RCA Society

Lord Esher talks, Yellow Paper, 175 years RCA

This year the Royal College of Art marks its 150th Anniversary. Since its establishment as a school of design furnishing the Victorian Empire's new Industries developing into a unique university bringing together a range of practices across the fine arts, applied arts, design and theory that drive national and international cultures the Royal College of Art has built a proud reputation as the 'awkward' kid on the block. Presently political decisions affecting the principal of universal access to education are being challenged by a generation of young people who (presume) education is a right and a good job following is a right too.
Fears about the commercialisation of education have become reality. Twenty years ago the RCA Society asked this in the symposium  "Is Art and Design Education dying?" - Forty years ago students at the Royal College of Art continued the discourse raised in the student actions of 1968 which challenged the established views taught in their educational institutions, the role of art in society and the role of the artist / author.
Following Sir Robin Darwin's retirement as RCA Rector, Lord Esher, the new rector, also faced challenges from a politicised generation of students. Esher's response to "The Yellow Paper - RCA Re-defined" are expressed in an interview* with Alistair Best and Robert Waterhouse (published in "Design" - 1972). His enlightened comments on Art and Design practice and the role of the Royal College of Art are refreshing and progressive and as pertinent now as they were forty years ago....

* Article reproduced from  "Design Journal 1972" pp 55



Title: Lord Esher Talks

Author: Alastair Best and Robert Waterhouse

*We're all in a field which is fundamentally marginal unless we are able to change our attitudes to it'

Lord Esher talks

Lord Esher, architect, planning consultant, past-president of the RIBA and, as Lionel Brett, author, took over at the beginning of the academic year as rector of the Royal College of Art from Sir Robin Darwin. At the time, student unrest in the college was high and one of Lord Esher's first steps was to call a meeting for all to air their grievances. Early student reactions to the Esher initiative - and promises of more student decision making - seem favourable. For DESIGN, Alastair Best and Robert Waterhouse went to Kensington Gore to find out how the rector himself felt about his first six month at the college

Presumably being rector of the Royal College is a fulltime job: have you given up architecture and planning?

I'm no longer a partner in my old firm but I'm still an occasional consultant to Glasgow and Portsmouth - I think I've finished in York. It would be sad not to see through these intensely interesting planning projects.

You mentioned in your speech to Court last December that you had found your spiritual home at the college...

You must have thought that odd for an architect, but it described exactly what I felt. The atmosphere here is much more open-ended than in architecture and one is involved with the problems of society over a far wider spectrum.

Some architects might surely disagree.

Of course, architects are supposed to be people of feeling and thought, but the college embraces a much more varied type of person. You get everything from intuitive artists who communicate solely through what they do with their hands to articuIate thinkers and writers. There are people here who would never get into a school of architecture because their rational side is not sufficiently developed. A painter is a very different kind of animal from an architect.

It wasn't dissatisfaction with the limitations of architecture and planning which led you to the college ?

That was an element. There's no doubt that architects are a chronically disappointed race. particularly in the older societies. It applies even more to planners because of the time scale; and you do get more impatient as you get older with this time scale. Equally strong, though, was a positive interest in art and design education in this new age when industry isn't quite the god it used to be. It is one of my responsibilities to make people think; I have long believed we must guard our resources, and I'm merely saying to designers what I have always told architects when I've had the chance: that there are kinds of jobs they should refuse to handle.

Harsh words for architects at the moment. . .

We all know that, but right all the same. If they acted collectively, without blacklegs, they could be effective.

Which kind of jobs in particular?

Grossly over congested office developments in city centres, for instance. Equally, designers are used simply to package products which should not be on the market. It is one of our jobs here to encourage students to think in these terms.

Isn't it very hard to say what is necessary and good and what is superfluous and bad?

It's not our job to make that judgement. We should simply encourage each individual to make up his own mind.

Isn't the industrial designer very much implicated in the technological society?

It's true that the industrial designer is part of the machine. He has very little freedom of action outside that machine - even less than architects - and it is extremely difficult for individuals to stand out against the basis of our whole economy. Nobody minimises the difficulties. But if the Royal College has any value it is as a thinking establishment. We are not here just to produce good technicians.

Do you see designers in politics?

Local government, yes, Perhaps not the House of Commons. But we feel that a visual training is a good background for decision making at all levels - right down to the parish council.

In the past, direct collaboration with industry has been encouraged at the college. Do you have different views?

