The Small Global School of London – The Architectural Association
28 May 2015
Architectural Association, London – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
For the February issue (251) of AU magazine, I was asked to write a general panorama of the AA directed at the Brazilian public. The text is based on my own experience as a new member of the school as well as interviews with Ricardo de Ostos (Inter 3), Ana Araujo (Inter 2), Juliana Muniz Westcott (Rotterdam Visiting School), and Franklin Lee (Rio de Janeiro Visiting School). What follows are excerpts translated from the original publication in Portuguese with photographs by Valerie Bennett.
A Small Global School in London
Engraved on a blue metal plaque hanging on the facade of a Georgian terraced house in London, it reads: “most famous architects have been here”. This is how the Architectural Association, or simply the AA, receives those who pass through its doors. The fame of the small private architecture school in London, and the corresponding weight of it, does not stop there: the AA is also the most international, one of the most experimental, and expensive schools for architecture.
Founded in 1847 by a group of young inexperienced apprentices, the AA initially existed as a sort of members club without a formal academic curriculum. The various configurations that defined it throughout its history were often conditioned by the motivation of the students themselves. In 1966, in the same studio space where Peter Cook and the members of Archigram gathered to fight the Modernist Movement, a lesser-known band called Pink Floyd performed for the students. Among them would be future Pritzker Prize winner Rem Koolhaas, who, along with the likes of Cedric Price, Peter Smithson, Bernard Tschumi and Richard Rogers would transform the AA into a Mecca of sorts for discussion about the discipline.
Students experimenting with prototypes in front of the school buildings. The cluster of historic houses gives the academic environment a domestic air rather than an institutional one.
Image credit: Valerie Bennett
This flexibility is possible, in part, because of the fact that the AA is private. The school does not receive funding from the British government and so it is completely self-governed and self-directed. This independence exempts it from regulatory systems such as the Bologna Accord, criticised for transforming higher education institutions in Europe into monsters of bureaucracy. It is the right balance of criticism and opportunities, support and neglect, that creates at the AA favourable conditions for each student to flourish.
An International School
The 750 students and 150 staff who make up the School of Architecture are part of an association, hence the name of the institution, which in turn has 5,000 members worldwide. Anyone can become a member by contributing a nominal fee, which then accords them benefits such as electing the AA’s council. The AA Council, Students and Staff, collectively known as the AA School Community, is a subset of the AA Membership and this group votes to elect the school’s director.
Despite being located in London, 90% of the students come from outside the UK, from a total of 60 different countries. For Recife-born Juliana Muniz Westcott, who completed a graduate course in 2013, the cultural exchanges and networking opportunities were key: “when we traveled to Mumbai, the presence of two Indians in my group really helped us to communicate with the inhabitants of the area we were studying,” says Juliana, “and our tutors gave us the confidence to get in touch with relevant professionals related to the AA.”
This global projection and the impetus to take internal discussions to a larger public audience are reflected in the strong tradition the school has in documenting and disseminating everything that happens day-to-day.
The public events program, the world’s largest in the field of architecture, promotes lectures, exhibitions, workshops and book launches, all open to the public and carried out almost on a daily basis. One example is an exhibition that explored the relationship between architects Lina Bo Bardi and Gio Ponti. “The exhibition created a stimulating discussion about the topic and brought in a lot of people who were not architects,” says Belo-Horizonte-born Ana Araujo, curator of the exhibition and Intermediate 2 Unit Master. A complementary symposium was filmed, catalogued and made available freely on the digital platform of the school’s website, together with other public activities.
Roundtable discussion with Rem Koolhaas and guests about his book “Al Manakh: Gulf Continued”. The public programme of events is the largest in the world in the field of architecture.
Image credit: Valerie Bennett
The school also has its own publishing house, an archive that preserves the work of former students, and a photographic archive that registers important moments in academic life. In the latter, one can find pictures dating to the 1880s including a 1986 photograph of architect Zaha Hadid in polka dot pajamas, during her time as a tutor, preparing a presentation with her students. This vast record of memories of academic discussions supports the diffusion of the immense content being produced at the AA.
