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Will Alsop

It was this time last year that I visited the RCA’s new building in Battersea and heard for the first time the phase ‘Battersea Creative District.’

Since then it’s a term that’s come up with increasing regularity as other new tenants, like Victoria Beckham, move in. And so it is with great relief that I finally get to meet the man who’s arguably responsible for inspiring the whole ‘BCD’ movement – architect and designer Will Alsop.

While some big names like Vivienne Westwood and Norman Foster were already based in the area, it was the opening of Will Alsop’s alternative art space, Testbed that cemented the area’s reputation as a new Mecca for London’s creatives. In fact Alsop himself had been based in this square of real estate - squeezed between Parkgate Road and the river and the two bridges - for over 20 years before he had his Testbed epiphany. ‘I’d moved offices in this same area about four times before I found myself in the building above Testbed,’ explains Alsop in his characteristically lugubrious tone. ‘I was amazed when I walked in and found all these empty spaces, including the 10,000 square foot main space, that hadn’t been used in years. As soon as I saw it I felt it was the perfect space for the arts. It was down at heel, with all these cast iron columns – all very reminiscent of Soho and New York in the sixties.’

To begin with the space had no specific function. There was no structured business plan, just a vague concept for idea for creating an arts space that would evolve over time – a business strategy so vague it would have reduced a bank manager to tears. Fortunately though, Alsop had a rather successful forty year career behind him and he could happily fund the project himself. ‘The building’s owner was very much for having more fun with the space than he had been. So I put a bit of money into it and started a pop up venue called the Doodle Bar.

‘From there everything evolved organically. We got it licensed properly and it just kept expanding into Testbed. The reason I called it Testbed was that I want artists to come and feel they can try things. We have a saying: “failure is permitted”. We live in a more risk-averse society than we used to and I think that’s rather sad. I like to encourage people to come and try things. It doesn’t matter how it goes because if you’ve tried it you’ll learn from the experience.’

This unplanned way of operating is very much in keeping with Alsop’s approach to all his work. ‘My approach to Testbed has a lot in common with my style of painting. I’ve been doing it for years. If you know exactly what you’re going to paint before you begin then it’s usually a rotten painting. But if you make a start and base decisions on what’s in front of you, then it turns out much stronger. It’s part of the excitement and the joy.’

A defining characteristic of Alsop’s work, whether in Testbed, his painting or his architecture, is fun. For example, it’s a word that crops up time and again in his personal welcome message on the website of his latest architectural and design firm, All Design. ‘Yes, I get into terrible trouble over that. My critics don’t like it at all. Fun is not a serious word, they say. Actually, fun is a lot more serious than most things you do. But my point is that by having fun with a project, it gets transmitted into the work and then onto the people that eventually use, see or pass through your design.’ Alsop’s take on architecture and design has a habit of raising eyebrows in the ‘Establishment’ and several of his colourful, modernist, avant garde designs have been seen as controversial (Peckham Library and the Palestra Building in Southwark to name two local examples) - though it’s a label he persistently challenges. ‘I don’t think I am controversial at all, actually. It’s all common sense in the end; you listen, you respond, you think and you do. Couldn’t be easier. I shouldn’t say this as an architect, but people are more comfortable in what’s been around for a while. It takes time for people to get comfortable in new things.’

Alsop remains somewhat of an enigmatic figure. His current workload includes teaching in both the universities of Canterbury and Vienna, completing a multibillion pound new pier complex in Shanghai, designing several new Metro stations in Toronto, trying to get planning for a new 19-storey apartment tower in Battersea and designing a new table lamp called The Iceberg. Yet, arguably what gives him the greatest pleasure is tinkering (as he puts it) with a decrepit old building in Battersea. ‘I’ve really enjoyed having a space like this to experiment with. It’s a project that I have the freedom to fiddle with, and the whole team gets excited by the new things that keep happening to the Testbed space. We got a new neon sign in the courtyard the other day and it had us all so excited! This project has got me re-attuned to the pleasure of small things. I like inspiring the next generation and that keeps me younger too.’

And hopefully that will be the enduring appeal of Testbed and the Battersea Creative District - they’re inspiring the next generation.,

Will Alsop © Antonio OlmosPalestra building - SouthwarkConcert in Testbed1 - Battersea