No, it would be arrogant and absurd for us to tell industry to go packing and to suppose that we have some superior knowledge about how to get out of the cul-de-sac that technology seems to be running into. After all, we're talking about problems which are common to us all and in which designers are involved as part of the productive team; one must avoid a high moral tone. We can only get out of this mess through technology - rather than turning round and going in the opposite direction. However, the younger generation are almost unconsciously teaching themselves to consume less. They are beginning to live the sort of life that we are all going to have to live if the world is to survive, and if this can be achieved in a prosperous economy it's the beginning of a proper attitude.

Would you say that architectural students were, on the whole, more socially aware than design students?

As I suggested earlier, we have wholly individual, even anti-social types here. One of the great traditions, certainly since the nineteenth century, is of the artist as anarchist, and we have pure anarchists here. Architects, almost by definition, are prepared to accept the need for organised government. It's not possible, either, to be an anarchist industrial designer. But it's early days for me to pontificate about the nature of industrial designers.

Isn't one problem that products are over designed today?

Yes. We're all in a field which is fundamentally marginal unless we are able to change our attitudes to it. But a good designer is trying to do more with less. In so far as the Bauhaus tradition is still valid - and I think it is - it consists of applying intelligence to processes which were previously wasteful.

You don't feel that industrial design is too concerned with aesthetics?

A lot is, but it's becoming much less so here. My impression is that few people under 40 are interested in beautifully designed objects; they're much more concerned about how things work.

In your address to Court you drew the parallel of the Royal College helping to lead civilisation out of the second machine age as the Bauhaus had led it in. Could you elaborate?

That was a rhetorical flourish. But if it is true that that bunch of artists at the Bauhaus was highly influential in creating the ideology of the twenties, it could also be true that another bunch of people in another place could help, at any rate, towards the creation of a new ideology. It is as fundamental as that.

You see the college very much in a European context?


Why not a world context. Why Europe necessarily?

Not necessarily Europe; we are primarily Europeans, though, and the only economy which we have the opportunity of influencing is the West European one. Beyond that it's the role of Europeans to address themselves to problems of balance between the high technology countries and theThird World. The designer could have an important part to play in the new economy for which we're heading - a 'wartime', rationing economy.

So you go along with the Blueprint for Survival?

I've been saying this sort of thing for years.

But has the Blueprint actually altered your way of seeing the dilemma?

Not at all. I wrote a book on the subject about three years ago, which nobody has read, so all this is old stuff to me. But whereas when there is a war on there is absolutely no role for the artist or designer, in this wartime-type economy the designer could make the difference between living through the period in an attitude of war and an attitude of peace.

How soon could it all happen?

Within the lifetime of our students. It could hit us by the turn of the century.

May we turn to the structure of the college itself. When you took over there were obvious student problems. What was your immediate reaction?

When I arrived on the scene the students' working party had produced and published their report RCA Redefined - and I mean published; it was dished out to the press before anyone here saw it. This 'Yellow Paper' lay on the table for me; the best way to handle its recommendations seemed not to pass it on to another working party but to get the maximum possible consensus of opinion by inviting the whole college to discuss its ideas - and any others that came up.

Were most people in broad agreement with your summing up of the November conference?

I believe they were. There were certain obvious themes of discussion, several of which I myself injected into the proceedings. Everything was discussed from the student angle - and the staff largely identified themselves with students, there was no staff/student tussle going on. The big student issues - more participation in college government, a greater degree of representation on Council and Senate - were predictable. More interesting to me was the idea that students, rather than having to opt for a course before they come, might be free to build their own courses and move around the college, not dumped in one school to make the grade.

Does this mean breaking down existing barriers between schools?

There are no barriers now, really. If a student wishes to work in another department he can do so. He has to make the necessary arrangements with the people in charge, but he is not forced to stay within one department and never has been. What students criticised was that they didn't really know what went on outside their immediate world. This is now being corrected.

The Royal College is theoretically a university. Isn't it a university in the worst sense, with common rooms dividing the teachers from the taught and the technicians from both?

The approach grew up, I would suppose, because my predecessor was at Cambridge and may have seen this place in the image of a Cambridge college rather than of a university - it's after all not on the same scale as a university - and hence the words senior, middle and junior common room.

You're from Oxford yourself, aren't you?

I don't really have a university background, since I've been out in the world for so long. I do see things quite differently. I don't want to over emphasise these differences, but I have already told staff and students that I can see no reason for this class business in common rooms.

Isn't a lot of the problem geographical?

