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The Architectural Association Diploma Honours Reviewed

The 2014 Diploma Honours, highest award bestowed on AA graduating students, showcase a wide spectrum of projects and unveil very distinct visions for the future of architecture

If Corbusier believed architecture could be revolutionised in five points, that aspiration is shared by the Architectural Association’s new publication celebrating its top five graduating students of 2014. The moniker of ‘diploma honours’ (also the eponymous title of this slim volume) is awarded to just a few students each year, for what the AA considers its finest projects. It is a shame that so few other schools of architecture don’t have similar awards; not just because ‘honours’ showcases the general abilities and interests of the graduating year, but because the accolade is a strong statement about what the school itself believes is the future of architecture (both pedagogically and practically). The question is: what can we learn from these five works individually, each one with such a distinct vision for architecture? And what do they tell us collectively about one school’s changing ideologies?

The spectrum is broad. At one end, a high-tech landscape and two ‘performances’ (addressing globalisation in very different ways) − this is architecture-as-technology, as infrastructural space, as speculation, as exchange. And at the other end of the spectrum, there is a modest communal housing block and a small gallery − what might be called architecture-as-tectonics (the production of space and arrangement of spatial elements).

Ioana Giurgiu’s SMFoF: Uncovering the Factory in Nature is a post-industrial, post-agrarian ‘salt marsh factory of the future’ eliminating waste in the production process by closing material loops. This interpretation of the ‘factory’ is in reality a highly controlled ecosystem, harnessing biological processes to ‘blend ecology’ − extracting a variety of products, from drinking water to phosphate, and organic fertilisers to pharmaceutical ingredients.

Giurgiu’s project shares its hybridised natural-synthetic processes with Harry Kay’s Jingju-on-Sea, but here the similarity ends. Kay’s ‘Peking Opera performs the act of consumerism on a planetary scale’, mirrors the trajectories of rare earth minerals extracted from China and brought to the Thames estuary. Here, in the final act of the opera, earth is thrown into the river in volumes reflecting global supply and demand, eventually building a new island. Kay’s progressive revelation of invisible forces underpinning the global political economic complex is subtle and compelling. The imagination and scepticism of the project are in a way typical of the unit, tutored by Liam Young and Kate Davies − while also marking an extreme advance for the way we think about what constitutes architecture.

The petty mechanisms of global society are also key to Vere van Gool’s Dear London, a study for an atomised Dutch embassy parasitically occupying existing structures. Situated in Nine Elms and adjacent to Battersea Power Station, the project wrestles against the laser beam of gentrification and redevelopment that roves around the capital. Van Gool proposes not only a new urban model of sovereignty, but also an alternative (or parallel) system of ownership − one replacing rental, built and prospective value with use-value: to rent a house is to sub-own a house; to stand on a street is to sub-own the street. It suggests a form of spatial occupation in the city neither public nor private, and the subtleties of the indeterminacy are thought-provoking.

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Axonometric from the Dear London project, by Vere van Gool

This project is excellently composed. In general, however, I must admit I struggle to grasp the modus operandi of this studio (Diploma 10, run by Carlos Villanueva Brandt). When there is true genius in their ‘spatial interventions’ it is often lost in the exaggerated complexity of their trademark CAD style (blinding wireframe neon lines ad absurdum). While their ‘immersive’ ‘autobiographical adventures’ are intended as urban dérives embedding the student in a foreign social context, they often flirt with prejudice, classism, condescending social profiling or outright naïveté of the conditions they were attempting to document. The exceptional skill of Vere van Gool has escaped these pitfalls, and her project is both thoroughly engaging and excellently informed.

In the second category, concerning more material architecture, Summer Islam’s Objects of Nostalgia is a whimsical proposal to extend the British Museum with a new solid concrete gallery − one formed by negative casting a Bloomsbury terrace row, and then carefully removing all the internal elements. There is a conceptual twist: the space displays the 99 per cent of the BM’s artefacts currently in storage, while the storage becomes home to the preserved architectural elements of the demolished terrace houses. The resulting space is a ghost of the domestic, a windowless, blank facade concealing the curious objets within. Islam’s extensive physical modelling documents a skilful, almost artisanal, sensitivity to the ‘fundamentals’ of architecture. Her refined drawing style and careful engagement with history and memory has produced a truly beautiful project, something between a Rachel Whiteread cast and a modern-day Soane Museum.

One project stands apart from the others, and that is Eugénie Bliah’s Socks: Collective Living for the Japanese Housewife (executed under the tutelage of Maria Giudici and Pier Vittorio Aureli). The architecture itself is modest and familiar − four private houses for young families arranged in a cross around a core containing semi-public programmes. Each home is autonomous, making the communal spaces (a four-way kitchen being the most important) the site for the sharing of labour. Indeed, the title for the project comes from a quote about a wife always knowing which drawer her husband’s socks are kept in. It is this ‘affective labour’, or unpaid and economically unrecognised work (like that of the Japanese housewife) that the architecture resists.

Bliah successfully distils complex theories of labour, gender and social relations into a precise architecture that is at once political, pragmatic and poetic. The elegance of this translation is truly remarkable; there is almost nothing harder than designing spaces that operate as planned without explanation or excuse. Socks avoids the blunt metaphors frequently seen in projects dealing with sensationalist identity politics. The possibility of sharing meals or laundry does not presume the housewife as an exploited underclass. Fathers can cook too. Bliah clearly understands that in housing, there can be no metaphors.

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Degrees of communal living, from Socks by Eugénie Bliah

What results is a powerful statement about the role of the architect, as well as the ability of space to shape behaviour. Socks restores the Modernist ideal of the architect as a major agent of social change. However, unlike an architect like Corbusier − who believed this was best done through large-scale technological modernisation − Bliah is directly influencing social power relations in an extremely localised (and therefore effective) manner.

This position, while refreshing, could be read as exemplar of a promising new direction in contemporary design (particularly among a younger generation of graduates). This direction is one that points to a radical reappraisal of the fundamental relationship between politics and architecture (see Jacques Duroy’s report on the Architecture Exchange event). We should be clear, this is not so much the politicisation of architecture, as it is the reformulation of political ambitions for social equality through the lens of architecture (the difference is subtle but important). Further, architecture that does not abstract its subjects, but begins from a rigorous investigation of their very real conditions, offers the most hope of avoiding that Modernist pitfall of over-simplification of its ‘users’.

Diploma Honours

Publisher: AA Publications
Price: £10

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