The AA in the 1960s, a retrospective essay by AA alum, Neil O. Richards.
In 1962, as a Jamaican high school graduate with one year’s working experience in a drawing office, I was excited at the opportunity to pursue architectural studies in England. The coincidence that I would be going to Britain for academic advancement in the year that Jamaica gained independence after 307 years of British colonial rule of the island was of unique significance.
Just before leaving Jamaica, I had a visual impression of the Architectural Association School of Architecture (“the AA”), which was a black and white photograph of its primary building on the cover of an impressive looking prospectus.
I left Kingston by air to New York, then went by sea to Cherbourg, France and then on to Southampton, England. My journey continued by train towards West Central London. The image of the photograph was ‘half-stuck’ in my memory, and therefore, what I saw on my first approach to the building was not entirely unexpected. There it was! All gray and punctured with well-proportioned windows – a reputedly world -class school of architecture tucked away behind the façade of former residences along one side of a Georgian square. The scenario that unfolded behind the unpretentious façade, was perhaps an object-lesson that even within constricted dimensions, space can be manipulated creatively, even though the outcome may be less than functionally ideal.
In the scheme of things as they were in the 1960s, the floor plan behind the façade of the main building worked with reasonable efficiency, including Ching’s Yard – a ‘watering hole’ within academia where refreshments and relaxed conversation enabled either release from fatigue or joyful relief after achieving a successful result. Ching’s Yard was there as therapy in a circumstance without alternative venues to ‘let off steam’ within the confines of the AA School.
Kingsley Robotham and I were the first Jamaican students at the AA. Ruskin Punch of Trinidad and Tobago was then in his Third Year.
Before I entered the AA, I was told by various sources that the school was avante garde and elitist. I wondered whether I would fit in and endure, but then I dismissed any concerns.
Not long after I stepped through the doors of 34-36 Bedford Square, my impression was that informality was the modus operandi, perhaps by design. I was at ease. My early conclusion was that the relaxed way that the AA operated, seemed not to have adversely affected its reputation for excellence in architectural education. Indeed, I had learnt that many of its graduates were winners of major architectural design competitions, and a good many others designed ‘landmark’ buildings that received critical acclaim. That, I thought, spoke volumes!
Fresh and expectant, I was surprised to see an exhibition of Beaux Art architecture on a prominent wall not far from where the new cohort of First Year students were assembled. On reflection, that exhibit may have been a deliberate counter-culture shock treatment – a bold enough message to newcomers that ‘this’ is not what we are about. But, it could really have been related to a History of Architecture presentation!
The First Year Studio was a tightly fitted gridiron arrangement of drawing tables assigned to the most cosmopolitan group that I ever encountered, dominated of course, by British nationals. There were freshmen from Iraq, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, France, Mauritius, and Macau, then a Portuguese colony. There were also students from the United States who may have found it more convenient to study in England where the risk of being drafted to serve in the US armed services in war-torn Vietnam was significantly reduced. I had no doubt about my ability to cope with what lay ahead.
At the start of the course, there was an evaluation of our instincts and propensities to become designers called architects. The first practical assignment issued to First Year Students was a test of our spatial abilities – to assess how savvy we were at creatively visualizing and manipulating space. For that exercise, each student was supplied with a sturdy 12” (30.48cm) open sided wire-framed cube. We were required to create two contrasting spaces within the object, using ancillary materials to achieve that objective.
I frequently visited the AA Bookshop, where I purchased a paperback publication entitled Perception, which was ‘required reading’ for first year students. Its contents revealed to me more clearly the effects of design on the human mind – of how people’s emotions are influenced by shape, colour, pattern, texture, the quality and intensity of light, and other sensory triggers. Cognitive psychology! Architecture, I concluded, was more expansive a discipline than I had imagined.
A first year assignment intended to test and expand the creative imagination of students, was a requirement to design residential and laboratory accommodation for researchers at a remote Arctic site. Individual proposals devised by my cohort, rivalled the best that Disney ‘imagineers’ could concoct. Even without hearing the opinion of assessors, I recall being pleased that my Caribbean mindset and limited exposure to large metropolitan environments did not limit the stretch of my imagination and contribution to the effort.
