A proper education?

While three of the UK’s leading art schools settle down into sparkling new premises, Stephen Hitchins takes a look at their new buildings, what prompted them and what benefits can students expect to see, at a time when art teaching and course content in the UK is being cut back and technological know-how seems to be more highly valued than basic art skills

The questions just keep coming. I keep meeting the design chiefs of BMW, Peugeot, and Volkswagen in the corridors and studios of art schools of central and eastern Europe. Why are they there? What drives art schools in the UK to become colleges of design and communication? How does an underfunded and ill-equipped college in Rio de Janeiro win design prizes in New York? Why are there more students at art school in the UK than the population of Florence at the height of the Renaissance? If it is such a powerhouse for design education, why are so many art-school graduates in the UK so badly prepared for employment? Why, for that matter, are so many unemployed? And why have students learned all the latest software programs but not been trained to think?

As I look at some of our well-equipped, new-build and refurbished premises of art schools those questions, and more, nag away. Not perhaps as well-equipped to the point of being over-stocked as are some of the new Asian colleges, where principals have admitted to me that they can't spend all of their equipment budget, it is so big. Nevertheless the urge to see the computer as indispensable has seen a more fundamental skill forgotten - something that has not happened in those colleges in central Europe where top car designers roam looking for talent. Like it or not, some schools in the UK have forgotten how to draw. They are not even interested.

Drawing is the basis of all art. Its status in art schools continues to be undermined by everything from an obsession with technological advances and new media to the disregard of tradition. As David Hockney recently commented on returning to the RCA 50 years after he graduated, 'drawing and painting was the centre of the old college... I always think the phrase "back to the drawing board" tells you something, doesn't it? Drawing - it's still there. Nothing's altered in that way.'

Drawing renders thinking visible. It is all about looking, learning to see, self-discovery, and a way towards making unexpected connections - juxtapositions that lead many to emphasise, and believe in, their spontaneity. The raw creativity associated with drawing is exciting, not simply because of its invention, but because the language of drawing enables us to escape the narrow confines of so much scholarship. More importantly it reveals a person's capabilities - more than anything, it can demonstrate a weakness in talent.

Drawing is a language, and once learned is seldom forgotten. Elegant, authoritative, sketchy, tentative, intense, introspective, it demands skill and effort and looking and patience. Yet however avant-garde, innovatory or unusual a contemporary art form, drawing is a part of practice, part of the process.

As courses in the UK become truncated, classes get larger, teaching gets less, central European schools still require significant artistic ability before letting students loose on design or on a computer. The walls of the staircases in Bratislava and Wroclaw are adorned with oversize life drawings - produced by interior and car-design students before they graduate to designing anything. They are learning to think before getting the privilege of jumping in where many colleges in the UK begin.

At the other extreme, as American graphic designer Paul Rand observed, there is an old romantic idea that intuition and intellect do not mix, and an equally erroneous belief that inspiration takes the place of industry. Fortified with such misconceptions, it is understandable that we tend to minimise the importance of learning the rules, the fundamentals, which are the raw material of the artist's craft.

In design, as in all creative expression, art evolves from craft. (The confusion that the phrase 'arts and crafts' engenders has further alienated art from craft. Craft deals with so many things, such as the vocabulary of form that includes space, proportion, scale, size, shape, rhythm, repetition, sequence, movement, balance, volume, contrast, harmony, order, and simplicity. Just as there is no art without craft and no craft without rules, so too there is no art without fantasy, without ideas.

The history of art, another subject dropped in some colleges, is also part of the artist's craft. It reveals the origin of the rules, and without its understanding and awareness of it, the designer is all the poorer. Being a professional designer is about more than just passion or changing the environment; it is necessary to project manage work effectively.

London has been graced in the past few years with some particularly fine new art school buildings. From Chelsea (Chelsea School of Art) to King's Cross (Central St Martins) to Greenwich (Ravensbourne), the facilities available and the environments in which people study are some of the best available.

Taken together, as Nigel Carrington, rector of the University of the Arts (formerly the London Institute) has said of Central St Martins building programme: 'At a time when the UK higher-education sector is characterised by a sense of caution and uncertainty [these are major investments in] confidence about the future of creative education and its value and importance to the economy and quality of life'. And for all three, bringing everything together on one site opens up collaborative possibilities and should improve the range and quality of student life.

Chelsea School of Art was a fine independent art school. Its history has been one of name changes, mergers and amalgamations, satellite studios, annexed workshops, temporary homes and converted primary school sites, with a few purpose-built studios along the way. It could at times be a complicated institution to fully grasp and understand. Yet with a roll call of distinguished students and teachers arguably second only to the Slade, its cosmopolitan nature and international reputation always made it a place to visit, its diploma and later its degree shows important not to miss.

