I never planned to study architecture, but a visit to the Architectural Association in the early Seventies convinced me that it was more like an art school. The outcome of a ‘good architectural project’ was an airbrushed piece, a collage or a performance. Hardly any buildings were going up in London. Drawings were the only intellectual language, to the point that if someone found themselves doing a building they had to apologise to their mates.
The AA was the temple of pluralism. Everyone had their own way of doing things and it was encouraged. The group who played invisible tennis in Antonioni’s 1966 film, Blow Up, were AA students, as were Christo’s building-wrapping volunteers. Crammed together in one school were ‘Trotskyists’ like Brian Anson, and ‘decadents’ like Peter Cook. That tension was very stimulating. We never knew whether the chairman, Alvin Boyarsky, was an extreme pluralist or benevolently indifferent.
The AA was a great culture for promoting independence. It was a good environment for me and my peers who didn’t enjoy conforming. I once spent a whole year using set squares and rulers I had distorted by boiling for a long time.
I never planned to spend 12 years teaching. My first experience of the Royal College of Art was a tour of the furniture department. What I was told shocked me: ‘Of course, you should not expect the same intellectual level from furniture students as you would from architecture students.’
When I was selected to become the new ‘Professor of Furniture’, the first thing we did was join industrial design and furniture to create a multiplatform course called Design Products. It was a no-brainer because designing furniture is part of a larger design culture.
It seems that teaching gave me an opportunity to exercise my dislike for convention. I wanted to build a course that was as pluralistic as the course I’d enjoyed at the AA. I believe in teaching with no agenda, so we didn’t have one manifesto or a single ideology. In fact, the only rule was ‘one should never say should’. It being a postgraduate course, we treated every person as a professional who wanted to extend that period of freedom you are granted as a student. It wasn’t about giving them a ‘set of tools’. Tools for what? That was the quest.
What do we owe students? If we’re talking about a postgraduate course, it’s the freedom to find out what you are about. And to provide help, sometimes by referral to someone in industry, or a scientist, or a theory man, or a tool.
Choosing the students was the most important day of the year. I would look at the portfolios that hadn’t been selected by any of the tutors, looking for rare gems. I saw the biggest contributing factor in the course was the peer group — fellow students. I have no doubt about that. You’re lucky when you have some generous, bright, open-minded tutors, but it’s the people you spend your time with that matter most, the minds to your left and right in this bustling favela.
The only problem is that it’s such a short course. The first year, you’re chuffed with yourself for getting in; the second year, you’re worried about your degree show. I used to scare the RCA by saying publicly that what we do is take perfectly employable people, and in two years make them unemployable. Some of the unemployables are now doing very well — making a mark in a big variety of fields, high to low tech. What tends to happen is that the people who aren’t employable end up employing people who are.
The RCA still attracts brilliant young people from all over the world. I say still attracts, because recently I hear of unhappiness from the students — ‘This is not at all the course we thought we were joining.’ It seems that bureaucracy and economy are again dictating the curriculum. It’s a dangerous time. I hope that art and design schools can keep their nerve.
Author: Ron Arad
Date of publication: October 7, 2014