Image credit: Samantha Lee/ AA XX 100[/caption] Oral history is an art form unlike any other interview, where you ask a question, which is echoed back by an answer… then a question, then another answer… and so on and so forth. Oral history is a practice and method of research2. The main focus when recording an oral history is to provide enough stimulus and structure to guide the conversation, to let the individual feel comfortable enough to tell their story and to mainly listen. People speak more fluidly and freely than they do write. Yet to sit someone down and ask them to tell you about their life story is an unusual and rare occurrence. For the listener, the act of listening to someone’s oral history is a privilege. As part of the AA XX 100 celebrations of the centenary of women at the AA from 1917-2017, we are recording oral histories with AA alumni, teachers and staff, men and women, past and present. To conduct these recordings we work as a team of three. Yasmin Shariff (the chair of AA XX 100) takes the lead on selecting, approaching and arranging the interview and acts as an interviewer. Samantha Lee (AA Dipl.2012) takes the lead on conducting and editing the photography and film footage to document the oral history, which Anouk Ahlborn (AA 4th year) now helps with as well. My role is as the lead researcher and the main interviewer. I record and compile the audio recordings for the AA archives. We work closely with the AA Archivist Edward Bottoms who provides support and guidance on conducting oral histories and on collecting the material for the archives. Also the AA XX 100 members Dr Lynne Walker (Architectural Historian) and Eleanor Gawne (AA Head Librarian) act as advisors. So far we have conducted seven interviews with Joyce Taylor (née Wilson), Inette Austin-Smith (née Griessmann), Jean Symons (née Layton), Patricia Bullivant (née Bowden), Patricia Hepple, Eldred Evans and Su Rogers (née Brumwell). These individuals have only had certain built projects, certain stories and certain facts told and published about their careers. Alongside these known stories, an oral history recording allows for the untold, unheard and undocumented activities to be captured and not forgotten. These histories are filmed, as well as recorded as audio. We take portrait photographs, with copies given to the AA Photo Library. Upon our visit the interviewee often donates their student work to the AA Archives. The material we are collecting is incredibly rich, wonderful and unique and will be kept in the AA Archives for researchers to use. This material is invaluable as a resource to understand the development of architectural history, the architectural profession and the AA as an architecture school. [caption id="attachment_4103" align="alignnone" width="360"] Eldred Evans
Image credit: Anouk Ahlborn/ AA XX 100[/caption]
Image credit: Samantha Lee/ AA XX 100[/caption] The props and known facts I collect act as memory triggers for specific topics. The props can include photographs, books, student work, diaries, articles and other memorabilia. For instance, Inette Austin-Smith held her magnifying glass up to each and every face in the photographs of the AA in the 1940s to see if she could recognise them. Indeed Inette found great delight in recognising her teachers, others students and she even recognised herself! This information will be passed onto the AA Photo Library to add to their records. The general structure of the interview is: - Life before the AA. This includes when they were born; their parents; any siblings; their childhood education and experiences; and finally what made them consider architecture as a career. - Time spent at the AA as a student. This includes their entrance interview; the subjects studied; memories of teachers; staff and their fellow students; their influences and role models; and their student life. - Their career after the AA: from graduation to the present. This general structure is tailored to each individual. For example Su Rogers was not a student at the AA, though she visited on a regular basis to have lunch in Ching’s Yard with her friends who were students here. At this time Su attended public lectures and the AA Carnival (by working to earn a ticket). She recalled one lecture by Max Lock about the marriage between music and architecture. Su studied Sociology at the nearby London School of Economics, before studying Town Planning at Yale. Later, Su became a design tutor at the AA and at the Royal College of Art in the 1970s. Each edited recording spans at least three hours but can stretch to four to five hours. We travel to the person's home or office to capture the individual in their natural environment, where they are at ease. There is a lot of ground to cover so we take our time. At the end of the recording the conversation comes to a natural end. [caption id="attachment_4106" align="alignnone" width="360"] Joyce Taylor's Oral History in progress with Yasmin Shariff and Hannah Durham
Image credit: Samantha Lee/ AA XX 100[/caption] The stories we are collecting are extraordinary not only for shedding light on the AA school in the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s (we are yet to cover the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s), but equally the broader lives of women and men as architects during these periods in England. Though women were first admitted as students to the AA in 1917, they were a minority for many years afterwards. These women are part of a small handful who at that time went on to become architects and designers and practice in their field. They are pioneers.
Image credit: Samantha Lee/ AA XX 100[/caption] These oral histories provide learning resources for the future. For current students listening they hear about the varied careers of former students (like themselves) to help them grapple with the question of ‘what’s next.’ For graduates and practising architects, they consider what they want their own oral history to be like. Collecting, listening and sharing these folklores strengthens the AA and the architectural community through many generations by making connections with our forebears. Each person we interview has enjoyed the opportunity to tell their oral history, just as much as we have enjoyed listening. As AA XX 100 we will continue to collect oral history recordings with AA alumni, teachers and staff members, past and present, men and women, until 2017. We hope that by then the AA archives, together with the recordings the archives are collecting, will house an extraordinary and completely unique collection of oral histories of many of the great British trained architects, designers, as well as teachers, thinkers and architectural staff members over the last century, all of whom are fellow members of the AA community. Endnotes: 1 A.Portelli , ‘Oral History as Genre’, in M.Chamberlain and P.Thompson (eds), Narrative and Genre: Contexts and Types of Communication (London: Routledge, 1998), p.23. 2 L.Abrams, Oral History Theory (London: Routledge, 2010), p.1 3 D.Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide (New York: second edition, Oxford University Press, 2003),p.86 For more information: AA XX 100 Website Like AA XX 100 on Facebook Follow AA XX 100 on Twitter AA Archives The 2015 AA XX 100 Lecture Series on AA Conversations AA XX 100 Transcription Workshop on AA Conversations AA XX 100 Launch on AA Conversations