Oral historians try to â€˜â€™convey the sense of fluidity, of unfinishedness, of an inexhaustible work in progress, which is inherent to the fascination and frustration of oral history â€“ floating as it does in time between the present and an ever-changing past, oscillating in the dialogue between the narrator and the interviewer, and melting and coalescing in the no-manâ€™s land from orality to writing and backâ€™â€™1
Oral history is an art form unlike any other interview, where you ask a question, which is echoed back by an answerâ€¦ then a question, then another answerâ€¦ and so on and so forth. Oral history is a practice and method of research2. The main focus when recording an oral history is to provide enough stimulus and structure to guide the conversation, to let the individual feel comfortable enough to tell their story and to mainly listen.Â People speak more fluidly and freely than they do write. Yet to sit someone down and ask them to tell you about their life story is an unusual and rare occurrence. For the listener, the act of listening to someoneâ€™s oral history is a privilege.
As part of the AA XX 100 celebrations of the centenary of women at the AA from 1917-2017, we are recording oral histories with AA alumni, teachers and staff, men and women, past and present.Â To conduct these recordings we work as a team of three. Yasmin Shariff (the chair of AA XX 100) takes the lead on selecting, approaching and arranging the interview and acts as an interviewer. Samantha Lee (AA Dipl.2012) takes the lead on conducting and editing the photography and film footage to document the oral history, which Anouk Ahlborn (AA 4th year) now helps with as well. My role is as the lead researcher and the main interviewer. I record and compile the audio recordings for the AA archives.Â We work closely with the AA Archivist Edward Bottoms who provides support and guidance on conducting oral histories and on collecting the material for the archives. Also the AA XX 100 members Dr Lynne Walker (Architectural Historian) and Eleanor Gawne (AA Head Librarian) act as advisors.
So far we have conducted seven interviews with Joyce Taylor (nÃ©e Wilson), Inette Austin-Smith (nÃ©e Griessmann), Jean Symons (nÃ©e Layton), Patricia Bullivant (nÃ©e Bowden), Patricia Hepple, Eldred Evans and Su Rogers (nÃ©e Brumwell). These individuals have only had certain built projects, certain stories and certain facts told and published about their careers. Alongside these known stories, an oral history recording allows for the untold, unheard and undocumented activities to be captured and not forgotten.
These histories are filmed, as well as recorded as audio. We take portrait photographs, with copies given to the AA Photo Library. Upon our visit the interviewee often donates their student work to the AA Archives. The material we are collecting is incredibly rich, wonderful and unique and will be kept in the AA Archives for researchers to use. This material is invaluable as a resource to understand the development of architectural history, the architectural profession and the AA as an architecture school.
Prior to each oral history interview I conduct research on the career and lives of each interviewee. I send out a letter with a pack of information, to set the tone of the meeting and to help the interviewee prepare. As well as outlining our intention, I include in the pack a couple of photographs of the school when they were a student and a list of who we believe are their fellow students, teachers and the subjects they completed. This information is taken from the archives and from the prospectuses, journals, etc. of that time. Next, I gather as many facts, research references and props that I can find on the interviewee and then I order these into a chronological structure, which acts as a series of prompts for the interview to guide (without leading) the conversation and to keep the dialogue moving3. Though I may prepare a structure, I have to be ready to deviate to follow the intervieweeâ€™s conversation.
The props and known facts I collect act as memory triggers for specific topics. The props can include photographs, books, student work, diaries, articles and other memorabilia. For instance,Â Inette Austin-SmithÂ held her magnifying glass up to each and every face in the photographs of the AA in the 1940s to see if she could recognise them. Indeed Inette found great delight in recognising her teachers, others students and she even recognised herself! This information will be passed onto the AA Photo Library to add to their records.
The general structure of the interview is:
â€“ Life before the AA. This includes when they were born; their parents; any siblings; their childhood education and experiences; and finally what made them consider architecture as a career.
â€“ Time spent at the AA as a student. This includes their entrance interview; the subjects studied; memories of teachers; staff and their fellow students; their influences and role models; and their student life.