That diverse multicultural mix is even more in evidence today. One of six inaugural colleges that comprised the London Institute, today it has gone the way of many, and is part of a triumvirate of colleges within what has become the University of the Arts. Since 2005, for the first time since it opened in 1895, all of its disciplines are on one site, and its long line of distinguished alumni continues.

The new site has a history of innovation. From 1821 to 1890, it was the location for the world's first modern prison, Millbank Penitentiary, that incorporated Jeremy Bentham's radical ideas for reform. Then the site was redeveloped for the Royal Army Medical College, where the vaccine for typhoid was first developed. The three listed buildings that the RAMC left in 2000 were then renovated and new additions inserted for workshops and library by Allies and Morrison, at a cost of £30m.

It is now home to 1,500 students and 200 staff, has an open-air exhibition space on the old parade ground that is open to the public, and has developed an events programme with its new neighbour Tate Britain.

Central St Martins was the result of a shotgun marriage in 1989 between the Central School of Arts and Crafts, founded in 1896, that had a reputation for graphics, theatre and industrial design, and St Martin's School of Art, known for fine art and fashion, that began life in 1854. The Drama Centre London and Byam Shaw School of Art were integrated into it later as the London Institute.

CSM has now been rationalised into four schools: drama, art, fashion and textiles, and one grab-bag that wraps in everything from communication, product and spatial design, to jewellery, ceramics, culture and enterprise Interestingly, the school has maintained fine art. Why? Former head of CMS Jane Rapley commented in a 2011 interview with Donatien Grau that since the Sixties - when the conceptual thinking of fine artists impacted the thinking behind creative fashion - through the Eighties - when designers became more influential than artists, that inevitably led to fine artists becoming alive to the potential of business, media and communication, putting a real blast into the art market - fine arts and fashion have had a reciprocal influence.

Since Rapley turned St Martins into a brand during the past 20 years, it has become one of the country's most revered institutions, and the new building has a lot to live up to. At the heart of the redeveloped land in King's Cross, and still juxtaposed with train sheds, the colossal refurbished 1851 granary unites a college previously spread across four buildings (at one stage there were 11) around Soho and Holborn.

A forlorn-looking redundant and isolated building, albeit Grade II listed, has been transformed into a stage set, a framework of spaces in which staff and students from different disciplines can be expected to experiment and interact. At the heart of what was once an industrial hub based around the railways, this will become a creative hub at the heart of the area's regeneration.

The sheer scale of the new building is amazing. With only 55 per cent of the students coming from the EU including the UK, the fusion of cultures and interchange of ideas certainly match the synthesis of Victorian industrial architecture with modern design, melded together inside an historic building. The renovation has retained historic aspects of the site and carefully integrated new additions to provide a contemporary space for 4,200 students and some 1,000 staff including sessional teachers.

At an overall cost of £200m this has not come cheap, but the money has been well spent, embracing the past while looking to the future. The college's newly created School of Performing Arts is underpinned by a 350-seat public theatre, studios and rehearsal space. Designed by Stanton Williams, other facilities include four levels of multipurpose workshops, specialist studios and lecture theatres, integrated social space and student facilities, gallery and exhibition space.

Improved and expanded workshops are one of many benefits to have come from the physical integration of the different schools, and courses such as textile futures MA is just one of several that now have a strong scientific side. Ravensbourne is not dissimilar to Chelsea and Central St Martins in that its history is a complicated mixture of mergers, relocations, and name changes. Bromley, Beckenham and Sidcup schools of art joined forces in 1962 to become Ravensbourne College of Art.

The new college moved into an entirely inappropriate new piece of brutalist architecture into which, due to enforced budget cuts, it was shoehorned along with Bromley College of Technology, before it finally managed to achieve its physical independence when it moved again in 1975 to an award-winning series of modernist steel pavilions set in the unlikely setting of suburban Chislehurst parkland. However, its fledgling broadcasting department, and a range of vocational courses such as technical illustration, remained in Bromley.

In 1985 the school of television production moved into the space once occupied by fine art and sculpture, the demise of which were seen by many to the detriment of its three design schools and their specialised foundation courses.

At one stage the college was an affiliate of Sussex University, its degrees were for a time validated by the Royal College of Art, then City University took over. The divorce of design from art is the exact opposite of what is happening in that most design-orientated of product-design countries, Germany. Ravensbourne has joined a belt of creativity across south-east London that includes Goldsmiths, a part of the University of London at New Cross; the UK's only conservatoire of music and contemporary dance, Trinity Laban in Deptford; and the University of Greenwich. It is also neighbour to a bus garage by Foster Associates, an underground station designed by Will Alsop, a trio of dreadful office buildings by Terry Farrell, and Ralph Erskine's Millennium Village.

