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Academic at the interface

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Even with a plaster Venus de Milo and glossy photographs of crashed cars on the walls, Cliff Nicholls' room could be the attic of a provincial theological college, so strong is its austere character and detachment from its environment at the interface of suburbia and Bohemia around Shepherd's Bush. 'The only thing I inherited, ' says Nicholls, gesturing to the love goddess; he personally selected the photographs, taken by textile students, which treat buckled metal as if it were folded cloth. For this is the Chelsea School of Art, where Nicholls is dean of the school of design, and one of the UK's highestplaced architect-academics. The unembellished Arts & Crafts building in Lime Grove explains the plain, steeply pitched roof trusses, and it probably felt good to fin de siecle aesthetes.

Its suitability now has a different resonance. The location is symbolic of the synergy Nicholls seeks between different aspects within the totality of design. Part of the building was once the Hammersmith School of Building, where Nicholls studied for his RIBA Part III; Lime Grove was also the site of the BBC's original TV studios; the embryonic form of an important new area of design, while the curiously hidden Shepherd's Bush market kindles Nicholls's fascination for urban design.

Nicholls cites one of his reasons for taking the job four years ago as the 'interplay of activities'. Perhaps his previous career in urban design, both as a practitioner with a string of competition credits and as a teacher at South Bank (where he started a specialist unit), fitted him for the task, but he also found the raw material at Chelsea. Here was a venerable art school, one of the founding constituents of the London Institute in 1986, with numerous design specialisms but which lacked an architecture department. Nicholls could not retreat behind the ramparts of disciplinary definitions; he had to find a positive way forward. And that was his other reason for taking the job: its challenge.

Architecture, he agrees, had monopolised the idea of design, swamping it with its own technical modalities. 'What interests me, ' he says, 'is the interaction between art and design, ' and between various design disciplines. 'Traditional boundaries are being stretched, ' and the interface is 'where it becomes interesting'. Shorn of particular techniques, design can be treated as a system of ideas.

Architecture certainly has a place in his taxonomy, but not as a dedicated course leading to professional exemptions.

In essence, that is how Nicholls approaches course structures. 'We run design courses, design is the umbrella title which embraces a range of activities.'

Around a common theory core, which can be endlessly debated (and indeed was, at the validation of a new MA in design for the environment), his school runs specialist courses at further and higher education levels. At the other end of higher education, Foundation level has four courses, in 3D design, graphics, fabric and textiles, and environmental design -'a catch-all term for interior design, architecture and public art . . . we find students going to Kingston, the AA . . .' he continues. There is, too, considerable cross-over between the design students at Chelsea, and their counterparts in the Fine Art faculty. The MA in design for the environment is particularly appropriate to architects. Drawing on 3D design, public art and textiles, it offers a broad insight into the social potential of design.

Nicholls sees an analogy with his previous work in urban design. His approach was the interplay between the general and the particular. If the common core of design is general, then the specific techniques and conditions of the specialisms equate to the particular. It is not a weakness, he believes, when students do not necessarily go on to practise their academic specialism, a point which many architectural academics are accepting only under the duress of enormous student numbers.

Nicholls is in a privileged position to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of architectural education. 'Minor but significant revisions might be made, ' he says, magisterially but sympathetically, going on to identify particular gaps in the relation of architecture to other areas of design, and the study of buildings in use. But he does praise the closeness of theory and practice in architectural courses.

His sounds an enviable job. Students, he says, come w ith an interest in 'the creat ive process' . He is ultimately responsible for around 800, split equally between those in further and higher (ie degree) education. But, like all academics, he has to keep more than an eye on research - and design, as anyone who followed the AJ's letters page a few months ago will know, enjoys an ambiguous position. Nicholls' school has several initiatives, in textiles, ecology and public art, and something which is 'moving towards a study of spatiality and narrative space'. All fit within the school's mission, to investigate the role of the designer within society. The textiles programme, for instance, focuses on the impact of textiles within the environment, and contributed to the Science Museum's materials gallery with an interactive CD-ROM describing the life cycle of a T-shirt.

As the RIBA feels its way towards a new education strategy and the government homes in on design as a means of refashioning national identity, Nicholls' approach has much to offer. Not needing the institutional requirement of RIBA exemption, he and his colleagues can match courses directly to student need and to fulfil the audit expectations imposed on higher education. But he is also ideally placed to tap the hypothesis that Britain's future lies in developing its creative talents. An invitation from Number 10 ought to be on its way.

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