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Alvin Boyarsky. The Architectural Association

Alvin Boyarsky

The Architectural Association

London, UK

1971-1990
by Irene Sunwoo

Excerpt from Irene Sunwoo, “From the ‘Well-Laid Table’ to the ‘Marketplace:’ The Architectural Association Unit System” in Journal of Architectural Education 65, no. 2 (2012): 24–41.]

AS CHAIRMAN OF THE ARCHITECTURAL ASSOCIATION (AA) in London from 1971 to 1990, Alvin Boyarsky presided over a seminal moment in the history of the school. Launching a critical departure from the AA’s postwar modernist professional training, during the early 1970s Boyarsky developed the ‘‘unit system’’ as the foundation of the school’s educational program. A framework of vertical studio teaching, the unit system invited tutors to seize pedagogy as a medium for architectural experiment and critical inquiry. […]

At the conclusion of his first year as AA chairman, debates about the school’s academic infrastructure surely lingered on in Boyarsky’s mind as he quickly, if not seamlessly, changed hats in late July 1972 to commence what would be his third and last term as director of the IID Summer Sessions, hosted that year by the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Established in 1970 as ‘‘a well-laid table and a platform for free-ranging souls as opposed to the arid battery fare of their local school and professional cafeterias,’’ the independent summer school was, in fact, the first institutional articulation of Boyarsky’s gastronomic metaphor. Culling students, architects, historians, designers, and urban planners from across the world to participate in its six-week-long programs of lectures, seminars, and workshops, the Summer Sessions also operated—as Boyarsky had declared prior to Chalk’s remarks on an AA ‘‘supermarket’’—as a ‘‘marketplace for exchange of ideas.’’ […]

The new task of the school of architecture, he stated, was to ‘‘be a critic of society,’’ rather than merely its provider or form giver. To be sure, Boyarsky was not alone in his call for architectural education to embrace a more critical, rather than simply professional or social, stance. The capacity of the studio, atelier, and other pedagogical spaces to adopt a manifesto had already become apparent, for example, in Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s 1969 studio at Yale, which culminated in the publication of Learning from Las Vegas (1972), or even the radical formation of Unité Pédagogique 6 (UP6) in France. For Boyarsky, however, architectural education as a polemical mechanism presented itself at an institutional scale and in the shape of the AA. If a school of architecture was to function as a critical thermometer of contemporary architectural production, then it must be fueled by ‘‘the energies and interests of a lot of people, so that the school community is bubbling with dozens of sometimes contradictory interests and activities’’ and in which the ‘‘so-called curriculum,’’ Boyarsky argued, must therefore be ‘‘conditioned daily, weekly, and annually.’’ Conscious of the negative connotations of such a simultaneity of ideas, Boyarsky defended the support of such an ongoing ideological surplus as ‘‘the most responsible activity of all for a school of architecture.’’ […]

If the informality of the ‘‘well-laid table’’ and the unregulated activity of the ‘‘marketplace’’ had challenged pedagogy’s complicity in sustaining the philosophical, formal, and professional foundations of architectural modernism, the polemic of Boyarsky’s educational model was motivated by what was nothing short of a truly modernist ambition to create a new architectural culture. The school of architecture—that institutional typology hinging (however tenuously) professional concerns with intellectual discourse—was perhaps the ideal stage for such a cultural insurrection to take place. […T]he AA’s constellation of activities perhaps rival the expansive program of the Bauhaus, that institutional heavyweight of early twentieth-century modernism, whose pedagogical methods had been reinterpreted at architecture schools worldwide. Indeed, if the AA’s postmodernist model of architectural education had crystallized through critiques of the standardization and professionalization of pedagogy, it had also reclaimed a role for the school of architecture as the crux of architectural culture and the site of disciplinary reinvention. […]

Radical Pedagogies