Richard Wentworth: Pure gold in new cross

July 8, 2005

"Each of the seven floors is its own piano nobile with a wonderful variety of high ceilings. You feel good"
Ben Pimlott building
Goldsmiths, University of London

Lucky, lucky students - a university not only decisive about constructing a new building for you but confident enough to be deliberate about the architect. Goldsmiths, University of London, has justly celebrated its visual arts department by devising, with Will Alsop, a marvellous new pile of well thought-out studios. "Arts Complex" says the contractors' board outside the Ben Pimlott building. Surprisingly, Alsop has not added an apostrophe before the "s" of Arts.

The voyage to New Cross is famous, a bottleneck on the Old Dover Road now central to the area touched by the commercial shine of Canary Wharf, "Little North America". Setting out from Canada Water, there is that sense of New Cross as a peninsula serviced, Southend Pier-style, by the East London Railway making its way through the illicit buddleia fields of Rotherhithe and Deptford. You get a real sense of having travelled.

I like moving through cities. I have often thought that if we could see only shapes, we would make ourselves ill. Sometimes I try to audit the shapes, give them marks, work out which are deliberate, which arbitrary.

Travelling with Alsop would be gently bombastic, I imagine. We could squabble over shapes. If I pointed out spires, finials and cornices, Alsop would champion TV aerials, zebra crossings and the prattle of commercial signage. In a great city, you get the lot. Alsop likes his buildings to be signs. He wants them to have reach. He scorns the hermetic object. And he sees people as part of urban theatricality.

A savvy users group, including plain-speaking artists and students, informed Alsop. What a frank way to generate a brief. Rough and ready, they said, generous open-plan studios, intelligently lit and ventilated, easy to convert for exhibitions, lots of openings to move work around, tough floors, an industrial-scale lift, no frills, no shapes, no hierarchies and unpresumptious offices.

Alsop has done all this, and more. The spirit is amiable as you move through the seven floors (amiability-cum-respect are old Goldsmiths tricks). Each is its own piano nobile with a wonderful variety of high ceilings. You feel good. It has the warehouse feel that resourceful artist colonisers like, though the handling is more British school of mud pie concrete work than the fetishistic "faddling" of the loft livers. The tower stands on rising ground amid the detritus of years of short-termism. It is all about prospects, because Alsop has thrown the whole city in. From a kind of processional balcony every young artist is confronted by a 200-degree view choked with shapes, including the ones we call landmarks - Big Ben, the Gherkin, Little North America. At a stroke, Alsop provides 1,000 years of urban theatre while students are faced by their audience and critics in the city below.

But wait. Alsop wants also to do "Look at me!". On the roof, over the south elevation, on the champagne modernism of the black mirror loggia, a passer-by will discover a welter of Alsopia. The references are energetic and all-embracing. German graphics on the roof G.O.L.D.S.M.I.T.H.S., Spanish theatricality meets junk modelling on the big south elevation, Gordon Matta-Clark sliding down the escape stairs, and a tour de force of welded virtuosity - David Smith trips over Antoni Gaud! - to glamorise the loggia. Really brave stuff, some successes, some failures, exactly what it's like to be an artist. You can tell good art students by whether they take risks. Universities also. See the past. Check the future.

Richard Wentworth is an artist and head of the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University.

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