"Most famous architects have been here (sooner or later)", notes a blue plaque created to hang outside the Architectural Association's home at 36 Bedford Square in central London. It's no exaggeration. The roster of stars who have passed through the school's ranks as students – with many also teaching there – is extraordinary. For over 150 years, the AA has been at the forefront of architectural education and culture with an influence that far exceeds its historically diminutive size.
Now all of that is in question with the firing last week of director Eva Franch i Gilabert, after she lost a vote of no confidence following the school's overwhelming rejection of her strategic plan.
Franch got the job less than two years ago, elected by the school's students and staff – in a process either refreshingly democratic or naively unprofessional, depending on your perspective – with the somewhat hyperbolic mandate to make the school "better at explaining the power of architecture in addressing, unveiling, and sometimes even resolving some of the most pressing issues that society faces".
Things had recently been looking up for the school. Its well-publicised financial troubles appeared to be a thing of the past, while in the autumn it gained the power to award its own degrees for the first time in its history.
For outsiders, the furore that's gripped the AA has come out of the blue, and despite little being known about precisely what went on, a back and forth of claim and counter-claim has played out online and in the media. Yet the gossipy focus on Franch herself, not least by the high profile supporters who rushed to her defence, obscures the broader, deeper-rooted, arguably existential crisis the AA is now facing.
The AA's independence is today far from an advantage and is in many ways now a handicap
The AA's history goes back to 1847, when it was established as the first independent architecture school – a status that has always stood it apart. At various moments in its history, the school has been at the vanguard of architectural culture in Britain and globally.
In the 1930s, it became the first overtly modernist architecture school in Britain and established the unit system. During the 1950s, it became associated with the pop movement which fed into the hugely influential work of Archigram the following decade.
But it was the tenure of Alvin Boyarsky as director from 1971 until 1990 when the AA's reach went truly global. Teachers at the school during this time included such luminaries as Bernard Tschumi, Peter Cook, Daniel Libeskind, Elia Zhenghelis, Charles Jencks and Joseph Rykwert, with outstanding students frequently co-oped as teachers including Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid.
In her manifesto, Franch consciously evoked these glory days, and the singular pre-eminence they have accorded the school, in her attempts at articulating a way forward. The problem is things have changed fundamentally since those days. The AA's independence, on which it has always prided and often defined itself, is today far from an advantage and is in many ways now a handicap. Architecture – and higher education – now operate in very different worlds.
In its current form AA embodies the idea of architecture's exceptionalism
University teaching and research no longer exist in disciplinary silos but take place within the context of an ever more interdisciplinary framework. This is not simply a case of projects bringing together researchers from different fields, although this is important. But the broader perspective that an interdisciplinary outlook offers even to teaching and research that take place within traditional disciplinary bounds.
In other words, architecture should be engaging in everything from planning, engineering, sociology, economics and environmental studies, to materials science, psychology, neuroscience, data science and much else besides. Only a few months ago no-one imagined that architects should be talking to epidemiologists, but now those conversations are vital as we look to design a post-Covid world.
Architecture schools that are part of larger universities are ideally placed to do this in a way that the AA, situated in its Bedford Square terrace, is patently not.
Bringing someone in from another discipline to give a lecture or even to collaborate on a longer-term project is not enough; its's the continual engagement and perspective that one gets as part of a broader academic and intellectual community which is so important to be able to see architecture in the round.
In its current form, AA embodies the idea of architecture's exceptionalism – that it exists on a higher plane to other disciplines thanks to its public mission, transformative potential and the agency that architects possess. As Franch herself put it, "architecture is one of the only disciplines that has the privilege and responsibility to bring all the spheres of society together".
Yet while seductive – and Franch does have a talent for the alluring soundbite – this position is very hard to justify in the world in which architects work today, where they operate not from a position of autonomy but of instrumentalisation to the needs of real estate and capital.
Architecture has no public mission if it's only the rich who get to study at one of its most prestigious schools
It is still possible to make the case for architecture's exceptional status – or argue that we must work to recapture – but for this argument to be coming from a school that charges tuition fees of £22,000 per year for undergraduates and up to just shy of £45,000 for postgraduates stretches credulity. Architecture has no public mission if it's only the rich who get to study at one of its most prestigious schools. There will still be outstanding students, but also a contingent for whom it is little more than an architectural finishing school.
For all of the AA's radical posturing, that mantel has long since been picked up by others: from the London School of Architecture, the model of which was conceived in part to reduce the financial burden that students face; the Global Free Unit, led by Robert Mull (who ironically Franch beat to the AA directorship), which empowers students to conceive projects according to their own sensibilities and ethical positions; to the transformative work being undertaken by Harriet Harriss at the Pratt Institute to "de-partition" the school from the communities it serves; and many others besides, though none are without their own problems and challenges.
All of which brings us back to that blue plaque. While conceived as a celebration of the AA's illustrious past (albeit a somewhat smug one), the plaque stands instead as the symbol of an institution that has been resting on its laurels and its glorious history far too long, and in the process clinging to an outmoded idea of what architecture is and what it is for.
Quite where the school should now turn is anyone's guess. The AA has reinvented itself before and is capable of doing so again. But it is abundantly clear that the notion of architecture somehow standing alone, which the AA in its current form perpetuates, is woefully unsuited to the world in which architecture now operates.