Revolution Begins in the Basement

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I have had the good fortune to locate in the QUB library the Architectural Association Project Review from 1978/79 – which was close to the end of Brian Anson’s time at the school of architecture in London. (Some say he was sacked, others say he left of his own accord) What follows is the foreword written by Brian for his unit called ‘Open Atelier’ that was set in the basement of the Architectural Association on Percy Street, London. All I will say for now is that it is very different to all the other sober unit introductions which are penned by the likes of Rem Koolhaas, Terry Farrell, Peter Cook, Dalibor Vesely, Peter Wilson to name but a few of the tutors ‘teaching’ and heading units there at the time. Enjoy!

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“YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE PERCY STREET”

“It never set out to be an experiment in student-tutor relationships, education, space…the lot. In the heady days of community action involvement at the AA during the early 70s, Percy Street basement was just a scruffy bolt hole for all the ‘radical’ units and independent-minded students. In fact students got there first, building minute, but colourful working cubicles, squatting etc.

The place used to flood in the winter to a depth of about 2 inches. Then in 1972, along with Dick Hobin’s marxist Diploma unit, Barbara Goldstein’s co-operative unit, Tom Woolley from the Graduate School, the lads from Dundee trying to stem the social disasters of North Sea oil, and a collection of other politicos, weirdos, activists etc… I moved in.

Great gatherings occurred – Jugoslavs brought their Slivovitch and Vodka, British workers brought their brown ale and wine, if it was drunk at all, was heavy black and potent. The students union arrived in the dank hole, spearheaded by Howard Smith who created the only decent SU the AA’s ever had. There was never any order and all these groups were somehow living out the last hours of the social action decade.

The rumours sped through the elegance of Bedford Square. First Year students were warned never to venture down that cast-iron staircase in Percy Street for fear they’d be eaten up. The whispers flitted from the lips of a new breed of yound AA staff who were preparing to launch the ‘pretty picture decade’ on the world of architectural education. Innocent students elaborated on the whispers, ‘…Brian Anson’s been in prison… Dick Hobin’s funded by Russia… the Dundee group are really the Tartan Army… what’s a Trot?… they’ve started something called ARC (Architects Revolutionary Council) down there…’

Suddenly it was all over. Only a few of us remained. Empty spaces everywhere. The action decade was finished and the grim, inflation, survival time began.

Property barons no longer bestrode the cities pissing on everything. For God’s sake let’s have some pretty pictures, the students said, and green-booted tinted-glasses conceptualists zoomed to international eminence. Meanwhile the basement still flooded and the community posters frayed at the edges. For a short time the basement came alive again as the SRC (Students Revolutionary Council) established headquarters there and attempted a revolution in the AA. I took Boyarksy’s side amidst the extreme bitterness which raced through the AA and for my sins had my room sprayed with ‘Traitor to the working class’. As we waded through the floods it was not a happy time down there. SRC got mangled by the wind-drinking Chicago street-fighter in Bedford Square and once more the basement as silent.

Then one day in 1977 a couple of odd Frenchmen drifted in off the street. They weren’t even registered students but Parisian waiters. One lanky and sombre-faced from good stock, the other a poor squat who seemed to take nothing seriously. We thought they were a comedy act straight from Leicester Square or Pigalle – actually they were architectural students looking around for something worthwhile to do.

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Wondering if the AA was worth their attention. In the end they registered with Percy Street and from that moment the basement came to life again. The social basis of our activities remained but the colours were brighter, the conversations richer and the heavy doctrines were pushed gently to one side. We got the drains fixed and voila! no more floods – the wellies became a thing of the past. My office was commandeered and installed with cooker, fridge, table and chairs – the basement now had a kitchen. The paraphernalia of living was collected – whole libraries, easy chairs, plants. We painted, we scrubbed, we brought music, and even wine made its entry alongside the ale. We developed a penchant for Irish whisky and we photographed all our exquisite, colourful, but very cheap salads before we ate them.

The basement had events again, though not publicised in the Events list. The AA service workers attended our juries; the secretaries were critics. German mineworkers spent a week with us and students from other schools debated education with us.

We began to realise we were in an experiment – in how you live in space, how to respect other people and how to manipulate and transform space. We broke down walls and thus barriers. We put windows in. We collected furniture and garbage from the streets of London. The cast-offs from the affluent society became our materials.

The myths were slowly being dispelled. Young first year students would creep fearfully down the stairs shyly asking ‘Mr Anson can I work down here?’ … ‘Shut up… my name’s Brian … yes of course you can so long as you help clean the kitchen!’

Meanwhile at the other end of the basement carpets were laid, spotlights installed and, with white paint everywhere (and silver columns) Art Net moved in. Such a clash of styles at each end; one all ‘darlings’ and tinted glasses, the other spaghetti on the stove and mad conversations about life.

Art Net’s been empty for a while (good space for table tennis though) and the Open Atelier is really open. Students are suddently streaming in – why are they all women? – is it the Frenchmen, or wee Seamus (the other one) from Belfast or the man with big boots who comes down from Leicester three days a week to do lovely cryptic architecture. I’ve got an office again (little gem built by H and B), as befits the big boss of the SAC. To cap it all a sweet little Chinese student asked me, ‘Mr Anson… er Brian, have you mellowed?’. Oh my God am I really a golden-oldie? … maybe we’d better open that drainage pipe again and get the wellies out.

What d’you think of it so far?…”

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