Icon of the month: AA Files 31.01.18

AA FILES

The AA’s witty, eclectic journal reminds us how essential good writing is to a healthy architectural culture. Its demise should worry us all

The AA files, the in-house journal of London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture, gives the following urbane advice to those considering submitting an article:

The preferred model for AA Files texts is that they are conceived and written as essays not academic papers – that is, the journal encourages writing that privileges ideas over references, an originality of argument over the reiteration of existing positions, a good title and anything with a sense of wit, nuance or style.

The contents of this stylish journal gloriously come up to the mark of this stated ambition. Appearing twice a year from its home in Bedford Square, and expertly edited since 2007 by Thomas Weaver, AA Files has been a forum for informed and entertaining writing on architecture; a subject conceived in a remarkably broad way. Its eclectic and global range is eye-popping, and each issue leaps joyously from the beautiful to the bonkers. Last year’s Issue 74 was indicative: with Francesco Borromini rubbing shoulders with Mies van der Rohe; and Victorian gasholders finding space alongside Soviet zoos, drive-in cinemas, a nightclub designed by an eminent architectural historian, and a city-sized megastructure. 

If the subjects on offer can sometimes appear recondite on first sight, their importance is emphasised in writing that avoids the jargon and obscurantism that plague much of the writing about architecture that comes out of academia. The journal’s mixture of scholarship and fun leaves a reader reeling yet invigorated by the thrillingly diverse ways in which buildings can affect the world. AA Files has helped nurture some of the very best long-form writing on architecture being produced anywhere in the world. Each issue includes articles that it would be difficult to imagine finding a home anywhere else. 

AA Files is the descendent of a series of in-house journals, starting with AA Notes in the 1880s, that have provided a forum for vehement debates about the direction of architectural culture and the Architectural Association’s place within it. The AA is an institution with a powerful self-mythologizing streak. Set up in 1847 by students rebelling against the prevailing system of articled pupillage, its institutional history is shot through with moments of high drama. In the 1930s the students forced the school to adopt a radically left wing, team-work driven approach, making the school a seedbed of British modernism. These ideas were given a thrilling provocative mouthpiece with the student-run journal FOCUS. AA Files was launched in 1981 Alvin Boyarsky. Boyarsky had taken the reigns of the school during a period of crisis. He reaffirmed the school’s independence, and reoriented it towards a new role as a fulcrum for global architectural culture. AA Files has been sustained by this institutional tradition, and it is a glorious expression of the same independent spirit. It has used its position to inveigle many of the superlative roster of architectural talent that passes through the doors of 36 Bedford Square to contribute.

In November, it was reported in the Architects’ Journal that the Architectural Association was threatening to make 16 staff redundant, including the entire publications department. The school has stated that this does not necessarily entail the end of AA Files. I don’t have the necessary information to do more than speculate on its future, but if this piece in praise of AA Files risks ending up serving as an obituary, it should be a protest too. 

Architecture is made up of more than just buildings. Writing about architecture, whether it is history, theory or criticism, provides foundations on which a healthy architectural culture is built. The potential demise of AA Files is a single iteration of a much wider crisis in architectural publishing. One thinks especially of the recent impoverishment of Yale University Press’s once peerless academic publishing operation. This crisis matters. Serious architectural writing benefits immensely from dedicated editorial rigour and high production standards. The growth of blogging has provided a richer and diversified dialogue surrounding architecture, but it doesn’t make up for the institutional support that makes a production like AA Files viable. The journal has provided a platform for much vital writing on architecture, in a world where there are ever fewer outlets for such writing. The fact that it carries out this essential role with incandescent élan means that its uncertain fate is deeply worrying, and also immensely sad. 

This article first appeared in Icon 176

 

Words

Otto Saumarez Smith

 

Image

Morwenna Smith

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Writing about architecture, whether it is history, theory or criticism, provides foundations on which a healthy architectural culture is built

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