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The AA and I

Yung Ho Chang

When I heard about Zaha Hadid’s passing a few days ago, my thoughts were with her as well as with the AA.

I never attended the Architectural Association School of Architecture or the AA in London. In the spring of 1981, I left China to continue my study of architecture in the United States. I imaged I would be in the middle of a forest of skyscrapers but instead found myself in an immense cornfield that stretched to the horizon.  The school I went to is called Ball State University and in the town of Muncie, Indiana. The following year, after a summer of working as a busboy in my aunt’s restaurant in San Francisco, brought me back to Muncie and to a professor with a flower in his lapel and an unfamiliar accent. His name is Rodney Place and he was from the AA, so was I informed. His teaching method was drastically different from the American one I had become acquainted with, one based on the delivery of knowledge if not truth, as in China. Rodney named his studio “The Laboratory of Uncertainty”, gave the term the theme of “Use, Misuse and Abuse,” and only asked questions: What do you see in this Early-Renaissance Italian painting (shown repeatedly as one of his slides in the seminar)? What do you see in the streets of Muncie (a place where you hardly ever spotted a single living soul)?  Whether you saw something or not, he would not offer his own observation. With one exception. One late night, Rodney rushed into the studio excitedly and asked me to go outside with him. In front of the school building, some kids were jumping up and down the steps on bicycles under the clear, cool Indiana sky. The incident resulted in my pursuing a life-long project to bring bicycles and architecture together, along with other life-long projects concerning perception, the way the architect draws, etc., all activated from the inner me also in that class. I designed an apartment block that allowed cyclists to ride through all the units in Rodney’s studio and am currently working on a prototype housing project - Bike House - that stitches up city and dwelling, or re-creates a lifestyle, with the bicycle as the main thread. Rodney’s own lifestyle seemed to be part of his teaching: besides his 1960’s clothing, as I learned later, he once lived on the second floor of an empty office building in deserted downtown Muncie but where a neon sign on the façade was turned on at night, regardless. The sign read: Indiana Business College. The sign was definitely there; whether it lit up or not, I’m not so certain although it shines blindingly bright in my memory. The second floor has one big open room with a toilet next to the staircase. Rodney had material possessions that came only from the local Salvation Army: two saggy sofas, a table with two mismatched chairs, a folding bed, and a clothes rack with his collection of vintage suits. Together, the furniture could not change much of the powerful emptiness of this space. But it was just right for studio reviews, which we had often. Still, I didn’t really have an idea of how he lived in that space, except that I did know he went to the YMCA in the morning to take a shower. But I also know my interest in ways of living most likely started there. Years later, when I drew a Vertical Glass House in the early 1990’s, I was really designing a domestic experience. Again some decades later, when the Vertical Glass House was completed in Shanghai and I was spending the night in there bathed in the moonlight, my mind was already racing on the ramp in the schematic Bike House under design.  After I left Muncie, I befriended someone who had studied under Rodney in Illinois. He told me about a graffiti in one of the men’s rooms at their school that said: No place like Rodney Place.

So Rodney was the AA for me. Not only because of his background - both studied in the same class with Zaha, and then taught there - but also because of his encouragement to search for other-than-standard approaches to architecture, which I took as the spirit of the AA.  Nonetheless, I was keenly aware I did not have an AA education, which would have been too expensive. In 1993, I was teaching at Rice University in Houston and went to the University of Texas in Austin to talk at a conference about a kindergarten I had designed, which was all about windows and views. After my presentation, a professor came up, introduced himself as Chris McDonald, and asked me: “Were you a student of Robin Evans?”

Robin Evans taught theory at the AA where Chris was a classmate of Rodney and Zaha. In the early 90’s, my curiosity about the AA grew even more. I looked up the institution in the library and collected information about its faculty in a piecemeal manner.

Peter Wilson. That was a name Rodney had mentioned to me, talking about the way he drew, particularly a public bathroom he had designed and delineated with realistic yet poetic portrayal of water, fire and smoke that altered my understanding of architectural representation ever since.  

