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Work and social life at the Architectural Association


Moving to London and going to the Architectural Association
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] In your fourth year in Architecture School you were required to work in an architect’s office. It had been that you could go study the antiquities of Rome and Greece or work in an architect’s office. And then, with the war, both those options became just the one option and straight after the war people started to go overseas again. But this time, not to study in Greece and Rome but to work in architect’s offices. So in 1952, I left South Africa to spend my fourth year in an architect’s office in London. Little did I think I would never go back. I had left a fellow architecture student, Robert Scott Brown in South Africa and I was in love with him and he with me so we were going back. And I got to London, and there was still rationing in London. And it was that time when the socialist government was in… in London and the plan of London was being executed to put a green belt round the whole city and then move the bombed people from East End particularly, out into new towns in the country. And there were also many socialist-type expenditures on human needs. Huge amount of housing was being rebuilt in and out of London, and scholarships and education in general and, etc. I got myself a place to live and I got myself a job with Frederick Gibberd. And I also couldn’t start the job for about three weeks so I went to Paris for two weeks. I had a wonderful time roaming around in Paris by myself. And then came back and went to the office but also visited the Architectural Association in London. That was a very famous school and I knew about it when I lived in South Africa and I’d seen some of its publications in South Africa. And I’d been told by the man I was working for that it was the place that produced two pantomimes a year and a great deal of hot air. So I didn’t have much to say for the AA. But I thought, well I’d go visit them anyway, and then when I was visiting, I said to them, ‘Well, I had thought maybe of coming here but I think not’, I was saying. And she said, ‘There’s an entrance exam on Wednesday, take the test’. So, sight unseen, I took a test and got in. Then it seemed as if fate was pushing me and so I decided I’d stay. And Robert would finish Architecture School in South Africa and try to join me after that.

So I lost nine months because of changing from an academic year that starts in February to one that starts in September. And I could also go travelling in Europe, which I did again on my own. Joined up with some AA students in Sweden at the end of that time. And came back ready to start school in London but in a considerable swirl, I had a crisis of confidence. And so I entered the AA and in a way, it made my way of thinking about architecture again. Now there was social crisis going on in England too. The play Look back in Anger opened in the West End and a group of us students went to see it. And when the curtain opened and we looked out on our lives, and everyone in that audience more or less burst out laughing because it was a typical student’s apartment of that day and age. Huge mess and then of course the character, I forget his name now, he is one of these people who because of the socialist government’s liberal education policy got to go to university. As he said, ‘My university was not red brick, it was yellow brick’. Now red brick were looked upon as the socialist universities, yellow brick was beneath the pale. And his… his outcry against the world was part of our lives.

And at the AA where I was, the place was in two: the scholarship students who were very, very bright and if you got a scholarship to the AA not your local art school, that was because you were very, very bright indeed. But then those people had a chip on their shoulders because they moved in among the rich and the privileged and they weren’t all that respected. So the other ones, the ones who went to English public schools kind of didn’t talk to them. And there were a few rebels from the public schools in amongst the brilliant scholarship students. And we colonials – they once said the English have very lax rules for gardeners and colonials. Everyone else has to meet another standard. So I could move between these different groups and note their… the sadness of it all and not only that, one-upmanship was part of the society. The book had recently come out whose name I don’t remember about… what did they call it? It was a way of looking at the world where you tried to one up other people particularly in a social sphere. And, I forget the name of the book, but it was a bestseller at that time. And I had thought that he had invented it, the whole system, but I found at the AA, he had merely codified it. It was in juries, it was between students, it was even within the groups that were meant to be friends with each other. They’d still get on top of each other in that way and push each other down. And we found it really very dissatisfying.

Internationally renowned architects Robert Venturi (1925-2018) and Denise Scott Brown (b.1931) have helped transform contemporary design through their innovative architecture and planning. Winners of numerous prestigious awards, their designs have championed multiculturalism, social activism, symbolism, pop culture, history and evolving technologies.

Listeners: Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes is Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books include Human Built World, Rescuing Prometheus and American Genesis. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society, US National Academy of Engineering, Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Duration: 6 minutes, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010