Culture  In defense of daring architecture

Will Alsop, the avant-garde designer of OCAD, pleads his case

On Tuesday, renowned British architect Will Alsop gave a lecture at the Canadian Centre for Architecture entitled OCAD: An Urban Manifesto. A central theme was questioning the role of the architect and architecture in contemporary society.

Should buildings be designed simply for function, or rather, should they be engaging and unique, becoming places where people will actually wish to spend their time? Well-known for his colourful, avant-garde architecture, Alsop believes the latter.

Many architects, Alsop said repeatedly, are immensely bored; they create places that people will never go to. He believes that architects, unlike lawyers, accountants and so on, should be peddlers of joy, creating places that are unusual and thus remembered in the often-bland urban centers of the modern world.

One of Alsop’s earliest creations, a large visitors’ centre modeled after a disposable cigarette lighter, certainly attests to this. Accountants, whose profession he mocked throughout the lecture, made predictions that 25,000 people would go to the centre in its first year. Despite this estimate, over 450,000 people visited during its first year alone.

Why would 450,000 people go to see the Cardiff Bay visitor’s centre? Because it is unusual. It is this unusualness that people want; an out-of-the-ordinary building can evoke feelings of curiosity for those who have not seen it, which can be formidable desire. Alsop believes that the OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) building has a similar effect.

Architects in urban centres should try to break free from the orderliness and sharp clarity that many buildings try to create, he explained. But what does this mean for the future of architecture, and urban centres in particular? Does a style such as his have the power to transform and revitalize often lifeless cities?

Alsop referred to the importance of engaging the general public and breaking down barriers so that it is not just the architect who is a part of the design process. Architecture should be a reflection of the people that inhabit a city, he suggested. It is something that we pass by every day, and thus, he believes that architecture influences us in unknown ways. Buildings should not simply be functional, but interesting, unique, and ultimately a reflection of the direction which are headed in the 21st century.