Abridged version of an introductory lecture to Archives For London & the Twentieth Century Society, February 2010
by Edward Bottoms; text and images copyright AA Archives
LectureVideo available online
The Architectural Association was founded in London in 1847 by a group of young articled pupils as a reaction against the prevailing conditions under which architectural training could be obtained. Unlike continental models such as the French L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, which imparted a degree of state-direction and control on architectural education, Britain with its liberal democracy and traditional fear of powerful centralised government had adopted a system of articled pupilage, whereby large premiums were advanced to private architects in return for imparting an education and training. This practise was rife with vested interests and open to abuse, dishonesty and incompetence. Against this backdrop, correspondence from two articled pupils, Robert Kerr and Charles Gray (aged just 23 and 18, respectively) were published in the Builder of 1846 proposing that if the state could not interfere with the private interest of architects by providing a systematic course of training, then perhaps the students themselves could … An existing, small association of architectural draughtsmen was rapidly absorbed and the first formal meeting held under the name of the Architectural Association was subsequently held in May 1847 in the premises of one of the oldest of the Inns of Chancery, Lyons Inn.
The broad aims of the AA at this stage consisted primarily of ‘the association on the largest scale, of the entire body of our professional youth, for the end of self education, and with the good trust of simple self-reliance.’ These aims were manifested through Friday evening meetings which alternated between papers given by members or invited guests and design sessions to which solutions to design problems would be brought for mutual criticism. Such meetings provided an arena in which students’ work could be subjected to evaluation and analysis and also afforded the opportunity for forging connections and friendships and acted as a forum for discussion, debate and campaigning. Indeed, it was in this context of petitioning from the AA that the RIBA’s Voluntary Examination in 1862 was established – the AA subsequently setting up its own Voluntary Exam class and, in the words of John Wilton Ely, ‘thus establishing for the first time the modern concept of systematic study tested by examination as the basis of an architect’s education.’ With the establishment of the Voluntary Exam Class also came an increased level of organisation and professionalism.
In 1859 the AA moved to larger premises, sharing 9 Conduit Street with the RIBA. Publicity and promotion was taken more seriously, with the annual publication of the AA’s prospectus or Brown Book and the formation of a library. Membership increased steadily and the social life of the AA flourished, the soirée and the annual dinner becoming key events within the calendar and forming semi-public forums for heated debate, protest and the exhibition of biting satire. In addition, a tradition of an annual excursion was established in 1870, destinations subsequently taking in the English counties and cathedral cities but also venturing on to the Continent, visiting Charente in 1875 and Italy in 1880. The relatively new medium of photography was embraced and alongside the AA Sketch Book (published 1867–1913, 1923) a series of photograph albums were printed which served to document many historic buildings and landscapes now lost.
The late 1880s also saw the Association’s first monthly journal, the AA Notes, provide yet another forum through which issues could be discussed, publications reviewed and events advertised. Fuelling such increased activities and dynamism was a vast expansion of student numbers which came with the introduction in 1882 of the RIBA’s compulsory exam. The rising numbers and the demands of the new examination system prompted the AA, at the turn of the 1890s to re-examine its ‘mutual’ system of study. Under its dynamic President, Leonard Stokes, the AA underwent a major structural reorganisation that laid the groundwork for a more systematic, methodical course of study and the eventual founding of a day school in 1901. As part of these reforms the AA moved to new premises in 1891, renting rooms in Great Marlborough Street. Nevertheless, space remained an issue and in 1902 the AA accepted the gift of the premises and collections of the Royal Architectural Museum, Tufton Street. This move provided much-needed classrooms but from the outset the Museum’s collections was viewed as old-fashioned curiosities by the School’s students. Tastes within the school had moved decisively away from the Gothic and by the mid 1890s an Arts and Craft-inspired Vernacular had gained the upper hand, with the AA even forming a School of Design and Handicraft in 1895.
