Spike Island

On the Construction School

Birmingham-based designer James Langdon has been working closely with us since last year on the development of our visual identity and new print material.  Alongside that project, he has made use of his time in Bristol to research the history of a little-known design education programme, the Construction School, based in Bristol at the West of England College of Art and Design (now the University of the West of England). Here Langdon shares some of his initial findings and outcomes.

I first read about the existence of the Construction School* in Norman Potter’s book ‘What is a designer’, which dedicates its short closing chapter ‘The Bristol experiment’ to summarising the activities of the school. The Construction School, founded by Potter with a small group of collaborators, was a bold attempt to establish an experimental design school in a provincial English context. The first phase of Potter’s involvement (1964 to 1968) placed an emphasis on interdisciplinary practices and collaboration. The second phase (1975 to 1977) went further, defined by a radical effort to decentralise the educational structure of the school.

Given the opportunity of a short residency at Spike Island in 2011, I decided to make an effort to uncover more. I began by contacting Hyphen Press, the publisher of Potter’s two books. There, Robin Kinross has been extremely helpful in giving access to materials in his collection, and facilitating introductions to several key people. A network of former staff and students of the school is gradually emerging. I am in the process of recording interviews and compiling a substantial number of documents from personal collections. These include project briefs, lecture notes and programmes; audio recordings of visiting lectures, 8mm film documenting field trips (an important part of the school’s activity) and so on.

The school was a product of major changes in the structure of art and design education in the UK. In 1960 a new qualification, the Diploma in Art and Design (DipAD) was introduced, intended to formalise standards in the field. A process of granting accreditation to colleges to offer this new qualification began, with brutal results: only 61 courses were approved to run the DipAD from over 200 applicants. The West of England College of Art lost out in this process, and urgent action was required to found a new course and resubmit for DipAD accreditation. Norman Potter, then teaching at the RCA in London, was approached and given the opportunity to found such a course in Bristol. This difficult inception is typical of much of the school’s story: institutional resistance was a recurrent pressure. The efforts of the school to define itself were constantly foiled, and as early as early as 1966 it was in sufficient trouble to solicit a petition in its defence by a significant list of architects and designers. In 1968 the student sit-in at Hornsey College of Art brought these questions to the attention of the public and prompted extensive discussion on the function of art and design education.

→ See full version of 1966 students' petition

My project is ongoing, and proceeding slowly. At times frustratingly so. I am pursuing it part-time — around my own practice as an independent designer — and with limited resources.

Modest attempts to make public the project have attracted a surprising level of interest. I was recently invited to give a presentation of my research at Corner College, an independent artist-run space in Zürich. This informal, unpretentious organisation certainly made an appropriate context. I gave an account of the Construction School as I am currently able to document it, and showed various materials to exemplify points about important aspects of the school’s work. I also invited two guest speakers, artist Susanne Kriemann and design historian Christopher Burke, to give presentations about their own practices and to engage in discussion about the ethics and motivations of working with archives.

These invitations were partly prompted by my concern that it may be difficult to sustain interest in the fifty-year-old story of a troubled provincial English design school, but also to echo a beautiful idea recounted to me by Jim Wood, who taught at the Construction School for almost its entire existence. Every Wednesday evening a visiting lecturer would attend the school. The list of speakers is striking: diverse and international, but also exploratory in nature, expanding out from design subjects to include philosophy, psychology and technology. Jim refers to these guests as ‘bombs’, whose ideas would permeate the culture of the group in an explosive fashion. It is an inspired image of provincial education.

The Zürich presentation ended, somewhat farcically, with a group reading of Norman Potter’s play ‘Icarus’. Written in honour of the ‘International Student Movement’ of 1968 and performed only once, at the school in Bristol in 1975, Potter’s literary work is unexpectedly artful. Reactions to the play in Zürich were various, with one participant objecting to the text — which he described as ‘a pile of cack’ — and attempting to derail the reading. Undeterred, I hope to make a fuller staging of the play in Amsterdam later this year.

* The precise name of the school is the subject of dispute in documents that I have found. It represents an urge on Potter’s behalf to avoid conventional titles such as ‘Interior Design’, which he apparently considered redundant. Various formulations of the name existed during the life of the school.