Into this land of urban promise has landed what? In one of the most remote parts of London, on the Greenwich marshes at the heart of what was to be the Labour government's new Florence, set amid yet another massive mixed-use regeneration scheme this is an extraordinary building in an extraordinary location.

It signalled a brave new world of art education when it opened next door to the O2 in the autumn term of 2010 in an award-winning building by Foreign Office Architects, in a clash of scale and geometry.

To survive that demanded a confident solution, and it has one. From the tessellated panels of its sensational facade, based on a non-periodic tiling system to the spatial drama of some its 17,000 sq m of interiors, it is the new home for 1,700 students (and potentially 3,000) within open-plan workspaces spread over four storeys.

The ground floor incorporates 1,700 sq m of public retail space, there are interconnected atria that pierce through three levels of the development, visually connecting the core of public spaces, in a rather brutal interior. Corridors and offices are out, technology hubs and open spaces are in, with hot desking and lockers for all. Everyone is a nomad, including all staff who approach the clean desk policy with zeal.

The building envelope became an instant landmark, the articulation of that overall pattern addressing what FOA's Alejandro Zaero-Polo called The Politics of the Envelope in an essay setting out the balance of surface construction to culture, function and expression that he sought.

Despite the seemingly opaque and disconnected strategy behind the fenestration, the dimensional relationship between the arrangement of windows, the sectional grid and the plan, everything has been ruthlessly connected, with the building organised sectionally as split-levels to enhance the relationship between departments and the vertical circulation within the building. The space planning was done by DEGW.

As it attempts to deliver education that meets the shifting demands of students, the new building will undoubtedly stimulate the working practices of wannabe creative professionals with the best in technology, and encourage collaboration between disciplines and practitioners.

It is working well. Issues of noise levels and privacy have been addressed during the first year in an ongoing consultation instituted as the implications of their new accommodation are considered, and it maintains its industry-standard broadcast and advanced post-production facilities, benefitting from endowments from independent TV companies.

The building is low on maintenance, high on flexibility, achieves optimum environmental performance, and attempts to express the culture of contemporary production with collaborative work spaces, high-tech creative suites and fully networked resources. The light air appearance conjured up by the exterior does not, however, extend to the interior that is 'way too dark' in places, according to some of the students. Another said it was 'a place that once boasted it was one large workshop, now has one large facade'. The lack of workshops or realistic studio spaces has attracted most criticism from students.

For them, the building does not serve its purpose. And yet they may not have understood and appreciated how design can initiate change, and drive new working methods through environments. This is a very good building, not helped by the architects over-intellectualising their design with endless talk of the 'liquefied topography of learning'.

Now calling itself just Ravensbourne, the college is 'a world-class digital destination developing talented individuals and leading-edge businesses through learning, skills, applied research, enterprise and innovation' - in other words an art school with knobs on but without art. And one without workshops - that is all outsourced.

Somewhere along the line, the axiom 'no art without craft' has been forgotten in a headlong rush to the new-found land of digital. Severely criticised for a wide range of reasons by students and neighbours alike (was it ever thus), it stands as an indictment of an architectural awards system that can revel in a facade. Ravensbourne is a neat juxtaposition of new ways of working with environmental branding, a new kind of building for a new way of learning.

Architecture as art school identity began in Toronto. In 2004 a new building for the Sharp Centre for Design opened at the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto, since 2010 known as OCAD University, designed by Alsop Architects in a joint venture with Robbie/Young & Wright Architects.

A radical structure that looks like a cross between a crossword puzzle and a robot from War of the Worlds, described as 'courageous, bold and just a little insane' by the RIBA judges who presented it with its inaugural Worldwide Award, the building's patterned envelope was the inspiration for the university's new identity by Bruce Mau Design. It was a route Johnson Banks would follow at Ravensbourne, in the wake of a brand audit (the development of a brand strategy done by Lloyd Northover in 2008).

These new buildings are at the heart of the reinvention of higher education. They are all about enhancing a student's experience within a flexible environment that gives the staff the freedom to respond to changing methods of teaching, while the education they all deliver is still based around Bauhaus pedagogies. They should provide a framework within which staff and students can transform their workspaces to meet changing needs. They will all certainly transform the image and fortunes of each institution.

All three moves have been difficult and emotional. The pressures have been enormous. There was no recipe for any of them to follow, so to a certain extent they were all courageous gambles that have paid off. But the moves do raise questions about universities in the future. In a hyper-connected world education, innovation and talent will be rewarded more than ever. It is a world in which the UK should be hard-wired to thrive, provided it invests in more colleges like Chelsea, Central St Martins, and Ravensbourne, invests in research, and does not restrict the movement of talented immigrants.

