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School buildings produce culture

Farshid Moussavi compares the interiors of the Architectural Association and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and finds that different spaces create different ways of learning

The building of an architecture school − beyond the teaching staff, curriculum, etc − is what makes an architecture school be what it is. The interplay between its spatial arrangement and pedagogical strategy embeds the school with a specific kind of habitus, which influences the kind of character students take on in future practice.

Compare the Architectural Association (AA) with Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). The AA houses its 800 students in a series of narrow-fronted Georgian town houses on London’s Bedford Square, identified only by its door number and an English Heritage blue plaque which reads ‘Most famous architects have been here (sooner or later)’.

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Horizontally striated: proposed section through the AA by Wright&Wright

Inside, the spaces transmit sensations of intimacy and domesticity: a narrow corridor, flanked with rooms for exhibitions and public lectures, leads to a staircase ascending to the first floor. The reception desk is tucked away in a small room at the back of the corridor so students and visitors must navigate on their own, feeling their way around or asking a passer-by for directions. The lack of a large lobby compels students and visitors upstairs to the bar, where they meet informally around small tables and exchange ideas.

The 800 architecture students at the GSD, on the other hand, are housed in Gund Hall, a ’70s purpose-built, freestanding building with a glazed sloping roof which visually connects its learning spaces to the exterior and reveals their laboratory style. The GSD accordingly triggers sensations of collectiveness and enquiry
within its urban fabric. It is entered directly via its exhibition space, which leads to the lecture hall, library and cafeteria − where students and faculty share long tables in the manner of a refectory. Although both schools welcome students through their events programme, putting inspiring ideas at the forefront rather than students at work, their similarity stops here.

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Section of Harvard’s Gund Hall: the trays under one roof create ‘an internet of ideas’

The intimacy of the AA’s building and the collectiveness of Gund Hall provide the two architecture schools with entirely different pedagogical settings. At the AA, three flights of stairs above the entry level take you to ‘unit spaces’ − private rooms where undergraduate students and tutors meet for one-to-one tutorials. The unit spaces are person-centred, providing students with an intimate space to develop a sense of self and their individual interests, their true potential, outside disciplinary limits. Conversely, Gund Hall’s learning spaces are located within a single, large open-plan space above the entry level, which is divided into five ‘trays’ which cascade down, hosting students from the school’s three design disciplines: Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design.

Studios of different disciplines are intermingled along the open trays, rather than separated, and two straight flights of stairs that cut through the trays enable students and faculty to thread their way through them, and to be exposed to each other’s work and discussions. The GSD studios under a single roof forgo individualised learning. They situate students within collective, disciplinary agendas in order to question the limits of each, and instill new flows of communication across them in order to address contemporary societal concerns.

Certainly the AA and the GSD both enable students to exchange ideas, but in entirely different ways. The AA’s building is a social space for students to inspire one another before going away to work off-site. The bar − where alcohol is served throughout the day − is always full of students and tutors exchanging ideas, and the bookshop, in its old location next to the bathroom, drew people visiting the lavatory to browse or buy books and was another place for intellectual inspiration. Gund Hall, on the other hand, is a workplace which students hardly ever leave − they work in the trays between classes, take power naps on the couches and armchairs, and eat from the vending machines.

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The open trays expose students walking through the space to models, drawings and computer screens, even when their authors are not at their desk. The haphazard spontaneity of this interaction between students and ideas is like surfing an internet of ideas. The trays allow the exchange and cross-fertilisation of ideas to happen in an unmediated way because individual authors are replaced with a range of possibilities that can be interpreted, transformed or combined in other ways.

It would be impossible for the AA culture to exist in the GSD building, or vice versa. The AA produces creative individuals and, by encouraging students to stand outside the discipline, often produces highly original approaches to architecture − even stretching it into other disciplines like film, politics, journalism, etc. But its individual focus means it cannot bring the talent and scholarship of all its students to do research on complex issues that cannot be addressed by a single individual.

The GSD’s studios, on the other hand, provide the setting for collective research and their disciplinary frame infuses its graduates with a shared ideology that through the design of the built environment they can be agents for change. Its open-plan workspace, though, is obviously a psychologically challenging environment to students as being exposed to one another implies that it is more difficult to receive criticism or to criticise each other’s agendas when compared with the intimate setting of the AA unit space or bar.

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Rem Koolhaas at the AA Bar

The question remains: what will be the ramifications of the upcoming AA renovation on its culture? Is the AA moving away from its artistic avant-garde model? Turning the lecture hall into a large lobby, breaking up the unit spaces into studios and enlarging the lecture hall certainly hint in the direction of a GSD model.

I personally think that the AA’s intimate unit system is a perfect model for thesis type education, which the US studio model struggles to make sense of within its system. But if the AA has decided to change to the GSD model, it should move to another building. A row of town houses converted to studio space will never be as effective as Gund Hall in presenting a web of ideas as it remains horizontally striated.

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