A river runs through it

Will Alsop is passionate about the Thames, and it shows in his proposal to bridge the river with the Institute of Contemporary Art, writes Mel Gooding

Come the millennium, could riverside London be the modern art centre of the world? So much seemed promised by presentations made this weekend at Spaced Out, an ICA conference on millennial projects for the visual arts. The great curve of the Thames from Millbank to Southwark's Bankside will become a brilliant highway of light connecting the old Tate to its spectacular new Museum of Modern Art. Between those two points it will be fronted by Richard Rogers's festival renovation of the South Bank and the Hayward Gallery and, if things go right, bridged by Will Alsop's stunning new Institute of Contemporary Arts.

The ICA evidently knew what it was doing when it commissioned Alsop to find a new location and make proposals for a new building. An artist himself and an architectural innovator of great flair and imagination, Alsop is involved in several art-centred projects here and abroad. Architect- in-residence at Riverside Studios for several years in the early Eighties, he has an insider's knowledge of the requirements of a multi-dimensional, multi-purpose arts complex. And Alsop is passionate about the Thames. (At Riverside his first proposal was to build a pier and turn the face of the studios to the river.) No surprise, then, that he should have looked most intently in that direction for the ICA.

Of the two sites he recommends, Jubilee Gardens, on the South Bank between Hungerford Bridge and the old County Hall, is high-profile and obvious. The Tate considered this before what now seems its inevitable choice of Bankside. Ever since the dismantling of the 1951 Festival of Britain buildings, it has been an unhappy space waiting for an identity fit for its superb location. Alsop's proposed buildings would occupy less than a quarter of the space, but their presence would reactivate the whole area, turning it into a park that would function as a dynamic cross-axis between Waterloo, the South Bank and, by means of a new footbridge on the sunny side of Hungerford Bridge, Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden. The south end of the bridge would lift elements of the ICA above the river before simplifying to a span that would terminate in a new square on the north bank.

Alsop's other proposal, however, is more startlingly original. It is to build the new ICA as a bridge across the river, using the cast-iron- clad column piles left by the now dismantled Dover and Kent railway bridge just east of Blackfriars Bridge. Spanning the four-lane embankment road would be a swelling moulded form containing theatres, cinema, seminar rooms, and housing at the bridgehead a set of galleries, what Alsop calls "light-modulators" or "boxes of delight".

The galleries on the ICA bridge would be mounted on rails, like carriages in a station, and moved at will out across the water, joining to create spaces of variable dimensions and flexible utility, and leaving within the shell a great occasional space for other activities. Spanning the river and supporting their tracks would be a hollow beam structure containing offices, restaurants, bars and bookshops.

Alongside this beam a footbridge would link the ICA to Bankside, curving back and eastward from the South Bank as the final stretch of the riverside walk to the new Tate from Millbank. With the Mermaid Theatre just behind the ICA, and the new Globe Shakespeare Theatre next to the Tate, the elements would be in place for the beginnings of a lively cross-river cultural nexus.

Alsop's projected ICA, whether it is sited at Blackfriars or at Jubilee Gardens, is truly something special. Having no collection, it operates as a kind of research institute, on the model (as in its conception) of a scientific laboratory. It is a place of no fixed assumptions as to what art is, what it may effect, or where it might be found: it exists in order to facilitate redefinitions. Alsop's designs reflect this perfectly. The building at Blackfriars looks indeed like a giant retort, its bowl containing space for chemical reactions and interactions, its rounded outer form declarative of the organically continuous structural tension of the shell or bulb. It might be seen, too, as a progenerative womblike form; or like a head generating an infinity of ideas. "Our heads are round," said Picabia, "so that thought can change direction."

At Jubilee Gardens this shape recurs, with others as elegantly expressive, similar components in a very different configuration. With the advantage of a larger site, Alsop is able to distribute administrative, artistic and recreational functions to a set of smaller buildings sat above a glass- roofed sunken plane. From this meeting place, a foyer with bar, which is in effect a covered piazza the size of a football pitch, there will be the entrances up to the cinema, theatres and talks rooms, and to the restaurant, bars and shops on the bridge.

At either location the ICA will come to brilliant life, more accessible, more flexible, at a juncture of energy and movement, freed from the Crown Property restrictions of its present building. Its great co-founders, Herbert Read and Roland Penrose, anarchist knight and surrealist knight, would be well pleased at these brilliant prospects.

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink