BREAKING BOUNDARIES WITH NIGHT SCHOOLInterview
An interview with Night School's programme director, Sam Jacob, and Meneesha Kellay
15 January 2013
AA Bar, London
This spring, the AA will return to its roots by re-launching Night School – the format in which the school first began. In order to learn more about what is Night School, who is its audience and what it aims to achieve through various workshops and activities, we caught up with the programme’s director, Sam Jacob, and Meneesha Kellay to hear what they have planned.
How did Night School re-appear as an idea for an ongoing Visiting School?
The history of the AA is that it started as a Night School in opposition to the way in which architects qualified in those days as apprentices. They had to pay to work for an architect for six years and then were forced to do the equivalent of buying them a latte! It began out of a group of people who just wanted to get together and talk about architecture. It ran from the 1860s to the 1920s when the day school started. The day school eventually eclipsed the night school.
In some senses, this is a resurrection of the idea of Night School but it is resurrecting it in the context of a profession that’s changing rapidly, the role of the architect is fractured and takes on so many different forms. Also, when you graduate, you enter a world that is very different from the world you knew as a student. It’s often quite traumatic and in some ways quite lonely because you suddenly lose not just the support but also the discussion and the idea that there’s a culture – the world of architecture shrinks. It’s not because graduates lose their ambition or their interest; it’s because there’s no place for that kind of discussion or activity to take place.
Another issue is that there is a big audience for architecture but it’s very hard for them to engage because its either at the Sunday supplement/ Grand Designs level or its Peter Eisenman giving a lecture but between the two there is actually much more interesting ground that’s accessible but not dumbed down in any way. A challenge of Night School is the distinction between the audiences of students, professionals and the general public that we are trying to address; we need to look for areas of common ground between these distinct groups where discussion could occur. There’s a way in which we think Night School can make a case for architecture as an integral, popular part of culture rather than an esoteric act.
How will the programme be organised?
It would comprise a whole range of activities and events – the main criteria is that they are not lectures, more like workshops that will range in duration, subject matter, kinds of people who are teaching them, kinds of people who are attending them and levels of informality. We also want to address a whole range of professional issues which on the face of it are too boring and difficult to address in architecture schools – things like money, management, how to win a competition, contracts – these are the things that we think can be dealt with in a really engaging and informative way.
The idea is that the school would be organised into separate activities – each led by a different person or group of people under the umbrella of Night School. The kinds of things we are thinking of are for example a Book Club, which would either explore a theme, or you could take a set of books/ readings that are not architectural but find an architectural way of thinking about it, or you could take a set of architectural texts that we all should have read but haven’t and create a little motivation to read them. Another option is Crit Club – when you graduate and lose the space for discussion, Crit Club could fill that gap. It could work in two ways: either setting small design problems and discussing them – exactly as the original AA operated – or it could be setting themes like social housing and inviting people to bring work that relates to discuss among peers and special guest reviewers who could be other architects, potential clients or critics – to blur the distinction between the academic and the professional and the cultural and the social.
Then there are things like architectural bike tours – if history at architecture schools is taught with powerpoint and google images this would be a another, more active way of learning the same information. Another suggestion is to create Architecture 101s: this is a way of describing short, non-specialist courses on architecture culture. Then there are things like criticism which could run like a creative writing course – you would set a topic, people would write something, submit it, circulate it, come in and discuss it. It’s something that I think could have really broad appeal especially among architects who are famous for being terrible writers and terrible communicators. Then there’s a drawing club – they could be as traditional as life drawing but it could be life drawing with illustrator.
I think there’s lots of potential for the AA to go out into other places and to use the bits of architects’ offices and so on – to blur the boundary of where the school exists. Unlike some other Visiting Schools it’s not global; it’s focused in London and will look to form relationships with other institutional bodies in London. Its frequency will depend on the nature of the activity – a book club for example might be once a week for six weeks. Crit club might be one night. Drawing club could be six weeks as well. The commitment would be around once a week but these clubs could continue year round.
What audience do you hope to attract?
In very straightforward terms, the idea of Night School is to open up the kinds of things that happen already at the AA to an audience, which can’t take part in it because they can’t be full-time students. The idea is it addresses the existing student body at the AA, other students in London - perhaps this is a way of breaking down boundaries between schools.
The Night School can also be an alternative form of learning that moves away from the UK model of one tutor over one year. Obviously there are things which can be done faster, there are things which can address issues that are topical - in a sense, more like the visiting schools or the summer school that take a much shorter program and address an idea. I think that model can be expanded further; there are definitely things that can be done in an evening, on a Thursday night for six weeks, which couldn’t be done for a year or even couldn’t be done for two weeks intensely. If there are a whole load of activities which students, recent graduates, non-qualified architects, people who once studied at the AA many years ago, people with incredible expertise or people with the desire to talk or learn about anything are interested in – if there is that audience, then there is a whole range of activities to bring them all together.
How will it differ from the regular activities of the AA?
The fact that Night School is at the intersection of school and practice means we can look at things that are not considered a practical skill but think of them from a cultural point of view. Its all those types of things that you don’t get taught at architecture school but that you are expected to learn before working for a practice. It would be much better to know a little more about it beforehand and avoid making mistakes at work quite so many times before you get the hang of it.
Imagine what would happen if the school isn’t bound by the conceptual idea of a school and if its activities could become part of a larger programme? You can take the kinds of activities that happen within units and open that up to another audience. You could also teach things that you can’t teach in a studio because you don’t have RIBA Validation at the end of it. We could run essentially mini-studios where the ambition would be to get people in that don’t teach in the UK because its too much of a commitment and they don’t get paid enough – you’re never going to get Zaha, David Chipperfield or Richard Rogers committing to a year of teaching but you might get one seminar or tutorial like a sort of masterclass. Another idea would be to teach the History of Architecture through old briefs: to start with a Ruskin drawing lesson, then a Bauhaus brief, then a Mies IIT brief and then one of Rem’s briefs from 1978.
Night School is not conceived of as a curriculum, which comes down from somewhere up above. It relies on contributions of people who want to do stuff or have an interest and want to make that public.
How can you apply/ what are the fees to attend Night School?
You don’t have to apply for it – or at least it won’t be a long application process. Things will be priced according to the cost of doing them. It will definitely be a different kind of fee to attending a Summer School or a Visiting School. A lot of these things can be quite cheap to run while others will be more expensive but you could probably pay on a club-basis. We want to run 3-4 events this academic year and then ramp it up in the future. It will roughly launch around April-May.
The curriculum of Night School is flexible and will be shaped by suggestions from its audience. If you have an idea for a workshop or event within Night School please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information:
Night School - Programme Brief
Image: AA Fireworks 1997
Credit: Valerie Bennett, AA Photo Library