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Ideas: AA XX 100

Last month the Architectural Association launched its exhibition AA XX 100, marking the centenary of women's admission to the AA school. The exhibition opened in tandem with a conference, a series of events, and a book celebrating and documenting the careers of the AA's female alumni, including Farshid Moussavi who we met in Issue #8. Kate Schneider reviews the exhibition, open in Bedford Square until 9th December. 

‘The woman architect is an experiment, the working-out of which lies in the future, and time alone can show us the result,’ wrote Winifred Ryle in the Architectural Association Journal of 1918. In 1917, with the mounting pressures of the suffragette movement, a raging war, and the financial strain of moving to the new premises on Bedford Square, the AA voted to admit women to the school for the first time. Ryle was one of four women in the new intake of 1917/18, a milestone commemorated by a drawing of four silhouetted busts of the ‘future heads of the profession’. In her article, she deflected male critics who claimed women would only ‘put in plenty of cupboards’ and struggle with the scaffolding. They severely underestimated the capabilities of the ‘modern girl’. One hundred years later, and the AA XX 100 celebrates a rich lineage of women students and alumni that includes Zaha Hadid and Amanda Levete alongside many others. The exhibition traces back through the archives, weaving together themes of identity, memory and collaboration, to tell a social history of change.

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The exhibition tells a story of women’s active role in the shaping of public space, and how their architecture strove towards a vision of a better world. It ‘uncovers a strong tradition of social radicalism and social protest that existed from the earliest days in the school.’ In the 1930s, progressives believed in an ideal of ‘housing for all’, designed by architects and equipped to the best possible standards, and AA women worked with the New Homes for Old group raising awareness for, and generating well-designed solutions to, the slum problem. Florence Knoll put together a book of samples of the kinds of fabrics that would appropriately furnish a ‘modernist universe’. Mary Medd designed an experimental flexible, prefabricated nursery school with Erno Goldfinger. After the war, the urgent need to rebuild Britain gave architects an opportunity to turn these optimistic ideas into concrete policy. Jane Drew designed the Riverside restaurant at the 1951 Festival of Britain, decked out with a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, ushering in a new national style to promote recovery. Women such as Rosemary Stjernstedt Judith Ledeboer and Ann MacEwen worked extensively for the housing authorities, planning for the welfare state’s administration of a new future.

The 1970s brought about another surge of social activism, as women pushed back against stifling institutional norms that were not doing enough for diversity and community. In 1980, the feminist design workers’ cooperative Matrix formed ‘because women are brought up differently in our society we have different experiences and needs in relation to the built environment.’ The group set out to empower women, by ‘deliberately choosing to research and design the sorts of of spaces ignored by a male-led profession, such as women’s centres and nurseries,' and they equipped women with the tools they needed to take part in the design process. These are the kinds of conversations that are still taking place today, and with urgency. The AA XX 100 exhibition provides not just a platform for looking back, but for looking forward towards an exciting future of change, too.


Words by Kate Schneider.

Images of exhibition by Sue Barr and Kate Schneider.

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