The former director of the Architectural Association didn’t suffer fools gladly, but his devoted stewardship to the school helped produce some of the biggest names in architecture working today
Arriving at the AA as a student in the late 1950s was the fulfilment of a dream: to rub shoulders with Peter Smithson, Eduardo Paolozzi, exotic formalism, to be taught by those rather brilliant Old Etonian Marxists or listen each week to the pure − but enthusiastic − tones of John Summerson waxing lyrical about Hawksmoor: it was an exotic mixture for any Outsider.
Alvin Boyarsky was an Outsider too: a Polish-Canadian Jew, not very tall and furthermore a male child among a plethora of sisters. Add to this an Anglophone existence in Montreal − a Francophone city with the inevitable Canadian awareness of what exotica lay across the border − eventually to be satisfied by his postgraduate studies at Cornell (with Colin Rowe as his teacher).
A job in London’s YRM led to his meeting and marrying a very English Englishwoman − though not from the chattering class − perhaps reinforcing the Outsider condition but perhaps honing his antennae? How his (rather prominent) nostrils would inflate and his lip curl as he listened to a crap conversation, but equally narrow when suddenly aware of a talent struggling to be heard.
Teaching at first at a very dry Bartlett, he could hardly resist a move to the AA, which represented more than a century of elitism, arrogance, freedom but, most of all, a cosmopolitanism encouraged by the presence of an expensive chandelier and a creative use of the wine or whisky bottle or likelihood that Nervi, Bucky Fuller or Gropius might pop their head round the door.
As fourth year master he rapidly gathered a set of tutors and critics of extraordinary range that included David Allford, Sam Stevens, Warren Chalk, Brian Richards, Louis Blom-Cooper and Gordon Pask. He set his students complex tasks: such as law courts. He interrogated, he hustled, he transmitted to them much of his voracious reading that spanned from theory to history to historical gossip along with a pretty good ear for the here and now.
Yet somehow the dynamism of this culture did not gel with the leaders of the School and he lost in the head-on clash with the very English soft left technical determinists.
His next transatlantic years were as Associate Dean in Chicago and as family man in London. Until he invented in 1968 the ‘International Institute of Design’ − a summer school that pulled in his circle of friends: Colin Rowe, Hans Hollein, Cedric Price, all the Archigram members, his AA jurors and tutors, plus Reyner Banham, Charles Jencks, Stanley Tigerman, plus the more-or-less Hampstead-based circuits that surrounded James Stirling on one hand and Cedric Price on the other.
In the first year IID was held in rented Bartlett studios, in the second year at the ICA and in the third year at the AA − by then waiting for the run-off for its actual headship between Alvin and Kenneth Frampton − a clear choice between his creative eclecticism and Ken’s more moral high ground. Despite Archigram’s hit-and-run postering almost blowing it for him, Alvin got in by a 100 or-so majority.
The school had drifted towards becoming a department of Imperial College, so it was Alvin’s first move to state that the AA would remain independent. In the long run, this heroic act would never be forgiven by the grey part of the British establishment who eventually removed the AA’s mandatory status (which permitted certain non-public educational establishments to receive subsidies to cover the cost of publicly funded students).
Architecture at McGill University, Montreal
Started teaching at the AA (1963)
Became Associate Dean of Architecture, University of Illinois (1965)
Chairman of the AA (1971-90)
Development of the unit system — the ‘well-laid table’ as an experiment in architectural pedagogy
‘We create a very rich compost for students to develop and grow from and we fight the battle with the drawings on the wall. We’re in pursuit of architecture, we discuss it boldly, we draw it as well as we can and we exhibit it. We are one of the few institutions in the world that keeps its spirit alive.’
Alvin’s genius was to refuse to be slowed-down by this and he equally refused to be unnecessarily prejudiced, so rather than having a witch-hunt of the inherited faculty, he simply watched the weaker parts melt away by bringing in and promoting new talent and intriguing outsiders such as Dalibor Vesely, Robin Middleton and Daniel Libeskind. The three years of the IID had, of course, served a key preparatory role.
I am reminded of an obituary that I wrote for the AJ in 1990: ‘Over the years the AA became the most talked-about architectural centre in the world. Technically Alvin not only spent 14 hours a day “living” the AA but he became uncannily expert at knowing the names and track-records, the networks and foibles of almost every student in the school. He was able to sniff out talent, turn it over, give it a rough time and then flatter it. He was able to turn it over again, give it a teaching job and maybe an exhibition, and not be the least surprised when its work was turning up all over the world in the exhibition galleries and, eventually, out of the ground.’
Alvin inherited the unit structure − he simply ‘upped’ the players and rode them hard. He inherited the basic departmental breakdown − and simply tuned it. He inherited a delightful, funny-old building − and brought it alive. Like the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Alvin had a creative view of genealogy. Thus out of Elia Zenghelis would come Rem Koolhaas and out of them would come Zaha.
A sideways lurch from Elia would render Leon Krier. Out of Archigram would come Colin Fournier and later Christine Hawley. Out of Bernard Tschumi would come Nigel Coates. Australian imports Peter Wilson and Jenny Lowe bounced around somewhere from Zenghelis through to an alliance of new romantics and narrativists.
As these second generation characters began to evolve their own trajectories, a complex pattern of allegiances and distances sometimes needed deft handling. When Tschumi finally left for New York and Coates had inherited his unit, it ran pretty wild with a bunch of mainly ex-Bartlett kids whom Nigel was leading under the banner of ‘NATO’. At the Diploma examination, James Stirling and Edward Jones failed all of them, only for them to be passed by Alvin under a different panel of Tschumi and Sverre Fehn. It was some years before Stirling would come back into the building.
In this act (and some others) which must have caused him some discomfort, Alvin displayed genuine commitment to the forward march of architecture and we may well ask how many heads of school would do as much? He would sometimes give grudging support to those who were not really his ‘cup of tea’ − to his close friends admitting that ‘x’ was a bore or ‘y’ was shaky, but realised that they might have qualities and might even be a useful irritant.
There were big fights, of course, sometimes with the hard left who had taken over the AA Planning School and most often with an AA Council that was frequently suspicious and continually worried about the cost of his publishing ventures and lavish exhibitions.
For in his time and because of all these facets, the AA had become a ‘centre’, a ‘focus’ … a ‘scene’, to use his favourite term. It is no surprise then, that despite the mythology of Rowe’s, Hejduk’s et al’s ‘Texas Rangers’ (of which Alvin often spoke), or Black Mountain College in Tennessee, or even the Bauhaus, we can ask if − apart from the latter’s illustrious faculty − any of them ever produced a fraction of the creative offspring of Alvin’s AA? In his period only Hejduk’s Cooper Union ran close, since Columbia and SCI-Arc were still in the ignition stage.
Perhaps even, he unwittingly mastered a secret, academy-within-an-academy that begat many aspects of Tschumi’s Columbia, Leon Van Schaik’s RMIT, Coates’ RCA and my own at the Bartlett. We four were his students in the art of schoolmaking.
Illustration by Neal Fox