The Terraced Houses That We Inhabit
The school environment on the other hand is very different. The campus is an agglomeration of historic houses, five stories each, situated in Bedford Square, a quiet refuge that is just a 5 minute walk from the chaos of Oxford Street. The idiosyncratic quality of “found” spaces is a landmark of the school. Bedrooms converted into studios, “L”-shaped auditoriums made of multiple rooms, and shared terraces give the spaces an air of being “domestic rather than institutional, unusual for a school,” says Ana when comparing it to the modernist building of UFMG (Universidade Federale de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte) where she completed her undergraduate studies.
Going from the model shop to the cafeteria or the library – which has more than 45,000 titles – is a “labyrinthine and confusing process,” says Belo-Horizonte-born Ricardo de Ostos, Unit Master of Intermediate 3. Students get lost in the corridors and sometimes it is easier to exit one of the buildings, walk down the street and re-enter through another building, instead of moving through the interior. The intimate dynamics and collateral conversations that the buildings provide come to be as much a part of the educational experience as any technical workshop.
Students in the digital prototyping lab using laser-cutting machines, 3D printers and CNC machines. There is also a workshop for wood, metal and casting.
Image credit: Valerie Bennett
“The heart of the school is the bar,” continues Ricardo, “where I can be at a table drinking coffee and reviewing work with a student, and Zaha Hadid or some curious outsider can pass by.”
The infrastructure of the buildings is in a process of constant amelioration. It was only as recently as 2013 when the row of houses were internally connected. The library, which only has 42 seats, is a reoccurring target of criticism for the lack of space. Future plans include expanding this space as well as the digital prototyping laboratory, a fabrication yard and a new auditorium.
Students can also take advantage of a campus located in Dorset, Southern England – Hooke Park – dedicated to projects that require “hands-on” large-scale making, as well as a programme of short visiting schools organised by AA tutors and local partners in more than 50 cities.
A Flexible Curriculum
The focus of pedagogy are small studios (with approximately 10-14 students each) focused around a single tutor or a team for a period of one year. Students sign up to the different studios freely – conditioned only to individual interviews and number of places – where the main theme to be developed is defined over the year.
Students of consecutive years share the same studio choices, which is supplemented by complementary studies in the disciplines of History & Theory, Technical and Media Studies. This interchange not only encourages the exchange of experience between students from different years but also promotes the questioning of crystallised concepts by newly-entering students.
Each studio has its own way of assessing projects throughout the year. Each term the school organises an open jury where every unit and programme has the opportunity to present the concepts of a selection of projects to the school and invited guests. There are no grades, but simply “pass” or “fail”, with distinctions and awards given to projects considered exceptional.
Students begin with first three years of study to achieve their Part 1 degree, and then have the option to stop for a year of internship, before returning to complete the final two years of the undergraduate degree, leaving with a Part 2 Diploma. The professional system in the UK still requires supervised work experience of at least two years before students can sign their own projects and use the title “architect.”
Diversity and Experimentation in Academic Production
Each studio follows different veins of research, valuing the investigative process as much as the final product. Most tutors conduct their own activities complementarily to the school and the work produced by the students, usually of their choice, tends to give continuity to some of the concerns, methodology or rigour of these activities.
Ana’s unit (Intermediate 2), for example, praises projects that “reinterpret historical elements of architecture” with emphasis on experimenting with manual techniques, such as plaster casting, gilding, acetone printing, hand drawing and charcoal sketches. Ricardo’s students, on the other hand, develop dreamy or speculative inventions, not necessarily executable in practice, using prototypes generated by parametric computing, laser cutting machines, 3D printers and CNC plotters.
Ricardo de Ostos’ students present their projects at a jury. Each unit (10-14 students) is focused around a theme for a period of one year.
Image credit: Valerie Bennett
It is at the intersection between the individual immersion in the discoveries of the studio-like unit system and the school-wide critical debate that students operate. For Ricardo, “what is interesting is the ‘middle-ground’ where a dialogue is created between the academic diversity and avoiding the risk of ideological trenches”, referring to the open juries and encounters at the bar. Among the achievements of students and tutors alike, “there is the presupposed expectation to know who will be the next Koolhaas,” he concludes.
