Wright & Wright's AA revamp revealed
Expanding for growth while still preserving Georgian and institutional heritage is the delicate balancing act achieved by the AA’s new masterplan, writes Jeremy Melvin in sister publication The Architectural Review
Bedford Square is one of London’s most congenial Georgian ensembles. Its size, much smaller than Grosvenor or Russell Squares, but larger than the exclusive residential enclaves off King’s Road and Knightsbridge, allows it to combine grandeur with intimacy, formality with spontaneity. And tucked away on its quieter, western side it has since 1917 housed the Architectural Association – which has some claim to being the world’s most influential school of architecture.
‘It’s a paradox’ that Georgian architecture has nurtured avant garde architects, says immediate past president (2009-11) Alex Lifschutz, ‘but an amusing one’. Lifschutz’s ‘amusement’ during his presidency extended to overseeing the appointment of architects Wright & Wright to produce a strategic plan for expanded premises, now including three extra houses on either side of the core of Nos 34-37.
This expansion provides extra space and the opportunity to rationalise accommodation that had evolved haphazardly as funds permitted and whims took hold. The result was a warren of insertions, openings in the fabric, additions, alterations and as many levels as a Zaha Hadid building, but without the flowing ramps between them.
From across the square, the serene terrace facade masks the buzzing interior
Whatever the relationship between pedagogy and earlier changes, Wright & Wright’s proposals are, says AA chair Brett Steele, ‘driven by educational ambition … for the first time in 50 years students and staff will be under one roof’, rather than dispersed around Bloomsbury. In an institution where ‘90 per cent of the students’ come from outside the UK, giving ‘design students [dedicated] studio space’ is crucial. The new areas, points out current president Keith Priest, are pretty close to Hefce guidelines on square metres per student.
The opportunity to acquire the extra properties was a strategic exploitation of fortuitous circumstances, such as long-term neighbours moving away, and a landlord – the Bedford Estate – which saw the logic of a strengthened cultural and educational institution. ‘The timing was good’, says Steele, and ‘it all fell into place’.
Lifschutz credits his predecessor Jim Eyre with the strategy for accumulating the extra accommodation through a combination of leases and rental deals, taking advantage, as Frank Duffy – an AA graduate, council member and expert on building occupancy – puts it, of ‘the friendly attitude of the Bedford Estate’. Minimising impact on fees was a priority, remembers Lifschutz, with substantial amounts coming from reserves, donations and loans.
Survey of 1795 showing the west and south sides of Bedford Square, one of London’s more congenial Georgian enclaves
The outcome is a flexible masterplan which addresses some of the urgent issues of repair, compliance and access as well as rationalising and re-allocating spaces, but can unfold in various ways. ‘It’s a long-term project’ which should cause ‘minimum disruption to the school’ and several of its many parts could be designed by other architects or even students.
In essence it enhances and reinforces vertical circulation around two stairs and two new lifts, simplifies horizontal circulation by unifying levels, creates a core of public functions around a new lecture space and places essential teaching functions like workshops and the library in the most logical positions – and refurbishes all the studios. The year 2020, says Steele, is the centenary of the AA Diploma, and he would like to see much of it complete by then, but educational priorities and resources could fluctuate. Work has already started on the basement workshop under No 37 together with a lot of enabling works to prepare for subsequent phases.
Clare Wright started with a forensic investigation into the houses’ history and in particular the AA’s occupation of them, identifying the significant elements of heritage, and the potential for change as well as the sequence of change in the past. Similar in size and external appearance, their condition and potential for new uses varies. No 37 was built somewhat later than the others because it straddled an underground stream, while others have had walls taken out, replaced, been opened up and subdivided again. Some original features remain, especially on the grand ground and first floors, but many of the subsequent accretions hinder rather than help the educational process, and some such as workshops present challenges for compliance.
A view of the front of the AA buildings
Everyone at the AA, explains Wright, has their own image of the institution. As the buildings have the highest level of statutory protection, her task is fraught with controversy. But one reason why English Heritage have listed the terrace at Grade 1 is because of the AA’s presence there – despite or perhaps because of the alterations it has made, which if nothing else have proved the flexibility of what were originally intended to be substantial private homes.
