It’s got long steel legs, windows rimmed with hot pink and a skin that resembles a Cubist checker board. But for architect Will Alsop, his Sharp Centre for Design at Toronto’s OCAD University was missing one important thing. “I think what the school needs,” he told me a few years ago, “is a really good bar.”
That was vintage Alsop. The London-based designer, who died on Saturday at the age of 70, was known equally as a bon vivant and as an architect who brought a sense of colour – literally and figuratively – to his profession. He also made an important mark on Toronto with the Sharp Centre, which is among the most distinctive buildings in the country.
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Mr. Alsop began his career by nearly winning one of the great design jobs of the 20th century. In 1971, he entered a competition for what became the Centre Pompidou in Paris and came in second. The winners, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, built a High-Tech masterpiece and went on to stardom.
Mr. Alsop, who graduated from London’s Archsitectural Association School of Architecture in 1973, had a more meandering career, but he would find success through designs that were often crazy and occasionally crazy-brilliant. His blobby forms, primary-school colours and blunt metaphors were mixed with a desire, personal and professional, to bring people together.
During his student days, he recalled, the bar “was for everyone – you could see very well-respected figures and go up and talk to them,” he recalled. “I don’t think many architects and designers go into OCAD to hang out. And why not?”
The 1990s – the era of the Bilbao Guggenheim, when cities and developers saw value in showpiece architecture – were good to Mr. Alsop. Raised in Northampton in Central England, he found himself designing cultural projects or “master plans,” full of cartoonish forms, for several Northern English towns and cities. These had limited results. But he made buildings that lasted, too. The most significant was the Peckham Library in South London, completed in 2000 with partner Jan Stormer. The library takes the form of an upside-down L: the wide slab at the top houses a reading room, and seems to defy gravity as it hangs up above the Victorian streetscape. The building’s claddings of copper and neon-coloured windows make it unmissable. The building won him the prestigious Stirling Prize in 2000, and it was an influential example of the library as community icon and community centre – which is, today, a cliché.
As a box-on-stilts, Peckham Library also resembles OCAD University’s Sharp Centre. That structure, built quickly and cheaply, opened in 2005, and quickly redefined the art school it housed and, along the way, Toronto. “Without his playfully uplifting studio on stilts for the Ontario College of Art and Design,” The Globe and Mail’s John Allemang wrote in 2005. “Toronto would still feel trapped in [an] earthbound malaise. Post-OCAD, anything seems possible.”
It is radical. Mr. Alsop designed a box in the air floating partially above an existing building and resting on a network of angled steel columns. (The box, he told me, “borrows the proportion of a Benson and Hedges Gold cigarette pack.”) Rough-and-ready inside and wrapped in an irregular grid of silver and black squares, the Sharp Centre is a studio building that argues for boldness and creativity.
When I published a guidebook to Toronto architecture last year, Mr. Alsop’s building – unmistakable, understandable, joyful – served as the cover model.
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Mr. Alsop’s business affairs were messy and he did not always get the jobs or the respect he felt he deserved. (OCAD U didn’t call him for a subsequent addition to the campus.)
In late 2017, however, he completed two subway stations for the city’s Toronto Transit Commission. Those stations, Finch West and Pioneer Village, form part of an ill-advised expansion; but they are remarkable. Mr. Alsop responded to the challenge “to make points of interest in what is a boring part of Toronto.”
The two are quite different from each other. Finch West station, which straddles a major road studded with apartment towers and strip malls, got a pair of boxes above ground. These boxes are decorated with vertical black-and-white stripes, punctuated by neon-hued windows. The visual logic of the place is challenged by ungainly concrete columns (designed by artist Bruce McLean together with Mr. Alsop), which look variously like Easter Island monoliths or hasty collages. To play around with structural bones is a very Alsopian twist.
The other Toronto station, Pioneer Village, is plain weird. Its main entrances are oval blobs clad-wrapped in red enamelled panels and slabs of weathering steel, which is intended to rust orange. A bus terminal, at the end of the complex, overlooks the featureless York University campus with a faceted roof (more weathering steel) that rests precariously on a few diagonal columns. “It looks dangerous,” Mr. Alsop said last December. “But I promise it’s not.”
It is safe, but only in a technical sense: As with much of Mr. Alsop’s work, it is joyfully impolite. “I wanted to heighten the experience for people travelling to work on a Monday morning in January, heading to a job you probably don’t want to do,” Mr. Alsop said last December. “As a designer, all you can do is try to take those few minutes – waiting for a bus, waiting for the train – and make them better.”