Just last week the Architectural Association announced the winners of the competition for the new Wakeford Hall to be built within Hooke Park, the AA's stunning forest retreat. As we know, the most radical projects rarely take place nr. 1 - but they do, and this time they did, get recognition. In this case we're talking about Elsewhere, whose entry is without doubts the standout project between the four finalists. Elsewhere is headed by John Ng, who has been teaching at the AA since 2012; John's profound understanding of the school, its culture, its quirks, and its uniqueness is what makes this project not only an exuberant and beautiful architectural gift, but also, a celebration of all the AA stands for. The project is constructed as a triptych of three 'experiments' of different duration, a term for the loos (see image above), two years for the library, 56 years for the lecture hall. The loos become an occasion of material experimentation as the students play at building and rebuilding them with ephemeral enclosures. The idea is pure tongue-in-cheek AA, and yet, beyond the irony there is a clear, extreme idea of what architecture is: it's about society (being alone - or not), form (being round, being blue, being pink, being square), and shit (being mortal).
It is also a veiled homage to some of the people who made the AA great in the past: a new City of the Captive Globe, irreverently mixed with Tschumi's La Villette's folies. And the whole project - consciously or not - reads as a fresh re-take on the two best entries of the famous park competition of the 1980s. What if Hooke park is not a park, but, in itself, an event, a project that keeps renewing itself every term, every two years, every century?
In my valley in the Alps the most important religious festival of the year is the feast of St. Bartholomew; the villagers (who to this day remain more pagan than Christian) celebrate it with a bonfire competition that is closer to Beltane than the Church of Rome might really like. The winner is not the largest bonfire, but the most elaborate, the most beautiful, the most poetic. In short, it is all about architecture. An architecture built to be set on fire. Similarly, Elsewhere's toilets are set on fire on Graduation night.
A library in the form of a forest, and a lecture hall that is a gigantic topiary. The other two slices of the triptych are just as good as the first but we will try not to divulge too many secrets here in case Elsewhere might want to build or publish the project in the near future... which, we can only say, we hope it will be the case.
Elsewhere's work is particularly refreshing in a panorama where it seems that form and content are destined to become opposites both in practice and academia. Their work defies categories: it is socially militant, moulded as it is on an actual project of life before anything else, and yet extremely precise in terms of its aesthetic qualities, down to the graphics and composition of their drawings. The project for Wakeford Hall is very contemporary in its language and materials, and yet beyond its delight in new technologies, it is also clearly the project of architects who master the classical tradition and understand how to play with proportion and symmetry. This formal control is, again, very rare, and it is what makes the whole Elsewhere website a treasure trove of ideas: http://www.architecture-elsewhere.com/
The triptych is also, perhaps, a cautionary tale on the state of architectural education today - from the loos-as-maquettes, to the library which, as the text says: 'may not be very warm, so it is a good idea not to give very long lectures'.