Before I went to the UK, I had attained a level of competence in visual arts that enabled me to quickly appreciate the contents of lectures in the History of Art, presented by Paul Oliver. His series of lectures were comprehensive. It was enlightening to learn more of the works of famous “figurative” artists whose concepts he explored, but his presentations of the non-representational work of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian were of special interest. The geometric, abstract art of Mondrian was said to be compositions of “asymmetrical balance” – thereby having aesthetic kinship with modern architectural aesthetics.
A memorable close encounter with highly acclaimed three-dimensional art (and the artist responsible for the works) happened during a visit by first year students to the studio and garden of Henry Moore in Hertfordshire, north of London. We were within touching distance of several prototypes of acclaimed masterworks by Moore, reputedly Britain’s greatest sculptor. I believe that the purpose of the visit to Moore’s enclave was to get students attuned to sculpture as a complimentary art form to architecture, and as such, that nexus should be expressed in practical ways, when deemed appropriate.
My awakening to history, and my belated inquisitiveness as to how the past was connected to the contemporary, was due, in large measure to the skill with which Thomas (‘Sam’) Stevens and Robert Furneaux-Jordan delivered lectures in the History of Architecture. An interesting offshoot of those lectures was that I began to understand the parallels and linkages between Georgian architecture and the predominant style of British Colonial architecture in Jamaica, which was in large measure a form of Georgian architecture adapted for the tropics.
I had developed a good grasp of the basics of structural engineering, but less so with engineering of piped services – due to my inattentiveness to that subject. Happily, the time allocated to the teaching of British building construction systems and methodologies, was minimal. The AA then, apparently did not regard the teaching of sociology as a subject of importance to the education of. I do not recall being introduced to that subject. Perhaps it was my impression that because architecture was, in essence, the design of environments to accommodate human interactions, sociology should have been integral to the course-content.
After a successful first year of study, my expectation to do well in the years ahead was buttressed by confidence that my best interest was being served. There was enough evidence to confirm that I was not a mere statistic grasping for attention within prestigious academia. I should not have been surprised that the AA invited an official of the Embassy of the Netherlands (to the UK), to be a member of a panel of assessors (at a ‘crit’) to review a small assignment I prepared while in the Netherlands after I completed my first year of study.
Shortly after I started the second year of my course, I concluded that chief among my shortcomings was a propensity to do ‘short-cuts’ of design processes, without having the experience to understand the ramifications of doing so. In undue haste, I unwittingly, even carelessly, ignored or skipped critical considerations that may have influenced design solutions. That failing may have been a hangover of a habit associated with situations before my admission to the AA. Fundamentally, I needed to expunge that practice, which retarded my progress towards becoming a competent designer. I needed to adopt the scientific method of design problem solving.
It was during the second year that I began to appreciate the importance of constructive criticism to the development of creative skills. Emotions associated with adverse critiques of my design presentations did not always subside quickly, but I learnt that it was necessary to re-bound without much delay – in order to restore confidence, and learn from the experience.
A great strength of the AA School of Architecture was (and perhaps still is) the engagement of accomplished architects who were also private practitioners. Their contributions to the creative development of students was significant. I benefited from guidance by Elia Zenghelis of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), Alan Colqhoun of Colqhoun & Miller, David Shalev of Evans & Shalev, Patrick Litchfield, Michael Pearson, Royston Landau, Will Redpath and others.
An example of the willingness, and perhaps eagerness of the AA to accommodate and be a platform for unconventional and experimental concepts, was the School’s facilitation of the opinions of Cedric Price – then a leading-edge practicing architect and theorist. He was a visiting lecturer and proponent of architectural design that incorporated features which facilitated flexibility in the form and use of buildings in response to need. He proposed a type of transformable architecture akin to biological metamorphosis. Some students were attracted to such possibilities and the technologies to achieve such outcomes. It was the opinion of architectural historian Charles Jencks, that Cedric Price “was the most extreme of the avante garde”.
