Architect Joanna Day takes a look around the Architectural Association’s end-of-year show
The Architectural Association (AA)’s annual project review is usually a thrilling, if slightly exhausting, experience. A veritable treasure trove of architectural representation in the heart of Georgian London, you take a deep breath and enter headlong into a maze of the future face of architecture. And, you wonder, is the next Zaha Hadid lurking here somewhere? This year’s show is one of neon, copper bulldog clips, dalmatian-spotted polystyrene, drawings on hospital curtains, parametric imaginings and lots of big books to leaf through. It’s also full of actual noise alongside the visual cacophony, with videos and music playing a constant soundtrack. And if you expect politics, you won’t be disappointed. The NHS, EU, refugee crisis and housing concerns are among the many subjects tackled.
Projects range all over the world, and veer from the theoretical to the occasionally real. The ‘material’ perhaps doesn’t make as much of an appearance as the introduction would have you believe. Predicting the future, yes, but touchy-feely materiality is not so much in evidence. The exception proving the rule, of course, is the completion of a Wood Chip Barn by the Design & Make master’s course, a built project based on tree-form analysis in the school’s rural retreat of Hooke Park. It’s a nicely placed counterpoint to the wacky, slightly scale-less yet photogenic experimenting with computational form-finding it sits alongside.
As one would expect, there is a real sense of competition between the various units’ presentations. There’s also a sense of curating voices. Efforts to make coherent exhibitions pay off and, as ever, the AA helps lead the way in developing ideas by investigating methods of representation. If I have a complaint it’s that the text can be impenetrable. For an architectural audience it may be fathomable, but I can imagine being utterly flummoxed if I had just walked in off the street. I can’t help but think there continues to be a missed opportunity to use the end-of-year shows to widen the debate beyond the architectural institutions, into practice and even into the wider public sphere. The Bedford Square location would be ideally placed for this.
University must remain the laboratory where the ability to research, to think contextually, and to develop methodologies for design and communication are learned
Alongside the question of communication comes that of relevance. How much does the university experience prepare these students for practice? Undeniably there is a chasm between what they are doing day to day at the AA and what they will be doing in the workplace. The university must remain, in my view, the laboratory where the ability to research, to think contextually (in all senses), and to develop methodologies for design and communication are learned and progressed. However, I would like some of the design concerns that occupy us every day in practice, such as sustainability and accessibility, to be better incorporated into and across all university design studios, so these drivers are embedded into imaginative design thinking rather than treated as awkward add-ons. Additionally, in a profession where the key to success is teamwork, schools like the AA have a chance to really exploit and display the fruits of collaboration to push the boundaries of architectural practice further. This is not much in evidence yet. Questions aside, it’s a worthwhile way to spend a few hours.
For a colourful, playful exploration, turn left at the entrance and poke around the pink shelves crammed full of the creative detritus of the first year. Often refreshing and imaginative, this is, in my opinion, always worth pausing at. In this room is also what – for me – was one of the standout sets of images: Sho Ito’s I Live the Way I Want. A cinematic, slightly Hopperesque set of domestic interiors produced as part of Diploma 1’s Babylon: The New East London, the scenes are most powerful without explanation or accompanying plans. These haunting exhibition pieces echo the themes of the UK contribution to this year’s Venice Biennale.
Head upstairs for examples of what might be more typically expected of the AA: urban renderings with futuristic or dystopian overtones. One can only wonder at the detailed, hardly penetrable, yet sublime drawings by Diploma ’s Samuel Esses. These seem as much a peek into the student’s mind as a reflection of the urban condition. When do these students sleep? In this instance, layers of Japanese cultural references are mapped on to an interpretation of Athens in delicate black and pink line work.
If the study of so-called Resilient Habitats is more your thing, head to the top of the building to find Diploma 16’s muted depictions of a reimagined Rwandan countryside. Beautifully printed on diaphanous backing, they hold their own against Intermediate 3’s apocalyptic visions (a flick through their book is also worth the effort). Shao Zheng’s Soft City particularly sticks in the mind, with a parasitic overlay of mushroom-like forms taking over the African landscape.
Food-fuelled Intermediate 9 look like they had fun. Fabienne Tjia’s Fermentation Landscape for Noma displays a bewitching use of colour, a feature so often missing from serious architectural consideration.
If the content of the exhibition is overwhelming, there’s always the website, where you can go and find the things you missed, misunderstood or would like to see again. But nothing beats a trip around the AA’s Bedford Square home to take the temperature of architectural thinking. While it may not have reached feverish peaks this year, it still comfortably holds its own.
Joanna Day, founding partner at Langstaff Day Architects, design tutor, University of Liverpool