ZHUANGSHI interviewed Jane Rapley, the head of Central St. Martins

  • Update:2009-12-03
Editor: And how do you know the social needs and is the practical experience needed for staff? Do the staffs tell the students what is the need of the market or society?
Rapley: Yes and no. I think the staff and students have a duty to find out and I would hope some students would come and tell the staff what society needs because no one member of staff can know everything. And actually what you have in a group of students is a really rich range of information and research that no one person can hold. Students should learn from each other and staffs learn from students just as it is in the real world. I do think that it is vital for staff to be in touch with their particular practice. I also think that it’s difficult because certainly in UK the staff have got so many bureaucratic things to deal with. It’s often difficult for them to maintain their knowledge of the outside world. Every now and then, you have to turn them around, push them out so they can feel refreshed.
Editor: You know in some of design colleges in China, many staffs have been involved with design business or something like that. In your opinion, do you think it is something to be encouraged?
Rapley: They are working in industries?
Editor: Yes, somehow, because they have some workshops and through which they could get commitments or projects.
Rapley: Certainly. Absolutely. I don’t think it is something to approve. I think it’s something necessary. It is not just about design; I think it is absolutely necessary for arts and humanities too that they have experience and practice in the real world. I think it’s absolutely vital.
Editor: But some people would argue that this is not good for improving the research level or the creative capabilities of the staff or students if they do so much business.
Rapley: Why not? They don’t necessarily have to do this all the time. Some people do manage to do that. It depends on what their responsibilities are and where they are in their careers. But you can do it in various ways, for example, maybe teaching and then do some practice, or maybe teaching and then come out and do research for your own work and then come back to the institution. Perhaps it is controversial but in art and design the world outside academe is the vital one to fuel ideas and creativity. We have to change our view of what the academic world is. When I was student, it was a wonderful world in many ways, particularly for the staff because they came in, didn’t have a huge amount to do. They always had time for their own work for three days a week. They went off. They did their practice. But nobody checked whether they did it or they did not. And the pace was really slow. It is not like that any more. It is very pressured. There is a lot of work. There are a lot of students. Things are moving so fast and there is no longer an ivory tower where academics can sit. Now our world is like the real world. And I think for teachers, as creative practitioners, it is a loss because they don’t have the time to be reflective practitioners as they used to be. But actually in many ways, it is better for students because it gives them a sense of the reality that they are going to move into when they graduate.
Editor: As we know, you are preparing for the move of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. And our academy has just moved out from the CBD of Beijing to here; however you are staying very near the centre. Nowadays almost every art or design college in China has moved or planned to move to a new site. That is not only a change involved with site but also involved with changing of education ideas and teaching modes. What do you think about the move of your college? Does it also involve with any reforms of design education?
Rapley: No, not really. Our move is because we are in old buildings that have not been well maintained. And they will be even more expensive to adapt and maintain to meet new legal requirements for health and safety, for disability and for sustainability. So it doesn’t signal any change to our design education system. We are not moving very far. We are moving about fifteen to twenty minutes walk from where we are. We did have a choice to move further out and get more space. Central Saint Martins could teach more students if it had more space. We decided we would compromise and have less space but be nearer the centre. It will be better space, for example it will be warm when it needs to be warm and cool when it needs to be cool. Our buildings at the moment are not in very good condition and they are very expensive to run. It will be a building which will be more ecologically responsible. But I think the most important change that should happen is that we should come back together as a community because now we are in three different big buildings and another site away to the north and we don’t come together very easily. There are two priorities for the building. First we have chosen to maintain our special space, our libraries, our workshops and will have much better lecture and seminar rooms than we have ever had. The second priority is social space for students, where there will be areas we would equip for staff and students to meet informally, to learn informally, to talk to each other and socialise. The compromise is that we have less studio space which we’ll find difficult but we will find a way through.
Editor: How about the rent of land? Is it cheaper or more expensive than the old ones?
Rapley: It’s not so much about the land. The land we get at a special price because A, we are a higher education institution. B, because we are in the middle of a big development. Developers themselves want a substantial cultural institution to be in the middle of their development because they want cultural life as a core with museums and concert halls, galleries and restaurants. There has been lots of research about urban regeneration in cities in United States and the first prerequisite for any new development is to have something cultural because that attracts businesses. Businesses attract residents because there are jobs there. And residents stay there because there is more than just the work and the home. There are other activities around, cultural activities that attract retail. Then you have a community. So we have got a special deal. Whether it’s more expensive, we’ll see in the long run.
Editor: So you have been included in a large project for creative industry.
Rapley: It’s the biggest area of London for development, about 67 acres. So it’s the biggest chunk of the land in central London that has been available for nearly a hundred years. Perhaps it’s not big in Chinese development because your scale is big, but for London, substantial.
Acknowledgements. Be grateful to Laura Snedden, PA to Jane Rapley, who returned the revised copy of the interview. And also thank Amanda Gockmann at Central Saint Martins for having sent us the photos of Central Saint Martins taken by Marc Atkins.
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