Bernard Tschumi, and Michael Gold. Their pursuit of narrative architecture and an intimate relationship between literature and architecture. An image of man ascending a dimly lit leaning staircase in one of their publications still haunts from time to time. At one point, I owned three copies of Bernard’s The Manhattan Transcripts. And of course, I visited Parc de la Villette in Paris. Although how would literature, film or some conceptual notions be translated into built forms remains an open question.

Zaha Hadid. Her reinvention of a formal language based on  Russian Constructivism  adopting curvilinear perspective as a tool - or the curved world - is what we actually see, she once argued.  

And Nigel Coats, Peter Salter…

And Robin Evans, who was an architect but wrote about architecture: If Rodney mentioned his name in passing, I wasn’t paying enough attention at the time. After reading a few of Robin Evans essays, such as Translation from Drawing to Building, The Developed Surface, Figures, Doors and Passages, and Mies van der Rohe’s Paradoxical Symmetries, it became clear he was my teacher’s teacher. I would not use the word theory to describe Evans’ writing since that would risk putting him in the league of minds that pull architecture out of architecture and make an abstraction of it. Evans wrote about walls, doors, corridors, the ways people inhabit buildings and the ways architects draw. He draw the diagrams in his writing himself as part of his effort to bring out the extraordinariness of seemingly ordinary building parts as well as the commonplace. A door is no longer a door; it is perhaps more than a door, but ultimately a door, a very door-like door, like the one Marcel Duchamp put in his apartment at 11 Rue Larrey in Paris, which was set in two perpendicular openings for two separate rooms and closing one meant opening the other at the same time: A “open-close door.” Duchamp was another name I learned from Rodney, who painted a revolving door in the spirit of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2” and renovated an apartment where one went through a closet to enter a bedroom. I only looked at some photographs of Rodney’s “door-closet” but pushed open an actual “bookshelf-door” to a bedroom in a house in Michigan designed by Robert Cole in late 1980’s. Robert was also in the class of Rodney, Zaha and Chris at the AA. I must have been in a state of amnesia when I designed a “sliding folding swing door” in 1998, since it didn’t occur to me I was contributing to this extremely brief history of conceptual doors. I’m not suggesting that the door design game belongs to a particular group. A door is a building component that is hard to totally get rid of. Steven Holl’s invention of the “door wall-corner,” first seen in his Fukuoka housing design, indicates that architects always wonder what a door really is and what it could possibly be. A window is another one: from Duchamp’s “Fresh Widow” to Sigurd Lewerentz’s “glued-on window.” Atypical, non-architectural elements could be included as well, such as bicycle wheel, like the revolving “book-bikes” in Xishu Bookstore we designed in Beijing in 1996, after Duchamp isolated the circular object from the device for transportation to produce his first readymade in 1913. I don’t mean to trivialize Robin Evans or give Marcel Duchamp too much credit. I’m just saying that Evans was able to turn a somewhat mundane building into a laboratory of infinite inquisitive explorations and creative possibilities. And the act of living/occupation/appropriation continues on as an extension of design. In fact, Rodney’s entry for the Shinkenchiku residential design competition with the theme “Comfort in the Metropolis” judged by Peter Cook in 1977 seemed to blend the design and use of London’s underground into one. The word “intervention” certainly has double meanings here. As far as Duchamp; when asked “Does architecture interest you?” he replied: “Not at all”. 

I finally visited the AA for the first time in 1992, as a tourist and saw, with my mind’s eyes, the personages I had become acquainted through books and magazines drinking away on the first floor bar… In 1998, I was back in Bedford Square putting up an exhibition entitled “Possibly Big Possibly Small” with two friends, Kay Ngee Tan of Singapore and Tie-Nan Chi of Taiwan. At that time, the chair of the school was Mohsen Mustafavi, who happened to be in that same class with Rodney, Zaha, Chris and Robert.

This exercise of remembering, however, is not about being nostalgic, nor it is an attempt to construct the AA of the 1970’s and 80’s, which could be totally misleading with my very limited knowledge and my lack of historic perspective. I’m simply trying to excavate and pick up ideas of architecture, some brilliant, some relevant, some both brilliant and relevant, that got drowned in the mainstream of architectural development in recent decades. I should confess, I hope there are pieces of me in the mix as well. I would like to put “the me” I dropped somewhere back together, urgently

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