The public-private partnerships that these colleges' innovation centres boast signal the way to thrive in this new era, one where there will be no more developed or developing countries, only HIEs and LIEs, high-imagination-enabling and low-imagination-enabling countries. Already 100 incubating businesses operate out of Ravensbourne.

Shrinking public subsidies, growing global mobility, the increasing quality of online education, may all be factors in their success. How important will size and specialisation be to it? Will the world support more than 50 leading research universities, as Nigel Thrift, vice chancellor of Warwick, has asked? Will colleges be bigger or smaller, are they cradles of revolt or merely spectators, profitable or non-profit making, places of research or big education retailers? Should students be trained for the jobs market or is it more important to learn how to think?

These new buildings suggest that there are still a number of roads to academic excellence. The difference between average, ordinary and great institutions comes down to talent; everything else is there to attract them and then enable them to work. Global competition for academic talent, spurred on by all the international rankings, means that the highest rank attract the best, and then the best students follow, wanting to study with the best, at the best. A virtuous circle. No one can afford to be complacent.

Fewer people are expected to leave school in 2012, and the number of mature students in higher education is in decline, but whichever way you cut it, an 8.7 per cent decline in UCAS applications (with creative arts and design especially hard hit, down by 16 per cent; art and design alone by 27 per cent) for full-time courses at British universities, means something.

Rather than universities competing for students, which was all part of the original plan when tuition fees were allowed to rise, students are competing for places as demand outstrips supply as institutions restrict the numbers of places on offer this year by 15,000 overall, and funding for teaching in universities reduced.

At a time when the numbers of graduates in the workforce are increasing around the world, Britain seeks to justify a reduction in university places. Overall UK university applications have seen their steepest fall for 30 years, yet the moves of these three colleges have all resulted in greater demand for places as they elbow their way into the limelight.

Those applying for degree courses this year at Ravensbourne were, for example, up 17 per cent, and while Central St Martins is one of the most over-subscribed colleges in the country. Only a very traditional art school, the Slade, outdoes them all on applications.

Over the road from Chelsea College of Art and Design is Tate Britain. As its recent exhibition Migrations: journeys into British Art tried to demonstrate, the art of this country has been shaped by artists from abroad for 500 years, from Anthony van Dyke to Mark Gertler, and Mona Hartoum.

The story of British art depends on foreign influence fusing with the vernacular, and the same could be said of design. The exhibition at Tate should have demonstrated that. Sadly, it did not. Without Hans Holbein, Anish Kapoor, Paula Rego, Lucien Freud, and Chris Offili and many others, it was a recession-busting hodgepodge, culled from the archives, repackaged in an attempt to fill the space.

Important facts were simply missing: such as a third of the original Royal Academicians were not from Britain, a quarter of the past 20 years' Turner Prize winners were not from Britain. Nevertheless, this documentary display was on the right track: this country needs the widest possible range of influences.

While the rise in non-EU overseas applications of 13.7 per cent was doubtless music to the ears of every college finance director, as visa restrictions had yet to really kick in, once potential students decide to go to Australia or the USA or Singapore, the game could be up for the UK.

The UK's reputation as second only to the USA as the most popular overseas destination for students in the world is under threat. The importance of foreign students should not merely be restricted to college fee income.

Many of those aspiring UK students may start to look abroad for their education. Students do not travel abroad simply in a search for adventure and to avoid debt. Money is a factor, adventure is another, but the need for another language is disappearing as more and more colleges offer courses in English, the idea has become less daunting, and the quality of education available and the serious intent of what is on offer is attracting more and more.

EU figures for cross-border study are overwhelmingly in the UK's favour at the moment, around a quarter of all international students are non-British. Out of 600,000 European students taking degrees outside their home country, 175,000 were in the UK, and only 11,800 were Britons studying elsewhere in the EU.

Increased tuition fees may well start to impact on those figures. Studying elsewhere in the EU costs a fraction of what it does in the UK. While governments discuss the possibility of asking each other for reimbursement of the cost of educating fellow EU students, the fact remains that cross-border students benefit from paying the fees of native students.

At the intersection of international co-operation for higher education and EU guidelines, students gain from a policy of open borders. As degrees become a commodity with suitable price tags attached, it is inevitable that anyone considering a university education will shop around. (Note to schools, parents and prospective students: unemployment among language graduates is far lower than almost any other subject.)

While the benefits may not necessarily be immediately tangible, escaping from the insularity that is Britain's linguistic and cultural cage opens one up to the world and increases employability, for designers as much as anyone else.

But if in roaming the roads of academic excellence I am to finally meet those headhunting, project-setting design leaders of industry in British universities, instead of the corridors and studios of art schools elsewhere in Europe, then it will behove the leaders of education in the UK to remember that investment in technology and buildings are no substitute for basic skills and learning how to think.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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