Andrew Higgott - A Tradition of Experiment: The History of the AA School

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Andrew Higgott

The AA represents a very particular model of architectural education and a very distinctive model for an institution. It is the oldest school of architecture in Britain, but the designation 'school 'makes for a misleading preconception, since for much of its life the AA has had no curriculum, no syllabus. Architecture has instead been seen at the AA as something to be discovered, as something that is revealed rather than learnt. The implication is that it is about the discovery of a personal architecture rather than the mastering of a common practice. Learning has been a collective effort, as observed both in its founding moment of Victorian architectural apprentices coming together for self-education, and in the principle behind the unit system, which has been in place for more than 30 years.

The origins of the AA provide a potent myth: its qualities of democracy, its lack of hierarchy and its advocacy of originality have provided powerful references for its later life. In 1847 the young Robert Kerr and Charles Gray hired a room and instituted weekly meetings at which a design class presented work which was then subject to mutual discussion and critique: these classes alternated with talks by figures from the profession and the arts. The School 's independence was threatened (as it was again later in its history)by a process of institutionalisation, initiated by the first professional examinations set by the RIBA in 1887.A newly structured and extended programme was formalised at the AA, and paid teachers were appointed for the first time. The establishment in 1901 of a full-time course and the move to Bedford Square in 1918 created the School we recognise today.

However, for much of the period after the First World War, the AA provided a stark contrast to the contemporary Bauhaus. While the development of a new internationalism was in evidence, the Principal, Howard Robertson, instigated a Beaux-Arts system of education antagonistic to the AA 's earlier principles. A student-led revolution in 1938 brought about the dismantling of academic teaching programmes and, rather belatedly, the espousal of modernism. But it is in the years during and following the Second World War that an idealistic AA flourished, with the application of the social programme of modernism. Its students soon had the opportunity to transform practice. Significant in developing this newly pragmatic work in the 1950s were a number of year masters, including Arthur Korn, Peter Smithson and John Killick; of equal importance were the radical projects generated by their students. The 1960s produced dynamic work that renewed an engagement with technology, with recent graduate Peter Cook being the most notable teacher. Students created innovative work with computer-aided design and developed ideas of flexible enclosure.

But a further phase of revolution took place in 1970 with a radical reiteration of the AA 's founding principles of democracy and independence. An ill-fated and apparently misconceived scheme to 'normalise' the AA by integrating it into the state-supported university system collapsed. The School was in imminent danger of closure, and the new role of Chairman was created, with Alvin Boyarsky appointed to work in concert with the School Community. Nothing had really prepared the AA for the momentous role it was to take up in the 1970s and 1980s.While architects elsewhere were seeking alternatives to the hegemony of modernism, it was only at the AA, where several directions of enquiry and experiment were pursued at the same time, that new theoretical stances were consistently pushed forward. The device that allowed this was the unit system, which forced existing teachers –among them Bernard Tschumi and Elia Zenghelis – to take and develop a position. These ideologies included introducing ideas of narrative, different models of re-engaging with history and with the city, and an overriding concern with representation and process. Boyarsky 's radical model made each part of the School autonomous, but this independence was mediated by the need to participate in a 'market 'where tutors had to sell their programmes to prospective students and, at assessment time, to their fellow tutors.

The list of those who ran units in this period is extensive, and includes as many unsuccessful figures as those who later developed spectacular careers. Among the latter are Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind as well as a remarkable second generation, themselves educated within the system, which includes Zaha Hadid, Nigel Coates and Peter Salter. One way to construct the AA 's history could be through key student projects which, in an extraordinary way, have made the AA what it was and is. Through this process, students can be seen to have defined what the AA is about –a curious reversal of the common hierarchy of teacher and taught.

The School 's more recent history includes the creation of alternative models of architectural practice, shaped by the poetic and the material as well as the digital. New generations of tutors, along with their students, continue t engage in experiment and innovation. The School has evolved into a hybrid and open institution, characterised by an internationalism both in the teaching staff and student body and by the dynamic of change within its uniquely independent structure.

This text draws on a course given by Andrew Higgott during the Autumn Term and is one of several lectures and seminars commissioned this year to examine particular themes in the history of the AA –its relationship to the profession, its Britishness and its internationalism – as well as ideas of technology and history. The others, given by Derin Inan and Nikolaos Patsavos, Benedict O 'Looney,Susanne Bauer and Brian Hatton, are summarised on pages 21 and 22 of this publication.
Apr 18, 05 7:54 pm

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