Design presentations by students, invariably reflected the modernist aesthetics to which many ‘studio masters’ were devoted. There were a few radical departures from conventional modernist themes, such as proposals influenced by features devised by the Archigram group, led by Peter Cook.
During my studentship, there was much talk of the inventiveness of AA staff member Keith Critchlow, who was credited with discovery of a new interlocking space-filling system. I never interfaced with him.
Lectures that were scheduled for presentation by visiting architects of international renown were always highly anticipated. My best recollection of such an occasion was a lecture by the renowned American inventor-architect R. Buckminster Fuller, famed for his design of geodesic structures.
Second Year students visited a sector of the Roehampton Housing scheme in London, regarded as an example of the pervasive influence of iconic French architect Le Corbusier on British architecture. That project, designed by the Architects Department of the London County Council (LCC) in the 1950s, consisted of multi-storey residential buildings described as ‘an act of homage to Le Corbusier’.
The third year of the course was midway towards graduation as an academically trained architect. Students were required to have achieved a level of proficiency equivalent to the Intermediate Level Professional Examinations of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Among the events of that year: Clyde Bacchus of Trinidad entered the first year of the course, and my Jamaican colleague, Kingsley Robotham, was commended highly for a student assignment to design a Library. Third Year students visited the (then) recently completed office of the Economist Magazine (a building among a group of three towers of varying heights arranged around a raised public plaza) designed by Allison & Peter Smithson, at St James’s Street in London.
Notwithstanding the reputation of the AA as an unconventional school of architecture, I was surprised that the school permitted four fifth year students to submit a joint final year thesis. The four students all had consistently good scholastic attainments during the previous years of the course. Their thesis involved the design of a bridge across the English Channel, between either Dover (or Folkstone) and Calais. The four students had the surnames: Martin, Foster, Bridges and Moon. They were awarded individual AA Honours Diplomas for their commendable effort. It was perhaps fortuitous that one of those students, John Martin, later became a partner in a prominent firm of expatriate architects in Jamaica. That firm was named Chalmers Gibbs Martin Joseph Partnership.
After I completed my fourth year, I visited Jamaica for the purpose of conducting research related to an essay entitled ‘The Growth and Problems of Metropolitan Kingston, Jamaica’. That essay was prepared in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the Diploma of the Architectural Association School of Architecture. That experience prompted my decision to pursue studies at the AA Department of Planning & Urban Design, which was led by Leslie Ginsburg. His deputy was American Rhoda Braun. I also had the benefit of a few months work-experience at the Bedford Square offices of Shankland Cox Overseas – a leading international firm of urban planners and architects. That firm was engaged by the Government of Jamaica to prepare re-development plans for the Kingston
Waterfront. I was not entirely ‘out of my depth’ regarding the rudiments of and the necessity for urban planning, having been introduced to the subject before coming to the AA. I plunged into the course. On one occasion, I ventured alone through a reputedly ‘tough’ sector of East London to prepare a pre-thesis planning study. Some students expressed surprise, even alarm that I dared to visit the area, but my risk-taking was a single-minded quest for excellence, and not a reckless show of bravado.
It was convenient for me to select a location in the United Kingdom as the site for my design thesis. The subject chosen was of economic importance globally – especially to Caribbean nations. The project was the design of a tourism complex at a site near Bournemouth in the county of Hampshire, on the south coast of England.
I sought the advice of G.C. Hodges (Bill Hodges) the Government Town Planner in Jamaica who was on vacation in England. Hodges was an AA alumnus, who provided many years of commendable service to the Government of Jamaica. I also visited Cedric Price, whose office was near to the AA, to discuss my interim proposal. My overall efforts were guided by noted architect-planner, Elizabeth Chesterton, who was later to become Dame Elizabeth Chesterton.
In the summer of 1968, I graduated from the AA with a Diploma in Architecture and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Planning & Urban Design, and returned to Jamaica, where I have since lived and worked and am now retired from my day-to-day architectural practice. Happily, I still retain pleasant memories of my time at the AA.
The AA Archives is very grateful to Neil O. Richards for allowing us to publish his essay on the AA Collections Blog.
Photographs of the AA in the 1960s are by Geoff Smythe and Birkin Haward