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Rosa Ainley

PhD Architecture, 2012 – 16

Before I arrived at the RCA, I was at the Architectural Association and had been there for nine years. My career has really been as an editor and writer – I started working as a print editor and finally web editor. During this time, I developed a specialism in architecture and contemporary art works. Originally, it was just by chance, but as I started getting more work in this area, it became something I was interested in and I started actively pursuing it.

It was really nice to have grown with the AA and see it changing. I did that part-time and carried on with freelance editing and writing. I published a book in 2011, which was architectural-based.

I don’t have any architectural training but gradually picked up knowledge. Before the AA, I worked for architectural practices and a built environment research consultancy – all sorts of related roles, where you pick up a lot of stuff. As an editor, you get a good overview working with so many different people. It’s also kind of why I ended up here at the RCA.

My first degree was in English and American literature, and my second degree, Photographic Studies at Westminster. I deliberately chose a course that was half theory and half practice. By the time I got to Westminster, all the work I was doing, written and practice, was about architecture. As a writer and a researcher, that set my path and my voice.

I’d been to lots of shows at the RCA over the years and kept wondering about whether or not I should do a PhD. It was through another research student that I suddenly got this flash of understanding that the RCA was open and encouraging of interdisciplinary work and would facilitate me, who is not an architect, in doing my PhD within an architecture, and not a writing, department.

By May I had a place, which was really exciting. I suppose I had been building up, looking for the next big project, and wanting to shift things up a gear. 

I didn’t want to just write another book. I started to think about, for want of a better term, ‘ghost buildings’ – those buildings that used to exist and have been demolished, or that have have outgrown their original function. I’ll explore what happens to the stories people attach to buildings when they no longer exist, or have lost their original function or location.

In a way, my first task is to choose my case studies and start being specific about my definition of ghost buildings. There are all sorts of possibilities from places that everyone has heard of like Alexandra Palace to places in the East. Because of the recession in places like Bangkok, Moscow, Detroit, there are ghost cities, and high rises that have fallen out of use or never been used because the capital no longer exists to finish them. I'm particularly interested in places that have existed but then have been rebuilt on the same site.

As part of this, I’m also hoping to run a residency with a series of real buildings – I’m thinking about the Pfizer complex in Kent. This would involve interviewing people who used to work at the Pfizer complex or those about to be working there, talking to them about the building and what their expectations are, as well as to the architects and redevelopers about their intentions. There would be a lot of moving between future and past in this work. The outcome of the research would involve some exhibition and/or writing. My PhD by practice is writing, this would be a different sort of practice going along.

Life at the College is really busy. In the first year, we do the common research methods and Wednesday tends to be the pivotal day. It can be incredibly intense and feel enough for three days. The presentations and the workshops are great but as soon as whoever stops presenting or talking, we’re all chatting away furiously. That’s the important stuff – building links, chatting about things, and finding out about your own work. As I’m the only research student in Architecture, and it’s a small department, I’m particularly keen to make connections with other students.

Right now, I’m setting up things and getting to know exactly what it is I’m researching, and finding out the resources I need. Everyone here seems incredibly helpful – there’s such an active and rich research culture. 

"You could say that all my work is about the stories that architecture tells, whether they’re social or personal or political histories, or the way architecture inflects those stories or the way those stories get embedded in buildings."
Rosa Ainley
Rosa Ainley