Happy New Year from the RCA: A Place of Profound Existential Transformation

The new year is a time for renewed purpose and vision. Anyone familiar with the Royal College of Art’s history will know that it is one of continual institutional renewal – driven by technology, new thinking and new knowledge – and it is that phoenix-like agility that has kept the RCA at the vanguard of intellectual debate about art and design.

With rapid urbanisation, climate change, resource depletion, digitisation, the (ab)use of social media and the implications of artificial intelligence, I believe that many of the most intriguing and compelling solutions to global challenges will be found at the intersection of the creative arts, design and science. Art and design universities must be at the forefront, proposing new, multidisciplinary design and technology solutions.

Great universities are places of profound existential transformation for the people that pass through them. The RCA is singularly well placed to support artists and designers to devise and deliver creative solutions that address societal, cultural and economic challenges. Not least, through the new programmes we have created this academic year, in City Design, Environmental Architecture, and Digital Direction. And in 2018, we introduce new entry points and structures for learning, including a Graduate Diploma degree.

The RCA will continue to preserve those fundamental tenets of an RCA education that have delivered success over two centuries, and build on them by laying the foundations of our GenerationRCA campaign, a multi-million pound comprehensive capital campaign which will secure the College’s future long term through investment in our people, our projects, and our places – the buildings in which we work and socialise.

While we articulate our mission in twenty-first century terms, its founding premise remains as important today as when it was coined 180 years ago – to educate the artists and designers of tomorrow.

In order to deliver a bold new academic strategy in research and teaching, the RCA is embarking upon an expansion  – the largest and most comprehensive in our history. But this is not the first time the College has substantially reviewed its direction, or embarked on an ambitious building project. The Government committee set up in 1911 to consider the future of the College said in conclusion, ‘We think it right to put upon record our opinion that the existing buildings are neither in dignity nor in convenience worthy of a national establishment’.

Forty years later, when the College was spread over eight buildings within a one-mile radius around Kensington, Principal Robin Darwin said, ‘It would probably be impossible to discover any institution of comparable importance which, for so long a period, has been as badly and inadequately housed as the Royal College of Art… When I joined the College I found that many of the staff who had been members of it for a great many years, did not know one another even by sight. And although some people outside it had heard of the Royal College of Art, very few knew where it was or had ever visited it.’

Darwin’s ambitious building plan, ‘...involved the reconsideration of the whole basis of our teaching, and the function and place of the College in the national life, as well as some hazard as to its future.’ Darwin appointed staff members Professor Sir Hugh Casson, Professor Robert Goodden and H T Cadbury-Brown to deliver ‘an austere building without frills and built in the least expensive way of the simplest materials’. Darwin’s approach has most certainly stood the test of time: but while the building on Kensington Gore which bears his name may need renovation, the building itself  retains its usefulness as a flexible shell, able easily to accommodate shifting educational needs.

What I find pleasantly reassuring is that the brief I  gave to architects Herzog & de Meuron for our new campus in Battersea is not wildly different from  the brief that Darwin handed to his architects: to create a robust, factory-like space, focused on people and their creative interactions, taking the Darwin Building and its vertically stacked workshops and studios as a guiding principle, but improving the circulation and interaction between students on various floors. And of course, our budgetary constraints in 2018 are as tight as those stipulated by Darwin in the 1950s.  

What did not however exist in Darwin’s day, was the RCA’s focus on research at both student and faculty levels. Research questions will underpin our taught programmes and new research facilities in materials science, intelligent mobility will gather pace over the course of 2018 before finding a permanent home in the new Battersea campus.

I have no doubt that 2018 will see many extraordinary new breakthroughs and successes for our students, faculty and alumni. I wish every member of the RCA community a very happy and fulfilling new year.

Dr Paul Thompson

In the festive spirit of munificence, Eva Papamargariti (MA Visual Communication, 2016) has produced a new work that responds to the challenges and opportunities of human-machine interaction. Download it, print it, share it. 

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