The selection process to enter the school is based on the submission of a portfolio followed by a personal interview. Although there are opportunities for scholarships, analysed on an individual basis combining merit with need, the annuity of R$ 75,000 plus the cost of living in one of the most expensive cities in Europe, makes the AA somewhat inaccessible. However if this is a barrier, as it is for most from less fortunate backgrounds, one can still participate in discussions via the prolific agenda of public events at the school as well as free channels available through the AA website.
The work of Brazilian tutors:
Juliana Muniz Westcott: Urbanizing Coque
After completing a graduate course at the AA, Juliana switched sides, putting on her tutor hat. The Recife-born architect organised a workshop for students of the same course, in her hometown, that explored “the potential to re-qualify the ‘Minha Casa Minha Vida’ federal programme along with other urban programmes such as the PAC and the local economy, in the neighbourhood of Coque”. In collaboration with UFPE, students from both institutions were divided into mixed groups and developed, for a period of 10 days, alternative strategies to the expulsion of residents of informal settlements to the periphery of the city. “One of the proposals was to combine new housing typologies with the generic houses of MCMV,” says Juliana, “providing diverse dwellings and strengthening existing links and resources on site.” Juliana is now preparing to initiate, along with James Westcott from OMA and fellow AA Alumnus Jan Nauta, the AA visiting school in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
Ricardo de Ostos, Things That Never Were
Students of the Belo-Horizonte-born tutor, who teaches along with German architect Nannette Jackowski, work at the intersection between prototypes aided by software and speculative research. This year Ricardo challenged his students, with reference to the concepts of Lebbeus Woods, to create fictitious worlds derived from a study trip to Cambodia. Student Maya Laitinen used such activities as the basis for investigating the Boeung Kak urban lake, located in the capital of the country. The lake has been recently desert-ified for the expansion of real estate development, forcing 4,000 families to be displaced. “Her Technical Studies investigated the flotation of hot-air balloons and an analysis of cultural trends of the fishing community,” explains Ricardo, “which informed the idea of relocating the families vertically in bamboo structures suspended by hot-air balloons. The proposed floating village would adapt automatically to climate changes in the region and occupy the granted 12% of the real estate lot.”
Collage showing the proposal for a floating neighbourhood above a lake in Cambodia. The Technical Studies takes on the structural quality of air and an analysis of cultural trends in the fishing community.
Drawing by Maya Laitinen
Ana Araujo, The Language of Flowers
The studio of Belo-Horizonte-born Ana and Japanese architect Takero Shimazaki takes formal experimentation as the starting point to develop poetic and sensitive proposals. After visiting a baroque palace on the Italian island of Sicily, students examined, reproduced and redesigned found architectural elements – domes, stairways, corridors – to create interventions in London. Anton Gorlenko’s project stands out for its exhaustive investigation on the formal language of stairways in a total of 88 images, drawings and models. “Utilizing plaster casting workshops,” says Ana, “Anton transformed the stairways of Andrea Palladio into doors or embedded them in a triangular lot between two buildings.” The project is based on the narrative of it being a house to his own grandfather, a former swimmer, and combines the material exercises done throughout the year to remodel an old bath house in central London.
Formal studies of stairs with acetate printing and plaster models. The project combines material exercises done throughout the year to remodel an old bath house in central London.
Drawing by Anton Gorlenko
Franklin Lee, Liquid Design
When not busy with his own office, the São-Paulo-born Franklin Lee and his wife, the French-American Anne Save de Beaurecueil, direct the AA visiting school in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The latest edition of the 10-day workshop attracted 20 students from various parts of Brazil and around the world to the city of Rio de Janeiro. Installed in a warehouse in the port area, students learned analogue techniques from carnival samba schools, which were then coupled with digital parametric models to generate architectural geometries. “The idea is to combine the low-tech of existing materials with the high-tech of digital tools,” says Franklin. The final product was a kind of canopy composed of flexible PVC components moulded by thermoforming machines. “There is a political element,” adds Franklin, “to make the port life, so overlooked in the city, visible through design.”
For more information:
Original article for AU, digital version (in Portuguese)
Ana Araujo, INTER 2
Ricardo de Ostos, INTER 3
Juliana Muniz Westcott, AA Visitng School Rotterdam
Franklin Lee, AA Visitng School Rio de Janeiro