SPOT THE DETAIL Review
by Sue Barr, Head of the AA Digital Photostudio
27 December 2013
Architectural Association, London
On the occasion of the AA's Birthday celebration in October this year, a competition was held to identify spaces around the school from photographs taken of specific details. These 16 photographs were intriguing, beautiful black and white compositions that piqued our curiousity but proved much harder to find than we originally thought. In the busy day-to-day running of the AA, we often hurry through corridors, rush past rooms and grab quick conversations on stairways, failing to observe our surroundings in any detail. These unique, surprising and specific intersections of old and new, rough and smooth, metal and glass, curved and straight, are hidden in plain sight. To find out more we met with Sue Barr who took these photographs, and in the images below, she finally reveals where exactly these strange junctures can be found in and around the school.
[caption id="attachment_2612" align="alignnone" width="360"] A roof light detail from 39 Bedford Square[/caption]
"This series of details came about because Brett (Steele, AA Director) asked me to take some photographs of the weird and wonderful details that comprise the school. The AA is something that we are so familiar with and we know it so well as a space. But the thing is, it's like anything that you’re really familiar with, you don't really see it anymore - its like a family member, you don’t really know what they look like any more.
[caption id="attachment_2607" align="alignnone" width="360"] The weird pipe in the Admin corridor[/caption]
What’s interesting about this building is - I don’t want to use the word quirky because its a terrible word - but its such a funny old building, its got such odd corners. The image that Brett was really inspired by was this one here, which is on the floor of the administrative offices, just outside his office. There’s this pipe that goes into the wall, this weird tube - I think he has always been quite intrigued by that detail so that prompted this idea of trying to find details. The thing is, when I was shooting them I thought they were quite easy but when the competition actually took place most people were looking at them and had no idea where any of them were.
[caption id="attachment_2621" align="alignnone" width="360"] The staircase leading from the bar to the terrace with the last remaining pink dot![/caption]
I heard apocryphal stories about one student in Diploma who had gone around and found loads of the details. There was supposed to be a book voucher to accompany successfully identifying each of these photographs so what I did to keep track of this was to put a small pink dot very near where I took the original photograph. Actually this image is underneath the staircase just outside the bar; it's the staircase which goes up to the terrace and the pink sticker’s still there!
[caption id="attachment_2619" align="alignnone" width="360"] The curved desk in Admissions[/caption]
We don’t really look at the details of the building, we’re so busy thinking of the details we’re designing in our heads or talking to people in front of the details that we just completely miss them. I tried to choose details which were in places that were familiar. Like this one, its the desk in the the original registrar’s office (now Admissions) where Marilyn used to be. The desk has got this amazing, quite unusual curve in it and that’s the carpet on the floor. I thought I would discover more stories along the way but because I did it on my own, I was just running around, going into people’s offices and furtively looking for details. Many times they did raise questions - for example, I have no idea why this desk is curved in this way but it would be nice to know. I imagine that a student or a tutor made this desk.
[caption id="attachment_2616" align="alignnone" width="360"] The handrail running along the wall between the First Year Studio and Reception[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_2618" align="alignnone" width="360"] The whale sticker on the door into the wood and metal workshop[/caption]
The whale stickers were an image that was quite intriguing - that’s in the AA workshop - Tris (Smith, AA modelshop) might have put those stickers up years ago - apparently he used to put stickers everywhere over the machines and random objects so that’s one remnant of that period. I wanted them all to be slightly obscure but I think maybe I made them too hard.
[caption id="attachment_2609" align="alignnone" width="360"] The pipes in Brett's assistant's office[/caption]
This is funny - these pipes - the school is full of strange pipes and valves that don’t really go anywhere. This one is actually in Brett’s assistant’s office so as you talk to her, you can actually see it. If there was some map of all the pipework in the school, I wonder if it would make any sense. But that’s what’s so charming about the building - these unexpected juxtapositions of these things that we know really well yet often don’t process while walking past.
