designed for Toronto’s expanded Spadina line were among the last of his career. As Simon Lewsen described them in the March/April issue of Azure, the suburban transit stops, which had opened just a few months prior, nicely encapsulate the dual nature of the architect, the goth prince with a colourful personality.

Pioneer Village Station. Photo: Wade Zimmerman

While the Pioneer Village station features blob-shaped “chandeliers” resembling “slithery primordial creatures” and a dramatic outdoor canopy sporting fins that “cast theatrical shadows,” the Finch West station is, by contrast, “a happy assemblage of brightly coloured glass panels.” Once again, the projects prompted perennially complacent Torontonians to consider the power of provocative design – and perhaps demand more of it in the future.


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