THE QUESTION OF HONOURSInterview
Barbara Campbell-Lange, AA Academic Coordinator
(originally published in AArchitecture 20)
17 October 2013
Architectural Association, London
Firstly, how do you think the AA buildings influence the quality of work?
To be taught in a Georgian house, a home, in rooms with fireplaces and moulded ceilings, in the centre of London, is exceptional. To know that great thinkers and makers have walked the same stairs before us and that others will follow, is to understand a continuity of which we are part. The high-ceilinged drawing rooms overlooking the Square, connected to the idiosyncratic mews at the back via the network of un-designed bridge-pieces allow, through juxtapositions and awkwardnesses, glimpses and serendipitous meetings between students, staff and visitors that might otherwise not occur. In this way the building influences, and causes influences: it is the very nature and imperfection of the architecture that creates the AA community. Rubbing up against each other, against difference, against history, is essential to the formation of ideas: impossible people and situations are essential to creativity. I dread visiting most ‘purpose built’ schools as they presuppose education. I am interested in usurping presupposition.
Can you explain your role as Academic Coordinator?
I was thinking about this recently in relation to the new Smith Passage, ‘the longest Georgian corridor in the world’, which links all eight buildings, 32–39 Bedford Square. It creates the most extraordinary cross-section of levels and skylights under the eaves, joining the school together in an understated, peculiar and useful way. In some ways as Academic Coordinator I operate as a sort of cross-section of the AA myself, connecting different parts of the school together. I was a student at the AA, a member of the AA Council, an External Examiner, a Unit Master twice (Diplomas 1 and 14). Having studied, worked and taught in Europe and the States yet keeping a flat above Goodge Street station for more than thirty years, I have come to know many sides of the school. As an architect I query the profession; as a teacher I question the discipline. My personal preoccupation is with architectures that revolve around the nature of being, that think about ‘spatial prosodies’ and ‘non qualities’ of time. I generally take the back door, the back stairs, Frost’s ‘path less travelled’. I favour generosity, bravery and effort. I try always to listen and where possible, make things possible.
How does the AA’s means of assessment influence the school?
At the AA work is assessed collectively through dialogue. That it is argued about and passionately disputed seems to embody the essence of a civilised and democratic education. Debate between students, between student and tutor, and between tutors, establishes a common ground of difference across the discipline. Disagreement is essential – it lies at the heart of ideas: it is the very material we work with, that we must work with, at the AA. Conversations are the reason to be here: our work is the materialisation of conversation. At the AA we only offer Pass or Fail. This is a fundamental and crucial principle that dates back to the founding of the school in 1847 and distinguishes the AA from all other schools of architecture. It is for other schools to skirmish over percentage assessments – I simply don’t believe that subjective judgements can be categorised in this way. Work is either good enough or it’s not and this can be identified regardless of taste, style, subject, medium or mode. This ability to recognise quality is what we teach, across all units; how to ask the right questions, how to make judgements. As tutors and students, we are learning all the time: this is a dynamic condition that occurs between us and is, to a large extent, ineffable and unmeasurable in any conventional sense.
What criteria underpin an AA Honours project?
‘Honours’ is the democratic acknowledgement of merit. In my opinion the fundamental criteria for an AA Honours project have not changed over the years. The work must challenge preconceptions. It must exceed its unit, its tutors, its origins, its language and reach a brink of collapse. These projects are not seamless or slick, they have rough edges that reveal potential. The best projects are deeply personal and engage the unexpected. They cause us as tutors to recognise something never before seen. Intuition meets intellect, the verbal meets the nonverbal, the concrete coexists with the abstract, and the physical blurs with the metaphysical. This work gives more, dares more, risks more. It momentarily touches something sacred.
Can you comment on the design process leading to Honours?
I do not believe that the greatest work is achieved without a struggle. Doubt, often extreme self-doubt, is part of the creative process, and it is important to realise that tutors doubt themselves and their work as much as students. Disappointment, mostly with oneself, is part of making things, making anything, and part of moving forward, though it often doesn’t feel like forward! I once heard a sermon preached on the subject of disaster. The etymology of the word ‘disaster’ comes from ‘dis-aster’, to be separated from the star that guides you. I sometimes think when all is seemingly lost, or disastrous, it is because we have lost our raison d’être, or we have lost sight of what really matters. Often this has to do with understanding different scales of time and how these interplay. Contrary to convention I think there is always enough time, it is just a matter of recalibrating values.
Is there such a thing as an Honours student?
Honours at the AA represents a particular moment, a particular afternoon in June when a particular project, a particular delivery, a particular nuance captures something that is shared and agreed upon by the tutors. But we all know it’s a point in time. There are many fine projects, many fine minds in other stages of development that will become remarkable, special, important, unusual, discovered and recognised in time. There are many right answers and it must be remembered that the condition of making things – ideas, objects, buildings, relationships – is forever unfolding. I think the greatest honour is to teach and to teach at the AA: to engage the minds, the trust, the generosity and the tolerance of our students in the collaborative effort to reach for something we don’t quite yet know. Like T S Eliot, I can only say ‘there we have been: but I cannot say where.’
For more information:
Read AArchitecture 20 online
AA Honours Recipients