Zaha Hadid, Dalibor Vesely, Peter Wilson
Ideal Practice: Architecture and Education
Date: Thursday 20 June 1996
A symposium jointly organised by the AA and the Alvin Boyarsky Memorial Trust to coincide with the publication of The Idea of the City, in memory of AA Chairman Alvin Boyarsky. The publication evolved from a 1990 symposium on the city held at the AA in celebration of Alvin's life. 'Ideal Practice: Architecture in Education' is structured around Alvin's role in setting up an alternative model to the relationship between architectural education and architectural practice. Moderated by Robin Middleton, the symposium includes short presentations by Zaha Hadid, Dalibor Vesely, and Peter Wilson.
NICHOLAS BOYARSKY: Before being a book, the content had the status of an underground publication in Xerox form, as the economic support came unfortunately very late. Its theme is education, in which Alvin was certainly interested. Education allowed to take an architectural idea to the edge, to an extreme and then see where it could go. His contribution to that realm might be to have taken the risk of freeing a situation from ordinary controls: academic, administrative controls, for instance, and then allowing a culture to take place. I have decided to open this event with a quote of a conversation Alvin had with Rodrigo Pérez Gómez in 1983: it is entitled anti-curriculum: "I've always felt that curriculum is a horrific thing. It's a rigid pattern, it's done and other people have to carry it out, and like this they walk around in each other's shoes, like dead men. This has a stuntifying effect on the teachers, and after a while, teaching becomes really automatic. It seems to me that the students respond with a low level of energy as a result. The opposite of this is a kind of anarchy, which I believe in wholeheartedly. The best definition of anarchy is that people are responsible for their own welfare and their own progress through society and life, with a minimum of hindrance. I'm an anarchist, in the following sense: you set up a situation which is well serviced and you provide a platform for teachers that teachers work on their own script, their own activities, propositions, and problems. Teachers quite often produce open-ended situations. This is the kind of anarchy which I think is healthy. It's not a destructive anarchy. People don't throw bombs at each other, but it is a sort of anarchy that individuals contribute to the sum of activity and the work of the school. Everybody is inventing all the time. It is often stated that the world of the AA changes every three or four years, and looks entirely different. I don't see it that way, I see incremented change all the time, it is a cast of characters, it is a development of the individual teachers and of the individual students. From my point of view, it can be corrected by adding someone who believes in 'this,' or who does 'that.' Although it is volatile, self-correcting and has its own energy, it is also in a way, manipulable. I can manipulate it just a little bit by adding something from someone. I think that is the basis of the anti-curriculum."
ROBIN MIDDLETON: I would like to start by talking about the teaching of history in architecture, which I understand can provide a basis for the understanding of the possibilities of architecture, which have changed remarkably in my lifetime, and particularly at the AA. When I was first trained as an architect, history was a very rudimentary affair, in a way. I went to a school of architecture which had been sustained on the ideals of Le Corbusier, thus its history course was focused entirely in ancient Greece and on the Italian Renaissance. Unfortunately, one would not have contact with any real architecture. This was mediated through Banister Fletcher, which meant reducing all architecture to some miserable diagrams appearing in one page containing plan, section, elevation and some details of the column. That does not take one very far. Locally, there were people like Rudolf Wittkower, who wrote a book called 'Architecture Principles in the Age of Humanism' or Colin Rowe, who changed the whole way of thinking about architecture itself and architecture in relation to architecture in the past. He offered a whole way of looking at a buildings as well. When I started operating in general studies at the AA, Alvin was not just encouraging risk (as Nicholas Boyarsky mentioned), he was in fact opening up all possible ranges of choice. Choice is a very important aspect of the whole teaching here, both in general studies and in the unit system. If one looks at the events list of the time, there was far too much happening: up to three lectures every night. But there was not very much of a common culture, there was a sudden diversity, too many new people in London at the same time and nobody knew where to place them. In that situation people had to learn to decide what they wanted and needed. Alvin did set up this extraordinary situation, there was a sort of free hand on who came and went. It was a whole realm of profusion. One cannot be ultimately sure that it worked. But it certainly was an antidote to the structured, doctrinaire approach and a way to allow divergent opinions. The units under Alvin ceased to be isolated, as they had been previously, they interacted in healthy dialogs and angry arguments. In the unit system this worked, but I am not quite sure that in terms of history. Peter Smithson, for instance, complained, and he would not come to the school. After a certain time, I asked him why and he said: "it's just a circus, everybody does their own thing, there is no coherence, they have not thought through what they are doing in any way." There was also disbelief, reaction against the system. But in the years when history was taken up and miserably misused—I think it is called postmodernism or something like that—Charles Jencks was lecturing here twice a week to a packed lecture hall. Despite the fact that Charles used the most seductive imagery, straight from wherever it was, before any of the magazines had published it, the students resisted postmodernism in an extraordinary way: they did exercise choice. Perhaps in the situation of 'having too much' there was an underlying sensibility, in which people knew what was worth. Another side of the whole problem, what it is really sadly lacking is the architectural historians. Architecture history is in an extremely rudimentary state, even today. There has not been a buildup of theory and ideas of how one might begin to understand architecture at all. In the end, architecture has more to offer architecture historians, than architecture historians have to offer architects.
