Notes on a talk at RIBA Seminar: “What Happened to Radical Teaching?”
The question that provokes this seminar is founded on the presumption that the Bauhaus was the truly original art and design educational establishment, and the radical impulse established there has somehow been lost ever since. I am, as you might expect, going to challenge that presumption.
First, I will challenge it historically. The Bauhaus and the institution that I lead are closely intertwined. In the early twentieth century, the German Government sent Herman Muthesius to London to gather information about art and design education in the United Kingdom. The model that he landed on was Lethaby’s Central School. The methods established there became a central part of Muthesius’ report, which was then used in the discussions on the founding of the Bauhaus. So, it may be argued that the radical heart started beating in London with the precursor of Central Saint Martins. And then you might expect me to argue that the radical spirit has been passed through to the current Central Saint Martins.
But I am not going to make that argument, at least not until have picked at the term ‘radical’ in relation to art and design education. To do this I want to open up four versions of the radical:
- Radicality of Process
- Radicality of Power
- Radicality of Production
- Radicality of agency
By Radicality of Process I mean the way that projects are set and delivered in art and design education – their content, their timescales, their methods. The radical intent will be set by the brief and then carried through by the interactions of students and tutors. Thus, one example might be St Martins’ (in)famous A Course in the late 1960s, where at the start of the year students were ‘locked’ into their studio with only their materials. Instructions were given. SILENCE! By any standards, this was a fairly radical process. But this does not, in my sense, constitute the fullness of the radicality of education, particularly when set against the next category.
The Radicality of Power concerns the relationship of tutor to student; power is always at stake in this relationship. It is the dynamics of power that is at the heart of critical pedagogy movement, and all the work growing out of Paolo Freire, in which radicality is found in an acknowledgement and then mitigation of formal power structures. Taking up the A Course example, it can be argued that the dynamics of power are not radical at all here, but are deeply conservative because the system is so dependent on the authority of the tutor.
The third category is the Radicality of Production – the form, aesthetic, techniques that come out of the first two: process and power. These are the calling cards of any educational institute, and those that purport to be progressive signal that progress through the display of radical production. Hence yearbooks and catalogues emerging from architecture schools rarely talk about the first two dimensions – process and power – but rather become collections of images of production, in which radicality is announced by the formal/aesthetic/technical ruptures that are contained in these spectacles.
What we find is that the radicality of production is not normally correlated with the final category, the Radicality of Agency. What I mean by this is wider impact and agency (“the ability to intervene in the world”) of the educational process. This is different from the development of the agency of the individual student to execute work – I assume that this happens to a greater or lesser extent across all education as a founding principle. The radicality of agency refers to the way that art and design education intervenes in the world in terms of social, political and environmental transformation.
It is a good game to see how this very quick sketch of categories plays out against various institutions. The Bauhaus was pretty radical in terms of process and production: the exercises, the rules, the methods all broke the roots of Beaux Arts and purely craft-based education, and the production that came out was formally, aesthetically and technically progressive in relation to previous models. But all this happened within a regime of power which was pretty much based on the Beaux Arts model of masters and studios. As Griselda Pollock and many others have noted, it is a well-known trait of the avant-garde that it hides a certain stasis under a thin veneer of progress: “the illusion of consistent change and innovation disguises a more profound level of consistency.”
Anyone who has seen my recent lectures on architectural education know that I am fairly trenchant on how conservative current architectural education really is, but does not recognise this because we are blinded by the brilliance of the surface.
My argument is that it is difficult, and maybe not desirable, to have all four radicalities at play at once, because (as noted) they might actually be in conflict. Thus, if you want the radicality of production it is likely that your agency is reduced, in so much as the radicality of production is too often evaluated by internalized systems and discourses that have little external agency.
I would argue, to finish, that we therefore have to prioritise among these four radicalities. For me the only two real radicalities – in so much as they relate to societal and political practice – are those of power and agency. Thus, the work that we collectively introduced at the School of Architecture in Sheffield in the 2000s, and now what Mel Dodd and her team are doing in Spatial Practices at Central Saint Martins, is founded on a redistribution of the hierarchies of power in the name of the empathetic empowerment of students.
In our current political and environmental catastrophe, the only real radicality, the only meaningful radicality, is that of agency, of how we intervene in the world. And the primary issue these interventions should address is that of the climate emergency, because with that consideration comes social justice and systemic change. So, my call is for art, architecture and design to turn away from the seductions of ‘radical’ process and production, and engage fully with the radicality of agency. It may not look so pretty, but it is the only space where hope and meaningful action can be found.
Jeremy Till: November 2019