[caption id="attachment_2611" align="alignnone" width="360"] The melted tarmac on the terrace near the Back Member's Room[/caption]
When choosing the details to shoot, it was a balance between some which I had noticed previously and others that after having been given the brief, I began to discover more and more. This one here which was taken on the terrace is wonderful because it looks like this tarmac-like material that’s melting. It’s near the back member’s room and its something that I’ve always noticed. But when I started taking the pictures, I really tried to re-look at the building and look at the stuff that we see every day but don’t really notice.
[caption id="attachment_2613" align="alignnone" width="360"] A detail from Reception near the staff pigeon holes[/caption]
This one is in the AA Reception, just above the pigeonholes - once somebody tells you it becomes obvious where it is. I tried to find other things just by looking for them.
[caption id="attachment_2615" align="alignnone" width="360"] A moulding detail from the AA Bookshop[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_2620" align="alignnone" width="360"] A detail of the glass door that leads into the New Soft Room[/caption]
This is a detail from the AA Bookshop, while this is the glass door detail leading into the New Soft Room.
[caption id="attachment_2622" align="alignnone" width="360"] The new door to a terrace created by Intermediate Unit 10 in 2012-13[/caption]
This is from the space created by Valentin’s unit (Intermediate Unit 10) when they knocked through the walls of the second rear presentation space to create a new terrace.
I wanted to do a series revealing the location of where the different detail photographs were taken since I thought it was important to reveal how these details are in fact hidden in plain sight. In a school full of architects obsessed with details, we often don’t recognise the details around us. This building is so intricate that you can go down a rabbit warren of details, every space has got a strange detail. And more appear every day - like the fake door in front of the new wall that extended the Digital Prototyping Lab earlier this year - that’s what the building is about. If we were in some horrible office building, the spirit of the place would be lost. It’s what is so amazing about the AA as a constantly shifting landscape.
[caption id="attachment_2614" align="alignnone" width="360"] The staircase to nowhere, a detail left behind in the building works to extend the top floors of the buildings lining Bedford Square[/caption]
These strange details are often because of the new and the old coming together, things changing and the school itself growing and morphing into a new version of itself. I was surprised no one found this one - this is the bizarre staircase that is suddenly truncated as it intersects the floor - the carpeted staircase by Via Christina that was filled in when they opened up the corridor along all the top floor Diploma unit spaces. That’s what’s so fantastic about this staircase to nowhere - to me you read it as a piece of installation art. It looks like something you would see in a gallery rather than a strange detail in an architecture school.
[caption id="attachment_2610" align="alignnone" width="360"] The grill of the fireplace in the Registrar's office[/caption]
I wanted to shoot one in the bar but that was really hard since the bar is almost too well known. I did do a detail of the black shelving unit behind the bar because when the shelving is open they use a wooden wedge, like a doorstop, to keep the cupboards open. I photographed that but aesthetically it was too black since I had already done an image of Marilyn’s fireplace which was super black so I didn't end up using it for the competition.
[caption id="attachment_2617" align="alignnone" width="360"] A roof exit ladder detail in the space leading to the Print Studio[/caption]
I thought of them as a collection rather than singular details, they’re all typologies. There are two scales of composition - one at the detail level and then zooming out and seeing them in context with the reveal images. I wonder if its harder to identify them because they are part of a collection of details so you start to read them as such rather than pinpointing their exact position within the school. They are not just hidden in plain sight but also hiding within this collection.
[caption id="attachment_2608" align="alignnone" width="360"] A detail from the graduate school building above the terrace[/caption]
The spot the detail competition has made more of an impact than I realised. Its a good way to make people more observant of their surroundings. Also the pink spots that were dotted around the school were a new layer or addition into the ever-changing space of the school. I like the idea of the spot that is still there that now becomes a new detail within the AA context with its own implied folklore."
For more information:
The original images from the Spot the Detail competition can be found framed along the Admin corridor on the 2nd floor of 36 Bedford Square
Sue Barr's photography will be on show in the Front Members' Room in January
Sue Barr's PhD - The Architecture of Transit
The AA Birthday Party 2013 schedule
An article about the AA Birthday