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Degree show review: Architectural Association

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The AA remains in its bubble, in the centre of London but in another world entirely. Shaking off some of this insularity would be no bad thing

The usual frustrations arise from a visit to the AA’s annual projects review. The models, drawings and designs on display are beautiful and impressive, but what little text that accompanies them often gives even the most esoteric Venice Biennale caption a run for its money.

Meta-Elements and Integrated Morphologies is the name of one diploma unit, which declares that ‘this year, we correlated multiple levels of work on dis-continuity, focusing on urban “meta-elements” as integrated diagrams and morphologies’.

Tan Ao

Tan Ao

Tan Ao

If these sound like tired grumblings about the esoteric nature of architectural theory or academia, they are meant rather as a comment on the ability to communicate or explain – a skill that should be at the forefront of an architecture school and yet here often feels second to a display.

But then this is a school that has always been so much about its own bubble, its own powerful sphere of architectural culture and influence, to the point of alienating the casual visitor.

And it has been a difficult year for this internal culture. The announcement of staff cuts from the publications and exhibition teams in late November faced a global backlash and the AA Files is somewhat in limbo after the resignation of editor Tom Weaver.

A range of publications in the AA Salon suggests that this impetus for writing and criticism is still alive and well: there are PNYX and DUE – both single-page publications in the style of the successful Fulcrum; and AArchitecture – a brochure-like triannual publication edited by students. In terms of contributing to a global architectural discussion outside the school, however, it is vital that AA Files can continue – and continue to excel.

It is vital that AA Files can continue – and continue to excel

Moving through to the unit displays in the AA’s at times warren-like Georgian terrace (with diploma units on ground and first floors and the majority of intermediate units on the second floor) the standard approach is a wealth of drawings united solely by an introductory unit text, rather than individual captions or any further compartmentalisation.

As Intermediate 12’s display admits, this is ‘the notorious AA review ritual in the form of posters showing the last elements of the student portfolios’. Some of these are incredibly broad – Intermediate Unit 7 ‘embarked on a year-long study of the future of our built environment’ – and yet the incredibly crisp finished work is somewhat at odds with the openness and experimentation this would imply. As a result, it is on the ground floor, in the first room in fact, that we get the best sense of some of the energy and messiness of the school.

Nabil Randeree

Nabil Randeree

Nabil Randeree

In particular, Diploma 16 students were challenged to ‘design and construct a series of models of building complexes situated in an intense and expanding urban environment’. The result is a joyful explosion of ideas, rendered in what looks like melted plastic or stretched Sellotape.

In my search for a little more reality, most successful are the projects that benefit from being grounded in London. Diploma 10, with Turning Clockwise to Lambeth, asks what role London’s 32 boroughs would play in its future, creating civic insertions that work with existing infrastructures and parts of the urban fabric, such as acts of greening and a new Vauxhall Pleasure Garden for 2018.

Also enjoyably bizarre is Hangyul Jeong’s project, part of Intermediate Unit 6, Domestic Space, which proposes an 18-storey Urban Dating Machine in Shoreditch, a physical interpretation of Tinder that prompts sorting and decision-making between residents.

Hangyul Jeong

Hangyul Jeong

Hangyul Jeong

Most units have a clear style dictated by the unit leader, more apparent in some than others. Fredrik Hellberg and Lara Lesmes (aka Space Popular’s) room, for example, is full of work that the duo might well have created themselves, but again, we are seeing final showpieces here rather than the varied processes behind them.

In the small section devoted to the History and Critical Thinking course, an essay by Nicolás Rivera Bianchi seems to hit this on the head: ‘… the building has been gradually estranged from architecture, in an attempt to reinvent it around the “design project”’. Incoming director Eva Franch i Gilabert has said we need to become better at explaining the power of architecture, and this is perhaps a good sign for the school.

While graduates of the AA have long proven an ability to apply their experimentations to the professional world, often excitingly, the school itself remains in its bubble, in the centre of London but in another world entirely. Shaking off some of this insularity would be no bad thing.

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