Issue 62How to Design an Art School in 45 minutes

What happens when you ask staff from three art schools to design their ideal school? FCBStudios Partner Tom Jarman found out at a recent design charrette. 

What happens when you ask staff from three art schools to design their ideal school? FCBStudios Partner Tom Jarman found out at a recent design charrette. 

What should an art school do and what it is for?

In November I was invited to attend the University of the Arts London (UAL) Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon Art Schools Annual Conference. Pro Vice Chancellor and Head of Colleges David Crow and I opened proceedings for the day with a joint keynote presentation on the theme of space in art schools and its relationship to pedagogy. In the afternoon we delivered a workshop on spaces for art education with the aim of provoking some fresh thinking on the design of spaces for art education. 

Having worked on three art schools – Manchester School of Art, Bedales School and Plymouth School of Creative Arts – as well as the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and a wide range of other University and School buildings, I shared some ideas about the design of spaces for art education, based on the individual requirements of each one. Taking these as a basis to start discussions, we introduced a rapid design charrette that could take a light-touch approach to strategic considerations for future art school accommodation at UAL.

Twenty-five staff from teaching and managerial areas were arranged into small interdisciplinary groups and encouraged to sit with people they didn’t know. Taking the form of an ‘architectural bake-off’ they were each given a bag of low-tech modelmaking materials as their ‘ingredients’ to complete a ‘technical challenge’. Tutored and encouraged by David and me, they were given 45 minutes to create a model of their ideal art school.

Our charrette turned the tables on traditional consultation exercises. Rather than asking a small group of top-level staff to come up with a strategic plan which would later be honed by specialist groups tasked to discuss specific points, we gave a free brief to all, valuing each contribution equally. The process was depressurised by the purely theoretical nature of the starting point: 'Make your own site and make your own brief'.

For architects, thinking about how people use space is a key part of our work. Higher education institutions face increasing pressures to get the most out of all their physical resources. This was a great opportunity for learning on both sides as it drew out strongly values-based responses. We were able to ask a room full of practitioners what they felt an art school should do and what it is for.

Each of the five groups created a theoretical site and presented a proposition for their school.

One group eschewed all but the most diagrammatic of materials, creating a clear space plan using labelled wooden blocks to show the relationship between spaces and functions. Another focussed on the student experience of being at the heart of the school. A third group created a model with a beautiful sculptural roof, wryly commenting that the architects had spent all the money on a big statement, leaving nothing in the budget for facilities!

Whether pragmatic or concept-led, some common themes emerged:

At the heart of many of the discussions was the capacity of a school to serve both its students and the wider community, highlighting the mission that the institution feels in terms of its broader social and cultural agenda.  

Spaces which encourage interaction and interconnectedness between staff and students across different disciplines showed how deeply-rooted collaboration and knowledge exchange are within these creative environments.

Interestingly, water was seen as central to the existence of these London schools, featuring in many of the imagined sites. The proposals incorporated a wide range of delightful features including flexible barge and houseboat accommodation, bridges to create outward-facing links across the river and boats to create seamless transport links for greater access to nearby communities.

All of the proposals explored the relationship between our environment and wellbeing in one way or other. The quality of teaching and learning spaces through scale, light, atmosphere and availability was tackled, but spaces for ‘life support’ were also important. From yoga studios to rooms for resting, art installations and silent discos, it was clear that the life of an art school stretches beyond the direct educational objectives of the institution.

What surprised us all was how much can be achieved in a short space of time. This rapid creative session had a welcome intensity and allowed everyone to engage in different kinds of conversations tackling subject areas outside of their direct specialism and stretching people beyond their day to day areas of focus.

From an architect’s point of view, I have had some of my own theories about the design of creative education supported and others challenged. The places where ideas are sparked, connections made and lives enriched are many and varied and must be encouraged.

Thanks to all the staff at UAL’s Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon Art Schools for getting involved, sharing their ideas and questioning everything.

Tom Jarman