â€“ Their career after the AA: from graduation to the present.
This general structure is tailored to each individual. For exampleÂ Su RogersÂ was not a student at the AA, though she visited on a regular basis to have lunch in Chingâ€™s Yard with her friends who were students here. At this time Su attended public lectures and the AA Carnival (by working to earn a ticket). She recalled one lecture by Max Lock about the marriage between music and architecture. Su studied Sociology at the nearby London School of Economics, before studying Town Planning at Yale. Later, Su became a design tutor at the AA and at the Royal College of Art in the 1970s.
Each edited recording spans at least three hours but can stretch to four to five hours. We travel to the personâ€™s home or office to capture the individual in their natural environment, where they are at ease. There is a lot of ground to cover so we take our time. At the end of the recording the conversation comes to a natural end.
The stories we are collecting are extraordinary not only for shedding light on the AA school in the 1940â€™s, 50â€™s, 60â€™s and 70â€™s (we are yet to cover the 80â€™s, 90â€™s and 00â€™s), but equally the broader lives of women and men as architects during these periods in England. Though women were first admitted as students to the AA in 1917, they were a minority for many years afterwards. These women are part of a small handful who at that time went on to become architects and designers and practice in their field. They are pioneers.
In listening you discover the unwritten rules in society and culture and how these women challenged and broke them. For instance, Jean Symons fiercely persuaded the AA Principal Robert Furneaux-Jordan that she just could not graduate as an architect until she had some site experience. Jean subsequently worked as a technical assistant in the site office of the Royal Festival Hall between her 4th and 5th years as a student. An experience she documented in â€˜Concert Hall Notebook: A record of fifteen months on the siteâ€™, later published in AA Files in 1999. Jean went on to have an incredible career including lecturing and publishing research on the design of health buildings such as day care centres. In addition, Jean and her husband Cecil Symons (1921-87), a physician and cardiologist, amassed a fascinating collection of artefacts used by physicians and for self-care in the home. Amongst this collection is an unimaginable amount of nipple shields, tongue scrapers and stethoscopes. When Cecil died, Jean catalogued the collection and donated it to the Royal College of Physicians, which later awarded her with a Presidentâ€™s Medal for her work.
On hearing Eldred Evansâ€™s story, an AA student who won a prize every year, you understand how hard work, pure determination, mixed with great talent, can prevail. Eldred talks passionately about her father Merlyn Evans, a remarkable British artist, who had a terrific work ethic. She then talks about how she once worked so hard as a student that she forgot the last time she had slept. To her annoyance, her knuckles kept on bleeding and she had to stop work to visit a doctor. Her hard work, determination and talent is clear. Eldred later partnered with architect David Shalev (who later taught at the AA) to produce many marvellous buildings as Evans & Shalev.
These oral histories provide learning resources for the future. For current students listening they hear about the varied careers of former students (like themselves) to help them grapple with the question of â€˜whatâ€™s next.â€™ For graduates and practising architects, they consider what they want their own oral history to be like. Collecting, listening and sharing these folklores strengthens the AA and the architectural community through many generations by making connections with our forebears. Each person we interview has enjoyed the opportunity to tell their oral history, just as much as we have enjoyed listening.
As AA XX 100 we will continue to collect oral history recordings with AA alumni, teachers and staff members, past and present, men and women, until 2017. We hope that by then the AA archives, together with the recordings the archives are collecting, will house an extraordinary and completely unique collection of oral histories of many of the great British trained architects, designers, as well as teachers, thinkers and architectural staff members over the last century, all of whom are fellow members of the AA community.
1 A.Portelli , â€˜Oral History as Genreâ€™, in M.Chamberlain and P.Thompson (eds), Narrative and Genre: Contexts and Types of Communication (London: Routledge, 1998), p.23.
2 L.Abrams, Oral History Theory (London: Routledge, 2010), p.1
3 D.Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide (New York: second edition, Oxford University Press, 2003),p.86
Image credit: Samantha Lee/ AA XX 100