Yes. We have a vertically segregated building where ideally we would have horizontally divided one. The college of course has for a long time had plans to build in Queen's Gate - on the sites that back onto us - and it was hoped that these sites Would become available for demolition and redevelopment. One of them was at one time booked for the Architectural Association school. Now, neither the planning authorities nor we are particularly keen to demolish these handsome Victorian houses. We see ourselves operating from within the existing buildings. The one Norman Shaw house is an expensive freehold which we probably won't try to buy, but there are other houses which we hope to convert for college use. By the end of the operation we should have the whole college grouped together. At the moment we have just a third of it in this building and the college is split between four sites. This is of immense importance since at the moment, for instance, the painters are even separated from the sculptors. A geographical separation produces a psychological separation, and that we all agree - is quite wrong.

Do you advocate a possible reshuffle of schools into new groupings?

Not seriously. The college is basically a bunch of facilities and there should be the maximum freedom of movement among these facilities.

Do you anticipate any staff reaction to attempts to change or divide empires?

Absolutely not. There's no truth in the idea that we have a group of professors here with their little kingdoms which they don't want invaded. You may to some extent have been brainwashed by RCA Redefined; I have experienced extraordinarily little departmental chauvinism. The morale of first year students seemed to me incredibly high, and I don't sense this feeling of being locked away and never seeing or speaking to anyone else that you find described in that paper.

Does the changing nature of the art colleges, now inside the polytechnics directly affect the role of the Royal College?

Any controversy about the polytechnics is strictly irrelevant to us. But being rather broader and more science oriented than most art colleges, I would think that the majority of people here feel that art schools should be able to manage within polytechnics. Science and technology are not necessarily hostile to work in art and design.

Aren 't art schools within poles likely to produce a different kind of graduate than the old free range art school?

It's too soon to say. The polys have only existed for three years - who can tell how they're going to develop. It's clear, though, that they will become increasingly like universities and my own view is that the artist must learn to make his way in the world of the polys. The former isolation of the art colleges was by no means necessary. Interestingly enough, we had a conference recently which included Stuart Mason and Patrick Heron; the student view, in this admittedly small party, seemed to favour the polys and not Patrick Heron.

Will Royal College students in future be likely to tackle wider courses than at present?

There is no better general education than a specialism. Once you've learnt the discipline of working in a material you can apply that discipline to any other material.

Haven't the lessons been learned by the time students arrive at the college?

They should have, but the DipAD has become such a general education that students come here civilised human beings but lacking, in many cases, the technical skills.

Is there a case, then, for refusing admittance on these grounds?

It would be correct to do so but the policy here - absolutely rightly - has always been to take people not on their achievement but on their potential. There's no tie up anyway between the people who get top degrees at the Dip AD college and those who get in here, because the results are not known when candidates come up for the college entrance exams.

Surely you are, perhaps unwittingly, creaming off the top students?

Not necessarily. A lot of the most mature Dip AD designers are the most employable and go straight into jobs they don't want to spend another three years as students. To some extent we take the mavericks here.

Will students themselves have some say in who's chosen?

Yes. It's a matter of finding third year students who are interested in the terribly arduous process.

How do you pick the students to pick the students?

That's being left to individual professors. In some cases it's a matter of votes, in others a matter of consensus. In some departments the students have shown no interest. But it's a perfectly sensible idea for students of our maturity, particularly if they're thinking of teaching themselves.

How about students selecting staff?

That was very much on the agenda. It's a difficult one because we have unions on both sides and there's little doubt that the technical staff would not take kindly to this. We haven't resolved it yet but most staff appointments here are decentralised to the individual schools and departments and a professor thinking of making an appointment habitually consults his students: but that's very different from having students at an interview board - which might not be workable.

The essential power obviously remains in your hands...

It must, because the responsibility is there. The ultimate decision has to remain with staff.

Have awards and medals been abolished now?

There is a strong feeling among students against grading, and indeed there was little left of that system except that a small proportion of students were given a distinction if they were thought outstanding.There was no question of firsts, seconds and thirds. Even that is now frowned on by students and if it's plainly a collective view that they don't want the distinctions we will cut them out. But because we are a university we are precluded from simply giving students a certificate of attendance - as some would wish. We have to have a degree by examination.

What difference will it make to the college being under the control of the University Grants Committee rather than the Department of Education and Science?

It's hypothetical to say before we've sampled it, but my impression is that in our present relationship with the DES we are uncomfortably close to the Treasury and if cuts were imposed on the DES they would be inclined to look in our direction: whereas within the huge budget of the UGC we would be financially a very small fish. At first glance it was rather pleasant to be in the unique situation of being under neither a local authority (like the polys) nor the UGC (like the universities), but that uniqueness has its uncomfortable side and on balance we thought that we ought to go along with the obvious desire of the DES to pass us over.