Toronto as Muse

Will Alsop discusses his methodology for painting and urban planning.

While Will Alsop is a widely-known architect, he is perhaps one of the world’s lesser-known painters. But with Cultural Fog, his North American gallery debut at the Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto, Alsop could soon be known for both enterprises.

His paintings explore Kensington Market, a historic (and historically anti-development), inner-city Toronto neighborhood where Alsop is reported to be working on a new, and potentially sprawling, housing project. The paintings can be seen as professional blueprints for what could become a highly contested project. On the other hand, Alsop’s sketches can be read as a personal lament for the potential loss of a uniquely bohemian aesthetic.

At the gallery’s opening, Alsop explained how his art integrates and diverges from his architecture, how his images navigate between density and sprawl, and that he really doesn’t know what any given building will do, after all.

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So here is a painting show by an architect—you—who has offices in five cities, worldwide commissions, and consequently is always on the go. How do you find the time to create your paintings?
Well, I always have painted. I’ve always been associated with art, either through friends or by going to art school. I suppose my real closest friends are artists rather than architects. So it’s always around me.

In terms of painting practice, I spend blocks of time in Norfolk, England with my good friend Bruce Maclean—we just paint away during vacations. It’s pure luxury. I also have a house by the sea in England and a studio at the end of the garden there. That’s where these paintings were made.

When you’re traveling, how do you gather material for paintings?
Well, in this particular case, I got the material just by hanging around, drinking, watching people and thinking about the place. And then I had a lot of photographs as well, which helped just to bring it back. I think it’s quite an interesting area.

How so?
A number of things really interested me. It’s an area that’s been messed around, but it’s been messed around by the people that live there. It’s clearly very scruffy, yet because of that it has a vibrancy. Obviously there is something about that market that people like. Otherwise they wouldn’t go. It’s a good place to hang out, buy cheese and meat, and do other things.

In a way it represents the opposite of what an area would look like if you gave a neighborhood to an urban designer and said “Do something with this.” That would actually just sanitize the whole thing, you just know that.

Also, the central business district is quite close to this area, close enough to see. So I started to wonder, “Hmmmm. How long will this stay like this? How long is it before someone starts to put their mucky fingers on this place?” Then I came to the conclusion that it’s inevitable.

Therefore I started to ask myself, how could you allow a place like this to evolve a bit more quickly? How could you increase the density? More people should live near the center of the city. In my view, it has nothing to do with community or anything else—you can’t take something that is quite a large area, right in the middle of the city, and leave it low-density due to nostalgia. That’s my starting point.

I really perceive a tension in these paintings between the kinds of buildings you make, represented by cubes and cleaner shapes in the background of the images, and the detritus of everyday life, like splashes of paint, squiggles of charcoal, or sketches of shoes and lampshades in the foreground. Did you feel some internal conflict while painting?
In a way, the simple answer is yes. But I’m pleased you see it. I mean, all of those objects are things that I saw in the Market. Some of them are very common garden objects, and some of them are extraordinary. There’s one jug that’s just beautiful. I’ve never seen a jug like that. Maybe it’s the only one in the world, who knows? But it reminded me of some of Picasso’s ceramics, which is probably why I was attracted to it.

I was interested in the relationship between those objects in the market and some of the objects on a much larger scale that that you might introduce: buildings or workshops or studios or whatever. For instance, the shoes [in the painting] have a certain symbolism for me. I was playing with the title Going for Gucci. Because do you want Gucci in that market? Probably. I’m not against that. But not all Gucci; there’s that mix of cheap and expensive that is interesting. Will it ever work? I don’t know the answer.

I’ve read that painting is often part of an architect’s sketching process for buildings. Is that true?
Yes, well, it’s not always about painting the form of a building; it might be the feel. I like painting because it’s very imprecise. In my studio in London I have a large wall with a huge piece of canvas on it. It’s like one page of a sketchbook. One canvas might hold ideas for two or three different projects which I’ve got in mind. When it’s full I take it down and put up another one. It’s like a giant page.

But one thing about painting, I find, is it’s extremely tiring. After three to four hours of solid working, you really feel you need a bit of rest.

You find architecture easier, then?
Oh, yeah. I think it’s dead easy. [Laughs.] The politics of it is something different, of course. But you can work all day on a computer, less so on a painting. Not so good for the eyes, but not as tiring. And it’s not as satisfying, actually. What I feel I’ve achieved is all locked up in this box. I have to print it up. And even then, it’s not quite the same.

It’s less tactile, perhaps?
Well, I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but when I’m painting I’m looking for something that’s behind the image. I want to see beyond what I know. And I haven’t reached any conclusion from them yet. Because they are done as works in themselves, they’re just posing questions.

In architecture you have to go on to answers. I don’t like the word solutions, because perhaps it was never a problem in the first place. But in architecture you do have to provide some recommendation as to how things might change and what they might be.

Now you seem to like art and artists, but some of your developments are not well received by them. The Westside Lofts, which you’re designing for another Toronto neighborhood, Queen West, have been protested by groups of artists who claim they are being displaced by such developments. Given this—and that you’re often quoted as encouraging integration of community feedback into architecture—what’s your response here?
Well, I think you have to talk. You have to talk rather than just work behind their backs. And at the same time, I think change is inevitable. It really is. And to be honest, that area is not very good. Kensington Market is grotty, but it’s interesting and lots of people go. But not lots of people go to Queen West.

I don’t think anyone has a right to stop things from happening. You have a right, though, to contribute to the debate of what else could go there. And I like working with people and knowing what they have to say. Sometimes they abuse the invitation when I try to draw them in. And some just worry about their taxes. I can’t do anything about that. But I can make a place which perhaps does reflect some of their dreams and wishes and desires. Sounds arrogant, but it’s not meant to be.

So neighborhoods can be made better if residents are willing to accept change, and participate in changing it.
If it’s going to change, and it will change, then how do you go about that? What’s the nature of the evolution? That building that many of the Queen West artists are in is actually in appalling condition. They live there and I assume it doesn’t cost them much. So okay, you need somewhere to live, somewhere to work, that’s not too expensive. What can you do about that?

Perhaps we could—and these are idiotic figures—we could build 150 floors on that flat share of land and then get that invested back to pay for better studios for you, and maybe there’s some affordable units in the tower and then you live and you work in the same area.

Height’s not the enemy. There is a responsibility that the whole city of Toronto has—and indeed, many other cities—to increase density in the downtown areas. And Queen West is downtown. And you can’t just leave things–-because if that’s your attitude—“no change”—it actually results in mile after mile of subdivisions as you drive north of this city. And that’s highly irresponsible.

While Cultural Fog is no longer on display, a few of Alsop’s paintings will be exhibited at Olga Korper Gallery’s upcoming group show opening August, 11 2007.

Leah Sandals is an art and urban issues writer based in Toronto.

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