ZAHA HADID: I was surprised by the title of this symposium, 'Ideal Practice;' as I think that dentists practice, whereas architects do other things. I joined the AA in 1972 with other 120 students in first year. An idea prevailed, that if you are confronted with continuous chaos, you learn something, and many of us revolted against that at the time. The course was divided in four cycles (they were not called units): one was to do the bus, other was to mess around somewhere in Camden; a third one was about messing with one professor, and the last one was going to Wales. We all ended up in doing furniture, then we cleaned the warehouse for about two weeks, and other of us had to draw. Then, the idea of drawing was a taboo; it was anti-design, anti-architecture, anti-drawing. Then there was a group of students who were doing the bus, which included tearing it into pieces to put it in the yard. Some of us revolted, went to Alvin and told him that we wanted to design buildings; he thought that was ridiculous, but they eventually provided us an space in the street—because we were not to be part of the school. That was an interesting and exciting moment, given that we had to do seminars on buildings, architects and architecture. Then we realized that that kind education—out of chaos—can provide a degree of fluidity and freedom. Regarding this, I do not believe that knowledge prohibits creativity. It has been very important to the AA to question what is the creative process, what is creativity, and how do we actually produce ideas or develop ideas that eventually will have an impact on the world. I am critical of the idea of the school that to be interesting is to remain in the margin, as I think that architecture is fundamentally about improving the way we live, and that is our agenda. The AA provides with a kind of platform, enabling research, but lacks both the participation of the general public, and ability to effectively communicate so they can understand it. When I finished in 1977, many of us were unemployable, however, I went to an office in Charlotte street; only to decide I will never work in a British practice again. In the late 70s, or early 80s, Alvin made the conscious decision to shift what we called 'metaphysical working' to actually building, and he became interested as well in how ideas generated in the school can become part of the mainstream. When I decided to quit teaching in the AA, in 1985, I had to make clear that it was not because of lack time, but due to the fact that the school no longer supported the products of the units. Beyond that, I have been extremely critical of the AA and other schools, and their indulgement in those things that are not a project, such as observation, which is not a project, but one layer of it; history courses alike. This layering process is only possible in certain places; the AA could have it in a very dynamic, organic way. The AA should take more advantage of being anti-institution; of not having a University over it, as without one, it doesn't have a political system: it is totally dynamic. In this sense, the scape from the AA that ARTNET provided in the 70s was very crucial. On the history courses I have to confess, I never did a paper in the AA, but it never yelled, because it was not intertwined with the units. I am interested in the electronic age and I do not know how it is going to interfere in the way we think; my skepticism is how to use that so we can generate ideas. Education is at the crossroads, as it can have an impact on the way we do projects.
DALIBOR VESELY: I would avoid nostalgia of the 1980s and 90s. A time when going around the top floor of this building, from one door to the other, around the 70s and 80s, it would be possible to meet Rem (Koolhaas), Zaha, Bernard Tschumi, among others, it looked like a jungle or like a market. What Alvin really meant with this, I still don't understand it, but I wouldn't call it anarchy. It can be explained as a shared ground that as soon as it starts happening, it crystallizes into something else. Peter Cook, in conversation would say: "It's all fine, but literacy is very crucial." Coming back to Alvin, I remember several times when he would say: "As you go here, through this floor, there are wonderful people around here, you know, and what this is all about is" (he would make a pause here and inhale deeply) "is the kind of culture that goes with it." He meant something quite interesting. He was very puzzled, intrigued, fascinated by this field of possibilities. They committed to create something which he understood as Europe; and as a contrast to the land where he came from: the tough Chicago, and Montreal. There is a dimension to this of a very difficult consistency, difficult to grasp; I would compare it to the stability of the Italian political system, where the government changes almost every year, but it has, however, the most stable political system in Europe. One culture that I can speak for was one under development around certain studios. On the one hand, there was people like Daniel Liebeskind, someone who is not possible to fully understand (and he wanted to make clear that you never will): he would be the agent provocateur. On the other hand, someone like Peter Wilson: who does not say much, but watched very carefully what he was doing. Like this, it was possible to go beyond the superficiality and stupidity that aesthetic concerns sometimes bring about. What I think it is going to be the most prominent issue to deal with is twofold: on the one hand: virtual possibilities, simulation, digital information civilizations and so on, and on the other hand there is a territory that we have simply inherited from our friends, collaborators etc, which is our own kind of culture. The grey zone in between is the business of mediation: how to come to terms in an imaginative and poetic way with what it is available around, and still keep in mind that there is a deeper part, that cannot be named or labelled. I would refer to this as the domaine of the plausible poetry. There is a counterpart to the constructivist-deconstructivist wave, which is what Rem Koolhaas named 'after surrealism.' Particularly referring to issues like "crisis of an object," we are now moving into crisis of a situation, where the question of poetry will be posed in a much more radical way. As Breton put it: "the beauty is going to be convulsive or it is not going to be at all." The game is very open now for people to walk in, and civilize it. To do this, some sort of equipment is needed: a bit of intelligence—what Zaha just called knowledge, and Alvin calls culture—is desperately needed in order to survive. AA has a chance to do it, as it did avoiding to fall into postmodernism. It is very easy to use computers nowadays, it is very easy to walk around and talk poetic language.
