4 MAY 2002, Page 54


Will Alsop (Soane Museum, till 7 June)

Daring to be different

Alan Powers

In a book of 1939, now probably all but forgotten, called Taste and Temperament, the mediaeval-art historian Joan Evans divided people into four types, according to their psychological make up. She was interested in defining, if not explaining, the wide range of characteristics apparent in works of art of all periods that seem to owe less to the 'spirit of the age' than to recurrent features of personality. Basing her types on the ancient doctrine of the humours, combined with some elements of Jung, she defined extroverts and introverts each in terms of quick and slow. Slow extroverts, she says, include those whose habits of mind are 'impersonal, amplifying and concrete'. The slow extrovert arranges facts and gets things done. The slow introvert is stoic and thinks about causes, living happily in monochrome surroundings. The two 'quick' types have a certain amount in common, being creatures of imagination, and while the quick introvert enjoys patterns and self-contained structures, the quick extrovert 'is the actor, the salesman, the courtier', at risk of self-indulgence and insincerity, but also visionary. If they lose their balance,' writes Evans, 'they become hysteric.'

Among the visual examples that Evans used to support her thesis, the architect Sir John Soane figures as a slow extrovert. This is explained by his desire to eliminate mouldings from his architecture, making him the precursor of the man whose 'present ideal [1939] is a modernistic flat without unnecessary ornament in it'. Visiting Sir John's house at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, specially in the years since its colour and drama have been restored to it, one needs to revise that designation. At least in his personal surroundings, Soane, a true man of the Romantic age, enjoyed theatricality, frequently 'lost his balance' and shared another characteristic of the quick extrovert in his enjoyment of the illusion of objects (ceilings, plaster casts) floating in space.

The Soane Museum has chosen to exhibit the work of the contemporary British architect Will Alsop in another of its challenging series of presentations of contemporary artists and architects whose selection predicates a relationship with their host. Perhaps the variety of figures who have already been presented in this context indicates how protean Soane actually was. At the exhibition opening, Alsop saluted him 'from one naughty architect to another', yet this is not the real description, only a sop to the pleasure-denying slow extroverts who make the rules of taste. Alsop's ability to subvert the dominant seriousness of architecture is rare (others try and become part of the process). The more he builds, the more he attracts admiration for daring to be different. Unlike Soane, he claims to have no theory, believing that 'the work serves a different master beyond architecture itself'.

Alsop's resemblance to Soane goes beyond simple analogies such as a love of strong colour, although this helps the placing of Alsop's projects in model form around the house, as well as in the exhibition gallery, to succeed. Soane belonged to a generation that needed to assert the professional skill and probity of the architect. Classicists, from Inigo Jones to Soane in the English tradition, had professed that 'quick extroverts' (whom they would have classified after Galen as possessing the sanguine temperament) should conceal their true identity under a phlegmatic (or slow extrovert) public appearance. We have the Forsyte Saga before our eyes to remind us of the fate of the quick extrovert architect, Philip Bosinney, who lacks such self-control.

After early years in which Alsop's architecture shared the common fate of so many quick extroverts in being celebrated but largely unbuilt, he has achieved a breakthrough to productivity, at first in Europe, and now increasingly at home. The award of the Stirling Prize to his Peckham Library in 2000 was a turning point, and now he has several more projects in London as well as a large arts centre in West Bromwich about to start. When local authorities want to quicken (in both sens es) their localities, they send for Alsop and are not disappointed.

The Peckham Library looks crazy, but apart from a problem about changing the light bulbs (no jokes, please), it works rather better than the polished products of more ostensibly practical designers. The exhibition displays a number of Alsop's sketchbooks, full of quickfire visual oneliners whose cumulative effect finally materialises in three dimensions. It is a delicate balancing act which could tip over into selfparody or banality. Alsop believes in 'a confidence that allows you to enter the world of "NOT KNOWING" without worrying about it'. Architects have been worrying about something or other for years, and Soane was a particular sufferer. Alsop's levitation act is as surprising and delightful as someone who floats across your threshold on a cushion of air.