Figures of Influence

Creating A Scene: Alvin Boyarsky and the Architectural Association

By the early ’80s the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in London had become a rich incubator of architectural speculation and the gathering place for the liveliest architectural discussions from around the world. The ringmaster of this potent construction was Alvin Boyarsky (1928–90), a Canadian who had studied architecture at McGill University (1946–51) and undertaken graduate studies in urban planning at Cornell University (1957–59). His meticulous and inventive curation of the AA stemmed partly from his critique of architectural education at the time and also from a fascination with how architecture might evolve during a period in which Modernism appeared to have run its course. His son, Nicholas Boyarsky, told me, “Alvin was fascinated with the beginnings of things, in nurturing, provoking and supporting younger students and teachers—where the conversation might go, how a proposition might emerge, how it could be drawn and represented. The publications and exhibitions were an extension of this process.” Boyarsky had taught at the University of Oregon (1959–62), the Bartlett School of Architecture in London (1962–65), the AA (1963–65) and the University of Illinois at Chicago (1965–71), which had helped him clarify his objections to the conventional architectural curriculum. He became chair (or chairman as it was called at the time) of the AA in 1971 when it was struggling for survival, a position he held until his death in 1990.

Part of Boyarsky’s strategy to elevate the AA was through mythologizing its activities and production as well as the careers of many of those who taught and studied there. To unravel what it was that really made the AA work, I interviewed Peter Cook who had studied and taught there. He was also a founding member of Archigram along with a diverse and talented group of architects, several of whom were also teaching at the AA before Boyarsky’s arrival as chair. Cook was running the fifth year at the AA when Boyarsky took up his position, and along with the other Archigram members had lobbied for his appointment—the other shortlisted candidate was Kenneth Frampton, a well established English academic. Cook ran one of the strongest design units at the AA and then became professor of the Städelschule in Frankfurt before taking up the position of Bartlett professor in 1990, where he had at least as significant an effect on its fortunes as Boyarsky had on the AA. The two had distinct methods of leadership, but during our conversation Cook was generous with his acknowledgement of Boyarsky’s influence on him and others from the AA who had subsequently run important schools of architecture. “I’ve had three or four conversations over the years with Bernard [Tschumi at Columbia University] on the subject and we have agreed that we were a secret masterclass and the third person is Leon [van Schaik at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology] who is a member of the secret masterclass. I think we were watching what Alvin did, and if you take our subsequent trajectories you can see that we were watching—not that we did not have our own way, but all three of us were quite successful in manipulating the schools we got. We remembered some of the old Alvin tricks—not all of them, but I know that we have all used some of them—we were watching and listening,” Peter Cook noted.

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Volume 35, Number 2: Art + Architecture

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #138, published June 2016.

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