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Will Alsop

TUESDAY 2nd July 2002
His designs start as paintings. In his hands, dramatic canvases jump off the gallery wall and become theatrical forums for work and play. With his wild use of colour, his eye-popping designs and his obvious sense of humour, Will Alsop is responsible for some of Britain's most creative public buildings.

His East London tube station remains one of the boldest on the Jubilee line extension. His Cardiff Bay Visitor Centre attracted a quarter of a million visitors during its first year of installation.

And his renowned library at Peckham, South London, stands on spindly legs and then shoots out into the sky in an inverted L shape. Brightly-coloured glass panels house the main reading room, and pods form meeting venues inside. It is a glory to behold.

This building won Alsop the architecture's holy grail of the Stirling Prize and catapulted him to the forefront of the new generation of British architects. It also inspired his design for a Whitechapel medical school, where glass walls and more pods, suspended this time, reflect the staff's desire for transparency, for "celebrating the secret, making a hospital campus an open, delightful place to be".

These are flamboyant buildings that animate their surroundings but serve a purpose. Peckham Library is a community centre and a fount of local activity. Alsop says, "We like to design enjoyable buildings with a lot going on inside, outside, on top of them." In the case of his library, on top is a bright orange beret of a roof.

The architect has recently been charged with revitalising the town that is still home to the National Union of Mineworkers. Alsop has big plans for Barnsley. They include beaming a halo of light from the Town Hall two thirds of a mile in diameter to capture the Northern town in a literal golden glow. The architect told its citizens, "If we can just make this city beautiful, people will come."

From the outset, Alsop rebelled against a high tech, pragmatic approach to his craft. In his student days at the Architectural Association, he felt the influences of Pop Art, contemporary music and fashion fusing together to generate radical new thinking in architecture.

And his work as a sculpture teacher at St Martin's helped him see "architecture as a form of artistic activity". Alsop abandoned any restrictive rules of form and allowed his own architectural juices to flow.

For a long time, they didn't flow anywhere near the Thames. Despite consistent success in Europe, his radical ideas have only recently been embraced at home.

Since he first set up practice in Hammersmith in 1981, community arts projects have been a core aspect of Alsop's work, and he invites his consumers to be part of the creative process.

In a world full of random accidents, where people have their own big, colourful dreams, Alsop sees an all-controlling vision as futile. He sees his challenge as "not designing, but discovering, the architecture. The role of the architect is to make life better".

He has recently taken over the chair of the Architecture Foundation, but this doesn't mean we are losing this creative force to paperwork. Instead, he retreats to his Norfolk studio to paint. Art, not money, is his focus, and he'd be happy to paint full time. He says, "Sure, I'd be poorer, but so what? I'd be just as happy."

And like any true artist, beauty is central to his vision. He explains, "You can't create beauty but you know when it's beginning to work. You know when it's right."