Masterminds

For the past two years The Royal College of Art has been through administrative shake-ups which have led to the fusion of the different schools. The resulting cross-fertilisation of ideas has produced one of the liveliest shows in recent years. Michael Jo

This is the first year that the RCA’s architecture and interior design show has been integrated with furniture. This is a result of the relocation of the furniture school to share the architecture and interior design studios, and the two disciplines have been working alongside each other – if not actually in collaboration – during the year. In the absence of a professor of architecture since the resignation of Theo Crosby two years ago, responsibility for the school of architecture and interior design has fallen to professor of furniture, Floris van den Broeke.

For those who remember what happened to architecture at the RCA under Theo Crosby, this year’s output is a clear indication that his legacy has been effectively thrown off, opening the way for a new future under the incoming professor, Nigel Coates.

Any traces of following the classical orders of Crosby have disappeared completely. Flamboyant and varied exhibits of hot graphics, models and computer displays indicate a new sense of freedom in the definition and exploration of ambitious architectural and urban projects, which has attracted a variety of special mentions and external awards.

Indeed, you’d be hard put to unearth anything approaching the cool, modernist architectural vein which characterised past incarnations of the school in the times of James Gowan and John Miller. Schemes such as George Varelas’ housing for the homeless on the canal at Camden or Tiernan McCarthy’s scheme for a Post Office redevelopment at Earls Court take on a rare and slightly ethereal quality which jumps off the wall at you and forms a dazzling kaleidoscope of images more reminiscent of fast-moving TV graphics than conventional architectural representation.

This development is the result of the combination of architecture with interior design under the leadership of an interior designer assisted by an equal mixture of interior design and architect tutors. Compounded by the juxtaposition with the furniture school, the effect has been a cross-fertilisation of techniques of visualisation, representation and communication from the two disciplines which has benefited both sides. The architecture students on the course have possibly appreciated the freedom from the precision of their architectural schools, while the interior designers, coming from art colleges and colleges of further education, have welcomed the increased emphasis on planning, section and elevation.

You could argue that these developments bring the course more into line with the true nature of the RCA than a more conventional academic architectural course could be. After all, the architecture course at the RCA is unique in the fact that it is one of the very few post-graduate architecture courses in the country existing within a multi-disciplinary college of art and applied arts. It seems appropriate then that the study of architecture should display a strong bent towards craft and realisation which does not necessarily exist in other schools, while for interior designers the opportunity to study at advanced level alongside architects is equally rare. Forging closer links with the furniture school seems a logical step in the development of a broader approach to the design of buildings inside and out. A tightly directed intellectual agenda can be replaced by a free-ranging three-dimensional crafts approach.

This trend seems set to continue with the arrival of Coates, who has revealed that he “will not write briefs”. Indeed, his selection over other contenders for the post – including Florian Beigel, John McAslan, Kit Allsop, and Fred Scott – indicates a positive decision on the part of the RCA to move away from a strictly architectural approach and towards a more intuitive, all-round design approach.

Coates’ own decision to stand for the professorship at the RCA rather than try again for the Chairmanship of the Architectural Association, where he studied and taught, and with which he had largely identified himself, seems indicative – not just because of the difference in scale of the operations (the total number of RCA students from both years is not much bigger than one AA unit).

In his own practice, Coates has embraced a design approach based on a lively, unpredictable interaction of art, architecture and interior design, which he will no doubt transmit to the multi-disciplinary context of the RCA.

Clare Melhuish is a regular contributor to Design Week.

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