AA booklets with a critical mission

The famous London Architectural Association School of Architecture has launched a new publication series entitled Architecture Words. Thomas Wensing read two volumes and doubts whether the critical aspirations of the AA have been achieved.

The Architectural Association (AA) is simultaneously unique and snobbish. This educational institute offers avant-garde architecture inside the straitjacket of an English gentleman’s club. This can be explained by its extraordinary historical origins, which makes the AA one of the few independent (and democratically run) institutes for higher education in the UK. That is why it is able to adopt a very critical stance, but also why it has to pay its own way and has to charge considerable tuition fees. The AA is therefore a critical elitist.

In those rare moments when I show my face, I invariably get the impression that it is a stimulating, but insular environment. I work in London myself and know from experience that we have to operate within a difficult and culturally conservative climate. The AA appears to have distanced themselves from this condition in two ways; on the one hand they have strengthened their international links, and on the other hand they have fled in the pursuit of process- and form driven digital architecture. In plain English this called the creation of ingenious but unnecessary and meaningless form. That there is also socially and societal relevant work being done is really only known to insiders, as this evidently is not something director Brett Steele is keen to advertise. Think in this respect for instance of the work of Simos Yannas, who did groundbreaking work into the application of solar energy and environmentally friendly building methods.

Fortunately it would now seem that the winds of change are blowing and the AA is increasingly aware of their original, critically intellectual mission. As a result in 2009, Architecture Words, a series of pocket-size critical booklets, was launched, in which the emphasis lies on content and not image, this, in the AA’s own words, to offer an antidote to contemporary image-driven architectural culture. The point of departure is obviously tricky: which architects do you select to offer a counterbalance to ‘contemporary architectural culture dominated by an endless production and consumption of images, graphics and information’? After reading the back flap I was curious to learn whether the critical mission has been a success, and whether they have been able to define and shed light on larger societal problems today.

I have read two volumes; Super-Critical, the first instalment, by Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas, and the fourth instalment, Having Words, by Denise Scot Brown. The book by Denise Scott Brown offers a selection of texts she has written throughout her career; an anthology. The pocket of Eisenman and Koolhaas, by contrast, is more dynamic and current. The book is a reflection of a discussion on each other’s work which they had in 2006. It reads more like a stream of consciousness rather than a cohesive architectural theory. The series as a whole consists of a combination of old and new material, offering a compelling contrast.

Denise Scott Brown is married to Robert Venturi and partner in Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. They together have gained recognition with Learning from Las Vegas, the studio in 1968 which researched the iconography and sprawl of the Las Vegas strip. The commercial architecture of the strip was glorified, according to them architects should be more open ’to the tastes and values of “common” people and less immodest in their erection of “heroic”, self-aggrandizing monuments’. At the time the book was received as an important critique of modernism, and even though Venturi and Scott Brown do not present themselves as such, it went on to become one of the most important manifestoes of post-modernism.

Irrespective of the fact that I am not sure if commercial kitsch is really a reflection of the convictions of the ‘common man’, one has to observe that the building of monuments to commerce, (or to self-respecting public bodies) has far from lessened since the late sixties. In the context of the stated aim of this series – to comment critically on the current obsession with the production and consumption of images – it is a clever move to give the floor to Scott Brown.

Unfortunately, Having Words consists of historical material; the essays have mainly been published elsewhere. What immediately struck me is that Scott Brown has used the argument from Learning from Las Vegas throughout her career as a touchstone. She returns to it in the different essays over and over again, with the tenor being that we still haven’t fully understood the message. According to Scott Brown the difference between good and bad architecture apparently is, in spite of her inclusive intentions, still something for connoisseurs. In this respect you could say it is both funny as well as hypocritical that she condescendingly appraises Philip Johnson’s AT&T building (now Sony building) in New York; “It does not demonstrate why its symbolic allusions “to periods from Rome to the 1920s” are right for AT&T, or us, today”. One unwittingly wonders whether the facade of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square is really that different. Or is the use of Corinthian pilasters here a contextual move all of a sudden?

Super-Critical, the first book in the series, contains a transcript of a conversation between Koolhaas and Eisenman which took place in 2006 at the AA. The dialogue is without a doubt worth reading: funny, energetic and intelligent. The second half of the book consists of a commentary by Robert Somol, Jeffrey Kipnis and Mark Cousins, in addition some older material has been compiled, such as an interesting interview from the seventies with Eisenman by Alvin Boyarsky, then director of the AA, and a presentation of Koolhaas, a few years later.

The intention to more or less dedicate one book to a single conversation between two architects can only be successful when enough intellectual differences exist to make it worth our while. Eisenman frankly admits that there are not many deep intellectual schisms between him and Koolhaas, and if it were up to me, it could have been much sharper. I wonder openly in which sense star architects such as Koolhaas and Eisenman have the freedom to make choices and influence the debate, their clients and society. Obviously there is this tremendous pressure to be original, again and again, to come up with new images, but aren’t the architects themselves not at least partially responsible for this?

Just like Venturi & Scott Brown at the time, in a certain sense, have been complicit in opening the way to a vacuous, formalist postmodernism, you can similarly state that the influence of Koolhaas with S,M,L, XL and his CCTV building respectively, has encouraged rather than discouraged the consumption of images and the trend to erect icons. Fascinating things are being remarked, for instance when Eisenman throws into Koolhaas’s face that the main function of CCTV is indeed its iconography, but it never gets unpleasant or an extremely sharp-witted debate.

To return to the question whether the critical mission which the AA has set itself has been a success, then I would have to conclude that anthologies from the work of well-established names, or discussions between eminent members of the architectural establishment, are not the best way to rock the boat. I think that the question as to what the most challenging and pressing issues are, now and in the immediate future, needs to get answered by the AA first and the editorial direction of this series would then have to reflect these choices.