Alan Balfour - Possible Futures for the Architectural Association

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Alan Balfour

A former Chairman can speak from a unique position on issues regarding a future Chair and direction of the School. Alan Balfour 's acceptance of the opportunity to speak did not disappoint.

His important and difficult initiatives as Chair, often overlooked since, were outlined with respect in the introduction by Mark Cousins. Balfour 's position, touched on by others during the fortnight, was put simply: 'The AA 's independence is everything, and it has only ever been threatened by financial insecurity '. What followed were his views of how the AA could maintain this independence by securing alternative sources of financial support for its academic programmes. What was not expressed elsewhere was the view that the role of Chair is one for a manager, not 'a star ',and that support for staff, in all areas of the School, is 'pitifully 'lacking.

Balfour spoke strongly of his belief that the School and its Chair need the mechanisms to solve management issues between themselves, without recourse to Council. He was clear that future funding of the AA could not be left solely to fee income or charitable donation, but would need professional support to solicit funding for academic programmes and research from various organisations.

What form this funding would take depended on the route or routes adopted by the AA. Balfour examined ideas of merging with another college (the Royal College of Art or MIT media lab were suggested),or commercialising teaching positions (putatively, 'Dip 10 Prada ', with sponsorship brought in by Rem as Chair).But in the end he put these possibilities aside as he made a passionate plea for a 'more difficult but interesting route '.He urged more support for units and departments that pursue 'political work '.He recalled the work of Robert Mull and Carlos Villaneuva Brandt with Situationism and its empowerment of the citizen. He referred to how, during his tenure, Peter Salter, Catherine du Toit and myself had taken students to work in the townships of South Africa. In his view, form-finding and surface are too brand- led and commercially driven, and pursue increasingly less interesting ideas with little engagement with the larger world or its needs –all the while consuming more and more financial resources (Columbia has spent $300k on prototyping machines this year alone). He urged the AA to restate its credentials as an international school of the whole world, and not just of the shopping malls of the well-off bits.

The presentation was met by some with shock and awe, and elicited a strong response from the audience, both for and against. There were few abstentions.

Peter Thomas

Nikolaos Patsavos adds:

In discussing some possible futures for the AA, Alan Balfour focused on the School 's finances –an issue whose importance has dramatically increased in recent years. The present condition of architectural education is defined by a new reliance on tools and equipment, requiring considerable financial outlay. Traditional forms of fundraising no longer seem adequate, and at the same time it is not feasible to cut down on other costs (such as salaries or lease). In this context the School has to consider other options. Initiating this process, Balfour suggested the following three: sell; make alliances; commercialise. No option excludes the others.

What the AA can both rely on, and invest in, is its uniqueness, which comes from its intimate atmosphere, its people, its free-form curriculum and the research potential of the unit system and the Graduate School. The AA has the potential to reposition architecture. It could 'colonise 'its future strategic partners by instilling in them its innovative thinking, agendas and intelligence.

How can the AA secure its finances while maintaining its identity as a unique cultural institution? This was the central issue that the School and its future Chair would have to face. According to Balfour, the Chair has to be a distillation of many things: an imaginative and inspiring visionary, a convener of people and resources, and a navigator consciously driving the whole construction. Rather than operating alone, the Chair should work within a network of bonds with the students and staff. She or he would have to combine finances, people and ideas in an imaginative way.
Apr 18, 05 7:59 pm

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