When some of the early interventions seemed to be experimenting with the Modernist rhetoric of the ‘free plan’ by removing party walls, Steen Eiler Rasmussen and John Summerson were instigating a major reappraisal of Georgian urbanism while teaching at the AA.
Frank Duffy senses that the AA’s affinity with its location has more to do with the context than the building type. He talks of ‘an ecology of professions in the building industry’ in the immediate area. As a student in the 1960s he remembers being able to turn up unannounced at Arup’s offices a few blocks away for structures tutorials. Acknowledging that it’s ‘less a geographical reality’ now – quantity surveyors Gardiner & Theobald recently vacated one of the newly acquired houses – he believes ‘the ghost is still powerful’. Arup’s are still in the area, with fellow engineers Buro Happold and Whitby & Bird nearby.
Wright is very aware of the ‘ghosts’, mostly benign but occasionally atavistic, and all interacting to create the aura which defines the AA. Her challenge is to maintain and enhance those ephemeral qualities while upgrading its physical space to contemporary conditions, both programmatic and financial, and somehow to update the ecology Duffy remembers and intensify it for Steele’s vision of architectural education.
Aura and reality come together most obviously in the circulation spaces. There’s a ‘genius’ says Steele, to having the ‘bar in the middle’, through which everyone passes and helping to create the sorts of informal encounter that can be just as effective as formal set-piece teaching. The school community, he points out, is ‘far, far more diverse than it has been’, with many mid career students doing masters and PhDs as well as the younger diploma students.
Wright explains that one of the most important decisions was to focus vertical circulation around the stairs in Nos 34 and 36, which are already familiar and heavily used. One goes right past the bar. A much-needed lift will be inserted in what was the stairwell in No 35, and this cues a general tidying of levels from the entrance to the principal parts of the complex, greatly facilitating moving around for anyone whatever their degree of mobility.
‘A Day in the Life of the AA’, Architectural Association, 34-36 Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, London: students taking a break in the Ching’s Head
One attribute of Wright & Wright’s plan, thinks Duffy, is to ‘get the front door in the right place’. Rather than entering into a relatively narrow corridor, the entrance will now be directly into No 35, at the centre of the plan and into a space which is now the main lecture room. As well as being more generous it also helps orientation: the lift is straight ahead, with the main stairs close and equidistant on either side.
Behind the stairs but all at the same level, two passageways lead to a new gallery at the rear of the site, but more accessible and far better serviced than the existing gallery in No 36. These spaces encircle a new lecture and presentation hall created out of the basement level Ching’s Yard with a new roof at first floor level.
It fulfils an ambition to place the public programme at the heart of the school quite literally, and this configuration has several other advantages. Natural circulation routes reveal lectures and juries to students, staff and visitors without disrupting either the flow or the event, though these spaces could act as overflow galleries for very popular lectures. It also ties together the public spaces – reception, lecture room, gallery and bookshop in a clear and logical way and without impinging on the privacy of teaching and study areas. The roof becomes a terrace to the bar and leads to refurbished studio space at the rear.
Moving the library from the first floor of Nos 34 and 36 to the two floors above gives it more and better space, as well as creating, in Steele’s words, a ‘world of collections’ with the slide library and archive. Meanwhile the first floor which retains the grand proportions and much of the original detail becomes an expanded bar and restaurant with spaces that can be divided into private rooms. A later phase indicates a larger, raked lecture hall behind Nos 32 and 33.
Steele sees the development as a commitment to ‘the idea that institutions have work to do on themselves’, which obliquely answers the general critique Cedric Price, one of the AA’s most distinguished alumni, used to level at all institutions, that they should limit their lives and plan for their own extinction. He might, as always, have had something to say about the architecture, but in its potential to combine conviviality with intellectual endeavour, he would have found much to enjoy in Wright & Wright’s masterplan.
Wright & Wright Architects: Poul Anderson, Tom Atkinson, Laura Baron, Ciara Fairley, Jaeyoon Kim, Reiner Langheit, Mike McMahon, Jacqueline Stephen, James Taylor, Clare Wright and Sandy Wright
Structural Engineers: Alan Baxter & Associates
Environmental Engineers: Max Fordham
Quantity Surveyor and CDM Co-ordinator: Davis Langdon
Project Managers: Buro 4
Property Advice: Montagu Evans
Brief Collation: FiD
Advice on Listed Buildings: Andrew Shepherd and Eleni Makri