PETER WILSON: The issue we all face today, in terms of the direction of education, was very well worded by Zaha: "it is not just about having ideas, but about achieving them." Because of Alvin, there is an AA family, of whose tradition, we are either partakers or inheritors. I was part of the first generation who studied diploma under Alvin's system of units; we graduated 23 years ago. In our fourth year there was not a unit system, we were taught by Dalibor. He would always say, when looking at a project: "you have missed the point." Which relates very much to Alvin, as you would never hear him say "that is good," he always said "next time better." I would like to start with a quote from Mies: "Besides an understanding of the nature of materials, and the nature of purposes, a timely architecture must also inquire into the spirit of the position in which we stand, and must learn the carrying and driving forces on our time." Alvin's approach had a lot to do with this definition of our time. The collapse of methodological functionalism generated an ideological vacuum. There was an intact professional structure, unlike today: today there is no profession to react against. The position Alvin took was reactionary, precisely because there was something there to fight. This idea of the avant garde is simply not possible today: neither in art, nor in architecture, as it is essentially a counter statement. Today we have a media, which immediately absorbs any criticism and makes it part of the system: we cannot step outside that, we cannot today be avant-garde, we have to develop other strategies. The early 70s, when Alvin moved to the AA, was an important time that signaled the end of the phase of positive utopias, which had been the first part of the modernist trajectory. Alvin was revitalizing the modernist trajectory, even if no one realized at the time. Very accurately, Alberto Perez Gomez called it the age of incomplete nihilism: a time when we liked to tell each other frightening stories, to talk in a cataclysmic sense about the present, and to read Baudrillard. It is the time when the word alternative was completely gone to death. Alvin set out on a different trajectory, in order to revitalize and reconstitute architecture, not in terms of practice, but in terms of a discipline of thought. His method involved an initial suspension of one of Mies's tenets: the one of purpose. Alvin defined architecture not in terms of purposes, but as self-authenticated. Anything was possible, students were left in the lead. It was all about trajectory finding. In the 80s trajectories were found and explored in depth. Among the successes of this experiment, there are a number of buildings across the world which would not be there if Alvin had not brought certain people together in the AA. There is a large project in Paris, an extra large building in Lille, town hall in Reykjavik, fire station in Vitra. That idea of architecture, which was propagated, is now ubiquitous, part of the culture of architecture. Another reading of success is done looking at students. I have trained a lot of good teachers, I think the AA produces fantastic teachers, but I must say that I have not seen a building of any of my students which really excited me and I read that as an enormous failure. Success number three is maybe the unit system as conceived by Alvin: this culture of conflict, of people that have to answer for themselves. This culture is part of the architecture culture as well, it exists in many other schools: Berlage, Columbia, and so on: it can be called the schools as a laboratory. The definition of architecture school as a laboratory is now true for architectural schools everywhere. When Alvin started the AA as a laboratory project, there were polytechnic schools, which do not exist anymore. One laboratory gives measure to everything else, but when everybody is doing scientific experiments, one starts wondering about who knows how to keep the rain out. In order to continue the trajectory of Alvin Boyarsky, one has to seek new directions, perhaps to abandon the idea of the avant garde and also the idea of infinite invention. In the discipline of architecture is not necessary to start always from scratch. In England, there is no profession to react against to; building is conditioned by the market or by heritage nervousness. We must stop the hermetic games. Most of the times practice is quite painful, but one has to get out there, enter the field, otherwise the game is lost. In Germany, only 3% of people who study architecture actually gets to build their own designs. In my office, we hire mostly people from the polytechnic, those who know how to draw a straight line. Of course, there are firms who need AA students, probably because they do not have their own ideas. Le Corbusier said “the architect is an acrobat and not a clown.” The questions of today are quite clear: the question of technology; the one of physical environment, which is changing so quickly we cannot put up with it most of the times. Today’s radical trajectory is perhaps to do simple things well. I would like to conclude with Richard Sennett, who wrote that "our society is drowning in simulations, and floating signifiers. A truly radical art today would restore our attachment to physical things.”
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