Building Audiences, not Architects or Buildings: The AA School 2009
In the transmission of human culture, people always attempt to replicate, to pass on to the next generation the skills and values of the parents, but the attempt always fails because cultural transmission is geared to learning, not DNA. Gregory Bateson, Steps Toward an Ecology of Mind The AA is a school that produces its share of great architects, designers or educators of immense stature, importance; even talent. However, our success, I suggest, is the result of something else entirely: the AA’s endless enthusiasm for imagining no less than making new and great architectural audiences, out of which unexpected personalities, projects and pedagogies are able to emerge, and eventually flourish. The AA is above all a convenor: an aggregator, collector and promoter – of new architectural ideas, ambitions, agendas presented to and not only evolved through audiences, crowds and groups of minds too numerous to count. The AA seeks these out, unhesitatingly. This, in the end, is our ultimate form of architectural genius: seeing ourselves less as an immutable institution, a place with a reputation, than as a long list of malleable platforms, venues, spaces and infrastructures, all seeking out new groups of inquisitive minds. It is from this that we are able to point to the emergence of successive generations of new and unexpected architectural ideas and talent.
The AA’s constant assembly of receptive groups and audiences does not just give expression to new and important architectural ideas, but provides them with the means to flourish beyond the walls of our Georgian buildings. It is through crowds, groups and assemblies of minds – specialist, technical or professional; public, private or in-between; interested, disinterested, even accidental – that architectural ideas and agendas evolve as part of our world, in a way that allows ideas to change that world. If such conditions don’t exist, ideas are concealed and uncommunicated in the individual mind, overlooked in an unopened portfolio, forgotten in a discarded design proposal or last season’s lecture notes. This ecology of learning is exactly what any great school (let alone teacher or student) really aspires too – the simultaneous expression and communication, even transmission, of ideas.
All AA audiences are spectacularly varied, fleeting, increasingly more public and more and more diverse. Taxi drivers passing our pavilions offer architectural commentary to fares in their back seats. International scholars gather in our lecture hall on rainy Saturday mornings, discussing 500 years of Palladio to classical enthusiasts. Party-crashers from across London keep the AA bar open late following exhibition openings. Software developers and material manufacturers donate their products in the hope that our students and teachers can uncover hidden possibilities. Schools abroad send their teachers to sit in on our end-of-year examination processes, and we in turn send our tutors out around the world for visiting school workshops, exhibitions and public forums. Students hack together wireless networks atop the AA’s infrastructure and send files across Europe in order to manage the fabrication or printing of project materials. AA graduates’ offices host student visits or internships. And I, like many others at the AA, travel around the world each year, presenting the work of our students to audiences far and wide, communicating what the AA is experimenting with, in order to reinvent architectural education.
Stacks of unit and programme booklets, portfolios, manifestos and other printed documents line the shelves of our library. The accessibility of the AA archive of drawings, videotapes and other materials is growing while work in production across the school is made available to audiences in school-wide open juries. Recently graduated and even prospective AA students present work to our tutors at stages most other schools ignore or omit entirely. Models, prototypes and large 1:1 installations hang off (or barely on) parts of our buildings, attracting interest and, occasionally, heated discussion. Experiments in Ching’s Yard sit exposed to the elements year-round; others evolve slowly, piece-by-piece, in our workshops.
At Hooke Park bridges, shelters, retreat spaces and other projects are visited regularly by Dorset locals and the AA community. AA Publications is selling a record number of AA books documenting our units and programmes, transforming last year’s portfolios into forms for yet other kinds of audiences around the world. A growing audience of late-night online visitors form a nearly invisible, constantly growing audience of users of our digital platforms, which in turn now contain thousands of images of student work, lecture videos, animations and photographs taken around the school right now.
On top of all this is our AA Public Programme, a spectacular series of public events dedicated to contemporary architectural culture including lectures by the world’s leading architects, scholars, critics and others. AA research clusters convene international design competitions, organise roundtables, symposia, exhibitions, performances and other events. The new AAIS Graduate Programme organised a Salon series of trans-disciplinary evening conversations, gave performances and erected a large-scale temporary theatre addition in Weimar. In 2008/09 we had units working across London; another installing a temporary cinema in Ethiopia; and others installing and exhibiting prototypes for crowds along the River Thames. Students have participated in conferences or biennials in Milan, Beijing, North America and many other places, and our installation at London’s Eco-build trade fair last spring drew the attention of thousands of visitors. What ties together these hugely diverse examples is their shared will to get the work and thinking from here out into the world, and vice versa.
Wherever you look at the AA today you will see the same thing: audiences, interaction, exchange. The portfolio of every single student lies at the centre of our school, not just their lives. In turn, these are best understood through the discussion, debate or forms of exchange that they provoke. My thanks above all to the more than 700 students and staff of the AA, and to the thousands of visitors and others no less essential to the equation I have described. What is ultimately on display is a collective imagination and sustained belief, alongside an incredible level of focus and attention, discussion and debate made possible by the audiences we have gathered around us, as part of what will become architecture’s future.
Director, Architectural Association School of Architecture