Steele to prove his mettle at AA
Brett Steele breezes into the Architectural Association's (AA) satellite building just off Gray's Inn Road in Holborn, central London, looking a little warm - it's one of those stuffy, humid days that London does so well. His is an incredible image - just about as stereotypically American as I have ever seen. He's sporting a get-up that screams 'roller-blading through Central Park to work': dark stylish suit, nondescript white shirt, sunglasses, headphones from an iPod and, the icing on the cake, a white baseball cap.
The newly elected AA chairman starts talking as soon as he spots me, in the confident and fast yet relaxed manner that the more intelligent of our North American cousins have perfected - all while removing the sunglasses, taking out the headphones and doffing the baseball cap. He then welcomes me into his office, the central control room of the AA's Design Research Lab, the graduate department that Steele has been heading up for the decade since its inception.
Only it's seemingly less an office and more a shambolic storage room for three-dimensional concept models and structures that resemble DNA chains.
Steele magics two chairs from the architectural carnage that surrounds us and continues discussing his background, his plans for the school, the weather and anything that appears to enter his mind. While many of his stream-of-consciousness speeches over the next 30 minutes are entirely logical, there is also an endearing scattiness to Steele's style that leaves you feeling more comfortable with him than might have been expected. The best example of this is that he claims he simply does not know how old he is. 'I know I was born in November 1958, ' he says, scratching his head. 'How old does that make me?
Am I 46 or 47? I really don't know.
But don't let this fool you into assuming he lacks confidence or is self-effacing. Asking him about how it felt to have overwhelmingly won the AA election against two other runners - Farshid Moussavi with Kari Jormakka in a joint bid, and Sheffield's head of school Jeremy Till, both of whom were considered more likely winners than himself - draws an unexpected reply. 'I knew I was the best candidate and it was just nice to see that the rest of the school agreed, ' he says, looking me in the eye.
Where does this certainty come from and what in his background qualifies him to take over the reins at one of the world's most august architecture schools? Born in small-town Idaho, Steele spent the first phase of his architectural education on the other side of the pond, settling in New York's East Village. There, he says, he met 'some guys' who said that if he wanted to continue with this career he should do so at the AA - advice that he soon followed. Once in London he buckled down and, before long, found himself working at Zaha Hadid 'in the early days'.
After some time with architecture's first lady he moved back stateside to teach at a Harvard. It's fair to say that he was not entertained by my insinuation that his decision to desert Blighty might have been triggered by the 'hardcore' working conditions at Hadid's place - he is still clearly devoted to the Pritzker Prize winner.
Then in 1995 came an opportunity to return to the AA. Within two years he was setting up the Design Research Lab, which offers qualified architects the opportunity to study for an MA. This new department was clearly an effective launchpad for Steele's campaign to take over the rest of the school.
And there seems to be no doubt that his first five-year term will be interesting. 'What I'm really keen to do is have a look at the unit system that we have at the moment, ' he tells me. 'While I completely accept that this system is fantastic and does work well, I'm also certain that there is more opportunity for collaboration and integration.
'After an incredible 30 years' experience with the unit system, the time has come for it to evolve. The school has grown and developed to an incredible extent over the last decade and I'm determined that the time has come has come to make it more collaborative, perhaps with five or six clusters of courses based on different themes every year. This, I think, would lead to more cross-fertilisation of ideas, ' he adds, with the look of a zealot in his eyes.
Anyone who doubts whether Steele can achieve these reforms - changes that would be nothing short of an organisational revolution - should take the time to have a chat with him. The energy field surrounding him is palpable.