Monday, 14 May 2018
Farewell and thanks, Will Alsop. Bradford should belatedly implement your masterplan.
Will Alsop was a prophet. I don't say this lightly as much of the remembrance of him will focus on the architecture, his penchant for livening up urban design with giant teddy bears and his failed plans for northern cities.
I live in one of those northern cities, Bradford. And every time I look at our struggling - and let's be honest Bradfordians, it is struggling - city centre I think of what Alsop told us to do. I know everyone thinks about lakes and canals, sensory gardens and singing pillars but this wasn't what Will told us to do. Really, it wasn't.
What the Bradford Masterplan was about wasn't development either. Quite the opposite - Will's masterplan was an anti-development masterplan. "Knock down the crap", said Will, "and don't build anything in its place, make it a park." Now we can argue about whether the 'crap' is or isn't 'crap' (High Point anyone?) but Will Alsop's proposals were prophecy. What a different city we'd be had we done what he said - not built Broadway, not tried to attract whizzy developers to build speculative wonder buildings, not pretended that there was any land value in the city to be leveraged into development profit, and recognised that doing the same as everywhere else doesn't win you the game.
Instead we took a radical - almost revolutionary - proposal for the city and spent two years turning it back into a boring, planner-friendly, same-old-same-old plan for a regeneration. A plan for a regeneration that never happened. A plan based on a misguided belief that Bradford could be a 'central business district' when Leeds is just nine miles away (and Manchester a mere thirty miles). A plan that ignored the biggest change in retail since the invention of the supermarket - for a mail order city to miss the arrival of mail order's triumph is spectacular.
Will Alsop's prophecy was that cities and town centres would be about play not work, trees not bricks, walking not parking. Turning most of Bradford city centre into a park was a brilliant idea and, you know, we can still do it. It just takes a little bravery from the council. Instead of spending £80 million on buying up property in the vain hope it will cover up our budget weaknesses maybe we should build Will Alsop's park - pedestrianise Market street and Princes Way, turn all that Council-owned land in the top of town into great public space, buy up and flatten Darley Street. Don't just admit defeat in the city centre rat race but celebrate this defeat. And if there's little spare cash at the end, let's build a giant teddy bear to remember Will Alsop who dared us to be brave.