John Summerson opened his 1947 account of the history of the Architectural Association by describing its very antithesis: Charles Dickens' world of the early nineteenth-century drawing office, with the idle and pretentious Pecksniff masquerading as gentleman, scholar and artist, while living on the premiums extorted from pupils to whom he 'teaches nothing'.
Simultaneously with the publishing of Martin Chuzzlewit a group of articled pupils began meeting to 'gossip over their sketches every other Wednesday', a process which was ultimately to lead to the founding of the Architectural Association in 1847. The rest is history but we should never forget the need that led to the aa's existence. It was, and always has been, a creative marketplace for ideas.
It was the same commitment to dialogue, the same hunger for debate, that motivated a group of architects in the mid 1980s to form Acanthus. For them the isolation of practice was too restricting, the claustrophobia of the office too limiting, the agenda too narrow. So, in the same spirit of sharing that was the aa's catalyst some 150 years earlier, the sap of today's Acanthus rises from the roots of our collective past: architects are nourished by the processes of criticism and exchange.
Essentially a collective of practices drawn from all parts of the uk, Acanthus provides a unique network of practical support and a framework for architectural conversations at both an informal and a formal level. The high spot on the calendar is the annual seminar, which this year took place at Edinburgh (aj 30.4.98).
Practices join only by invitation - a principle that has prevailed since its formation. So why accept such an invitation? What does Acanthus offer that the aca, or the local riba branch, cannot?
Well, enough it seems to persuade member practices to part with an annual subscription of 0.5 per cent of turnover. To this must be added the cost of participation: the spring conference alone worked out at around £100 per head - a lot of money when the whole office goes!
And this is another remarkable quality and similarity with the aa: staff join principals as full participants in membership, the events are not dependent on the ritual of passive audiences paying homage to self-proclaimed stars, and there is a strongly egalitarian flavour to the whole outfit.
Acanthus is deeply concerned with the cut and thrust of a wider agenda, which includes the physical context that informs design and the craft and technology of construction. The members love to talk about their work and care deeply about quality. They are passionate about building, and have fun doing it.
So is the need for such fellowship peculiar to Acanthus members? Well - there seems to be no equivalent group, so arguably yes. Or perhaps the happy coincidence of founders George Ferguson, James Simpson and Charles Lawrence was the lonely spark, the catalyst, that set dry tinder alight - dry tinder that lies abundantly throughout all offices in this land. It seems likely that the energy and commitment so evident in our schools, yet sadly so often lacking in practice, is indeed there to be stirred. The success of Acanthus over your average ultra-dull cpd programme is that it has successfully done just that - a summer school is surely next!