Certainly by the middle of the 1900s there was a pronounced move towards the classical Beaux Arts model, a shift towards French and American models and climaxing in the ‘French Revolution’ of 1913 when Robert Atkinson was brought in as Head, employing staff from Parisian ateliers and from the 1st Atelier in Wells Mews. The First World War saw the AA actively encourage its members to join the Army; more than 600 volunteered, the regiment of choice being the 4th Battalion ‘Architects’. Casualties by 1919 amounted to 69 killed in action. During the war period, a number of important issues were dealt with at the AA. The question of admitting female students had been raised in 1893 and again in 1905, and was rejected on both occasions. Admittance was finally granted in 1918. Space had become a problem again, with the museum being considered unsuitable for teaching – the unused collections taking up three-quarters of the available room. The decision was therefore made to donate the casts to the V&A and sell the property, gaining £9000 and thus being able to afford to move in 1917 to Bedford Square.
While interest in US models of education continued after the war, the AA increasingly came under the influence of Dutch and Scandenavian architectural developments – and indeed played a huge part in introducing and publicising them in the wider UK architectural press. The leading figures in this were the AA Secretary and photographer Frank Yerbury, who travelled extensively, often in the company of the then Principal, Howard Robertson, who provided the text for numerous articles. Yerbury also organised and led the annual AA excursions, visiting Holland in 1922 and then Denmark and Sweden in 1925. It is noticeable, however, that while AA student work betrays the influences of Scandinavian brick modernism training remained firmly based around the esquisse, still involving the study of the orders. Indeed, the first real skirmishes over the continental French and German Modernism began to be fought within the school in the late 1920s. President Gilbert H Jenkins dedicating his 1927 annual address to a forceful rejection of the subject.
By the late 1930s, however, the AA became home to radical ideas of the Left and the UK’s first modernist school. As Elizabeth Darling has written, the combination of an exceptionally politically and socially motivated body of students, together with a series of new appointments and external pressure, led, in the space of a few short years to the banishment of the orders and effectively the remnants of the Beaux Arts system. This was replaced with a unit system, modernism, teamwork and, rather than the esquisse, the research and planning of new towns and slum clearances.
The turning point can be traced to 1935, with the appointment of E A A Rowse as Principal, who immediately set about bringing sociological methods of organisation and town planning to architecture. Opposition came in the form of the AA Council and Director of Education, H S Goodhart-Rendel. Matters came to a head in May 1938 when Rowse was dismissed and replaced by the French classicist Fernand Billerrey. The students’ reply came through their remarkable journal FOCUS, which operated as a mouthpiece for spreading their manifesto for educational change. That summer, forced by the prospect of complete internal conflict and strike action Goodhart-Rendal resigned. In truly dramatic fashion, at midnight during the end of term dance, it was announced that the unit system was to be retained … However, the process had seen the cherished student vote lost, effectively disenfranchising the founding body of the AA…
During the war the school evacuated to Mount House in Barnet, where numbers dwindled; female students outnumbered their male counterparts by 50 to 46 by 1944. Following the war, Raymond Gordon Brown, a Major from the Parachute Regiment, was appointed as Principal. As men and women from the services were gradually decommissioned, the student population increased to an unprecedented 461 by January 1947, the make-up of the enlarged student body fostering an extremely creative dynamic. School leavers worked alongside mature students ten years older than themselves, who had gained considerable experience during the war. Certainly the 1930s’ battle against the Beaux Arts curriculum was well and truly over – Brown was a card-carrying member of MARS and many of the generation of 1930s students were now employed on the staff.
Unfortunately some of the outstanding projects from the 1950s, such as the ‘Zone’ project of 1952 by Andrew Derbyshire, Pat Crooke and John Voelcker are not in the possession of the AA Archives. Nevertheless the process has begun of adding to our current holdings; one such acquisition being the student portfolio of John Toovey, which includes work produced in the inaugural year of the Department of Tropical Architecture. Begun in 1955 under Maxwell Fry, with James Cubbitt on the staff, and subsequently taken over by Otto Koenigsberger, the unit went on to become a unique and extremely important department with an international reputation – lasting until Koenigsberger’s resignation and its closure in 1970.
By the late 1950s the school was no longer so preoccupied with the politics of the left and was beginning to flirt with pop-culture and its new sense of irreverence and fun. A central figure in all this was, of course, Cedric Price, who graduated in 1957 and almost immediately started teaching in the school, his Fun Palace project dating from 1961/2. And then of course, as the swinging 1960s started and British music, fashion and film become globally successful, came Archigram, arguably the pre-eminent architectural neoavant-garde of the 1960s and early 1970s.
