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Drawing Ambience: Alvin Boyarsky and the Architectural Association

An exhibition of Boyarsky’s collection gives a vibrant insight into a golden age in the AA’s history

Taking an extensive private collection of architectural drawings as its starting point, Drawing Ambience: Alvin Boyarsky and the Architectural Association at the RISD Museum, organised with the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum of Art, is rich and exhilarating at its foundation. The exhibition unveils the assortment of works accumulated by Boyarsky during his time at the AA, where he was chairman from 1971 until his death in 1990. Other than having the opportunity to consider the personal acquisitions of such an influential figure, the show is significant as the first public museum presentation of the drawings.

Divided into four sections that incorporate inventive transparent shelving units and brightly coloured vitrines, 43 works on paper as well as nine folios are on view, along with a small selection of archival documents. The display takes a mainly chronological path with each grouping highlighting the architects (and theoretical constructs) Boyarsky was encountering, and simultaneously fostering, throughout his tenure. The authors of the drawings are multifarious, from the illustrious to the less well known. The bulk consists of pieces by those who studied and taught at the AA (Nigel Coates, David Greene, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Bernard Tschumi, Peter Wilson), which are placed beside the illustrations of colleagues garnered through international networking (Frank Gehry, Superstudio, Coop Himmelb(l)au) and also artists (Mary Miss, Eduardo Paolozzi).

Boyarsky made the activity of drawing an integral part of the AA’s ethos, and the primary medium for the discovery and expansion of ideas

The collection reveals a number of things. The AA during the ’70s and ’80s now has a somewhat mythic quality attached to it. Regarded as a golden age within the school’s history, the drawings are evidence of the dynamic change that took place, as manoeuvered by Boyarsky. This transitional moment heralded new approaches to postmodern practice centred on boundless experimentation and a transgressive nature.

The diversity of the drawings’ formal qualities is perhaps the most obvious marker of this shift, ranging from the mechanical precision of Jeremie Frank’s The Macrophone (1981) to the minimalist freehand scrawls in Franco Raggi’s Untitled (1977). Various realisations of a painterly aesthetic are also evident, including a Suprematist rendering by Zoe Zenghelis in her conceptual plan Sixteen Villas on the Island of Antiparos (1983) and Rodney Place’s Cubist composition Three Chairs for Borromini, One (1980). Drawing as a discipline is notably undefined: as well as traditional mark-making with pen, ink and graphite, the works depict screen-printing, etching and collage techniques, also suggestive of an eagerness for new means of portraying architecture. The range of ideas explored is equally captivating, including studies for prominent projects such as Parc de la Villette and the Millbank Housing Competition, alongside inquiries into self-contained and portable buildings.


Zaha Hadid’s 1998 Sperm Table

Most compelling is the documentation of projects by architects who may at present be celebrated, but back then were at their most formative. We are therefore given access to an architect’s early thought processes that act as precursors to what we now consider as familiar. Libeskind’s Micromegas and Chamber Works series strongly resonate in his built projects that came later, in particular the Jewish Museum in Berlin and his prefabricated homes, the Villas. Hadid’s bundle of works, including her competition entry for the Irish Prime Minister’s residence, is an exercise in inflated linear perspectives and contorted angles. Her Sperm Table (1988) is especially indicative of the squiggle that has become a signature, and formed part of the architect’s first ever built project – five pieces of furniture for a studio apartment in London.

What the objects on display undeniably declare is Boyarsky’s passion for drawing. He made the activity an integral part of the AA’s ethos, and the primary medium for the discovery and expansion of ideas. Also discernible is how meaningful the works were to Boyarsky on a personal level, and, moreover, the genuineness with which he mentored his students and colleagues (many of the drawings are marked “For Alvin” which at the least signifies gratitude, if nothing more).

Where the exhibition stumbles is in some of its propositions. One central premise is that, for Boyarsky, drawing was a form of architecture in its own right, rather than merely a representational medium. While the level of innovation encouraged by him is evident, it was clearly not the first time that drawing had been valued for the sole purpose of creative instigation rather than formal blueprint. The assertion is not unique to Boyarsky or the AA.   


A study by John Hedjuk for Berlin Masque (1983)

Also unconvincing is the exploration of Boyarsky’s tripartite pedagogical approach that the curators claim placed priority on the role of drawing through teaching, exhibitions and publications. The assembly of catalogues shown is a wonderful example of Boyarsky’s commitment to publishing projects, which were accompanied by reproductions of drawings presented in box format. But I would not have been able to fathom the critical role of exhibitions had I not consulted the (highly insightful) catalogue that accompanies the show. Other than a few enlarged photographs of students mingling in front of architectural displays, and a handful of archival items, there is little that announces Boyarsky’s transformation of the AA into a full-blown gallery space, where exhibits extended into its hallways and bar.

Perhaps the major absence here is context. I would have liked to see Boyarsky’s methods situated within the wider, international sphere of architectural representation and display that was occurring concurrently.

Nevertheless, Drawing Ambience makes a case for the significance of the medium, as well as Boyarsky’s long-standing influence, both of which distinguished a key moment in architectural history. What is more, at a time when computer-aided design is the norm, the exhibition reminds us that this was the last time when drawing by hand ruled.

Drawing Ambience: Alvin Boyarsky and the Architectural Association

Where: RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) Museum

When: Until 2 August 2015

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