Drawing Ambience: Alvin Boyarsky and The Architectural Association
by Igor Marjanović and Jan Howard
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, distributed by the University of Chicago Press, 2015
156 pp., illus. 125 col. Paper, $35
Reviewed by Sana Murrani
Drawing Ambience is, predominantly, a collection of almost the entire archive of drawings owned by Alvin Boyarsky, the chairman of the Architectural Association (AA) between 1971-1990. The drawings featured in the book are by avant-garde architects of the AA school in London and its associates, such as Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Coop Himmelblau, and Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, to name a few. The book comprises three main sections in addition to two small sections towards the end that show photographs of the installations at the museum exhibition and a collection of the archival AA publications at the time, respectively.
The book opens with an essay by Igor Marjanović that gives a broad historic account of the teaching styles and the visual pedagogical emphasis of the school under the leadership of Boyarsky. The main body of the book is dedicated to the archival collection that was exhibited to the public in Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis and the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. This is followed by a second essay by Boyarsky's son, Nicholas, an architect and an educator as well as a graduate of the AA in 1988; he reveals the personal side to his father's collection as well as his own experience of architectural education at the time.
Marjanović, an associate professor of architecture at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on Boyarsky's educational experiments, focuses on Boyarsky's emphasis on drawings, exhibitions, and collections as being instrumental to ideas, practices, and the teaching of architecture. Despite the author's attempt to incorporate some theoretical ideas using quotes by the likes of Walter Benjamin, Reyner Banham, and Edward Robins, this discussion remains factual rather than critical, but he reveals eloquently some of the most important educational structures and pedagogical models utilised in the AA at the time and perhaps this constitutes the main added value of this book to existing published work of the avant-garde architects.
This essay captures the unique status of the school's peak time between 1983-1990. Situated in one the most beautiful Georgian houses on Bedford Square in London, the AA fostered critical enquiry (post modern era) that pushed the architectural discourse from modern ideals and historic references existing at the time to questions of philosophy, culture, social values, and practices. This shift required a new conceptual communication and visual language aided by experimentation for the expression of cultural change. Whether you agree or not with the AA's pedagogic model, emphasising drawings, imitations, and visual branding, the school instigated new discourses in the field of architecture and gained over the years an international status that it still maintains.
The archival collection laid out in a catalogue format includes an array of early drawings by the Russian avant-garde architects, neofuturists, constructivists, and deconstructivists of that period who were connected to Boyarsky and the AA. A double-spread sheet is dedicated to each architect with drawings, while the most influential architects of the era, such as Hadid, Tschumi, and Libeskind were given more space in the book. The catalogue explicitly focuses on explaining the work of the architects and their drawings as a teaching model of practice. Most drawings, especially by those prominent in the field, have been published in the past, so this particular emphasis on positioning the drawings, their exhibitions, and collections has contributed a great deal to distinguishing this book from others with similar content.
Drawing Ambience is based predominantly on factual information. Its style is easy to read, and it makes a good read for architects and educators interested in exploring pedagogic models in architectural education. The book will also appeal to undergraduate students of architecture, graphics, and illustration alike. Printed on very good quality semi-gloss paper with excellent resolution colour drawings, it is well laid out with a useful index towards the end. Fundamentally this book is about two things: the visual history of a very famous architecture school, and its chairman's private collection of work produced when it was in its prime.