While Peter Cook was the only graduate of the AA, the school became known as the hub of Archigram whose members became incredibly influential on the AA staff. Indeed, as Andrew Higgott has written, ‘the AA was revolutionised by the Archigram group … with its colour, audacity and cheerful disregard of history, tradition and English good manners.’ Students such as Nicholas Grimshaw and Piers Gough, who graduated in 1965 and 1966, respectively, constituting what Peter Cook has termed the ‘Electric Decade’ at the AA …
Ever since the 1958 RIBA Oxford Conference on Architectural Education, the AA had been under increasing pressure to conform to the ‘Official System’, a programme which called for the standardisation of education and the integration of architecture schools into universities. Correspondingly, negotiations were begun in the early 1960s regarding a merger with Imperial College of Science and Technology. Meanwhile, the AA was in dire financial difficulty and faced the worrying prospect of the lease on Bedford Square running out in 1976.
Further, the majority of students and many of the staff were concerned that incorporation into the state-run university system would compromise the freedoms and independence that had characterised the history of the AA. In February 1971, as student and staff demands became ever more vocal, Imperial College broke off negotiations, citing concerns at the nature and intentions of the school community. Principal Michael Lloyd and the Council led by Jane Drew and John Denny prepared for closure and winding up of the school. However, students and staff mobilised in determination to keep the school open and a search committee for a new Chairman was established resulting in the election of Alvin Boyarsky, a visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago and director of the International Institute of Design, an itinerant architecture summer school.
From 1971 until his death in 1990, Alvin held autocratic sway over Bedford Square, transforming the AA into a major international cultural institution. With the removal from the AA of UK student grants, Boyarsky seized the opportunity, and indeed the necessity, to make the school a global concern, embarking upon a highly ambitious programme of exhibitions, catalogues and publications. The annual Projects Review and the Prospectus were likewise initiated to raise the school’s profile and publish its work on the international stage. Internally, Boyarsky modified the and extended unit system, creating a competitive marketplace, where tutors on one year contracts had to ‘sell’ their units to students – who in turn had to undergo a gruelling process of interviews. Boyarsky was no believer in a curriculum and tutors were given freedom to set their own agendas and to follow their own interests and manifestoes … The list of staff attracted to this hothouse atmosphere is phenomenal; Robin Middleton in charge of General Studies; Charles Jencks lecturing on semiotics; unit masters such as Elia Zhenghelis, Bernard Tschumi, Peter Cook, Dalibar Vasely, Joseph Rykwert and Daniel Libeskind. Outstanding students were co-opted on to the staff after their graduation; Zhengelis’s student Rem Koolhaas entered the teaching staff in 1975, with, in turn, one of his students Zaha Hadid joining the staff in 1978. Similarly, in Intermediate Unit 10 Bernard Tschumi was joined in 1977 by his student, Nigel Coates …
To come to more recent times at the AA, the last two decades have seen the undergraduate programme continue to flourish and grow. The school now has a total of 650 full-time equivalent students, 82 per cent of whom are from overseas. The Graduate School now has ten postgraduate programmes, including those dedicated to Emergent Technologies, Sustainable Environmental Design, Histories & Critical Thinking, Housing & Urbanism, Landscape Urbanism and the Design Research Lab. The tradition of self-governance and independence remains strong and healthy. Alan Balfour was elected to the post of Chairman following Alvin’s death in 1990, to be succeeded four years later by Mohsen Mostafavi. The school community vote was exercised again in 2004, followed by a year of introspection and search committees, resulting in the election of Brett Steele as Director. In terms of property, in 2002 the AA acquired Hooke Park, a 350-acre working forest in Dorset, with an educational facility consisting of innovative collaborations between ABK, Frei Otto, Buro Happold and Edward Cullinan. More recently, the AA has acquired the leases on 4 and 16 Morwell Street and 32, 33, 37, 38 and 39 Bedford Square, thereby creating a campus at the original London base of the AA.