A School is a Building with a School in it [2006] – Paul Elliman

With all the talk about academies exceeding boundaries it’s perhaps a good idea, when all is said and done, to look at things simply. At least, it would be good if that were possible. Here we have the school, an art school if you like, and there, a bit further on, is the outside world. Simple enough, you might think.

It doesn’t have to be a building in the strictest sense. The architect Cedric Price proposed a mobile school housed in train carriages. The trains were to run on disused tracks linking the English pottery towns of Staffordshire. It would have been part school, part commute to school, and part field-trip escape from the dreadful building, all at the same time.

The university of train carriages wasn’t meant as a gimmick but to keep places of learning accessible, as well as on the move. Price had said: ‘Education, if it is to be a continuous human service run by the community, must be provided with the same lack of peculiarity as the supply of drinking water or free dental care.’ Price, who grew up in Staffordshire, was also making a point about extending the limits of provincial education.

Today, in a world made apparently both smaller and larger through its wealth of mobile telecommunications, we’re continually reminded that the academy is everywhere. Information lines run through every village, town and city. The issue is not how we can resist the global campus (unfortunately there may be no escape from it), but how we can localise it and tailor programmes to individual needs.

Schools aren’t here to create learning, but to provide a structure flexible enough to support its unpredictable requirements. Cedric Price had an instinct for this. His projects, whether realised or not – mostly not – became architectural essays on flexibility, indeterminacy and impermanence. The Potteries Thinkbelt school came with inflatable lecture theatres. In another project, a plan for a Fun Palace involved spaces that could be reconfigured for different uses. The Inter-Action centre, a multipurpose community centre in London’s Kentish Town (1971), was, finally, a working example of Price’s interest in buildings combining light-weight structure, a fixed life-span, in this case 30 years, and a function that had yet to be decided.

These are ideas that apply perfectly to the space of a school -– a kind of drop-in centre where individual commitment coexists within a more easy going social flexibility.

The logic of our world of constant movement and connection relies on a network of stops, airports, terminals and transfer points. Imagine the school as some kind of mobile carriage moving from place to place is. In practice, however, a school is a more a hub of activity than a station or a bus stop. It is a provisional base from which to filter the world we live in or reorganise ourselves within it; a place to reflect on basic principles or to invent new ones. And in this sense, perhaps the only thing that a school needs to maintain is its position as a hub of activities.

When he was looking for resident artists to add to the general mix of the new experimental college at Black Mountain, John Andrew Rice was asked if it was to be an art school. His answer was no: ‘God, no. That’s the last thing I want. Schools are the most awful places in the world!’

Yet Rice intended art to be at the centre of the Black Mountain curriculum because he saw it as one of few cultural forms equipped to demonstrate alternative approaches to institutionalised social life. Undermining the overly-didactic by presenting information in modes and methods that are multi-layered and open ended remains a driving force of contemporary art. Certain examples come to mind of artists responding to their experience of school; from Matt Mullican’s arcane bulletin boards and Mark Lombardi’s precise diagrams, to Emma Kay’s extemporaneous history of the world told from her own memory.

Other examples dealing with the actual building begin to evaluate the kinds of hubness that might characterise a school. In a certain sense, a library and a good canteen might be all that a school requires. A place to meet and talk and a place to meet and think.

Although set in a factory, one of Mario Merz’s visualisations of the power of numbers could have taken place in a school canteen. In Fibonacci Napoli(Factory Canteen), a sequence of images show first one person, then two, then three then five then eight, and so on through the first nine numbers of the Fibonacci sequence. The empty tables and chairs are quickly populated by a throng of voices as a lone person is transformed by becoming part of a partisan crowd. The exponential growth of the numbers series could be compared to an activity such as learning. In fact, though, Merz simply shows people coming together – this could just as well be a lunch or a party, a seminar or a strike meeting.

Thinking of that other, quieter school space, there are plenty of schools that have only survived because of their libraries, particularly the smaller ones in which a collection is still manageable and accessible. A good example of this is the library of artist Martha Rosler, which is currently installed at the Frankfurter Kunstverein. Rosler’s private collection of almost ten thousand books is made available for public use, along with a catalogue of the items and a photocopy machine. Even the smallest, most independent workshops and courses should develop a small library as a product of their day-to-day momentum, perhaps even more so if that is the sum of its production.

Then there are the lectures, which can be held in the canteen or the library. They can’t always be good, but sometimes the best are when you forgot you were even attending one, or were never quite sure in the first place. Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque slide show is a kind of ‘is-it-a-lecture?’ To which the cultural anthropology of Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons provides the perfect ‘or-is-it-a-disco/dance-class?’ riposte.

If ever art itself has something to teach us, it doesn’t happen through institutional critique à la Foucault, but through this kind of raw intertextual drift that offers more open ways of responding to the world. Not even a teacher needs to have answers to questions that don’t necessarily have answers – questions that are just as important a part of the process of exploration; research intended to illuminate a field of connections but not necessarily draw a conclusion or offer explanations.

Gertrude Stein managed to put it in terms that are as crude as they are shrewd: ‘The things not that can be learnt but that can be taught are not interesting’. And for every teacher that tells us that was written wrongly, comes another to defend it in such a complicated way that it becomes incomprehensible. We shouldn’t be afraid to work things out for ourselves.

In fact, something I remember most from Martin Duberman’s study of Black Mountain College is his description of Josef and Anni Albers finally consenting to the book’s publication. They simply encouraged its author to turn his immense research into a book about the impact this newfound knowledge of Black Mountain was having on him.

Albers seemed to prefer the idea of the school to remain alive as an idea, or set of ideas, that could be continually invented through individual attempts to discover it or produce it. Hadn’t Mies van der Rohe claimed, back in those days, that the Bauhaus was not an institution but an idea? It can seem more like an institution every day, as the worlds of art and commerce somnolently fold the Bauhaus idea into endlessly perfected re-enactments. What we might retain, in a sort of art-school memory trace of Black Mountain, is a learning process propelled forward more by an instinct for what a school, or social life for that matter, shouldn’t be, than what it should be. Perhaps neither an institution or an idea, but something more open-minded than either of those.

The Bauhaus taught the lessons of engagement through an understanding of materials and form. It still sounds like a foundation course, parts of which might even still be useful. But there are other ways of engaging with the world. And students need time to explore what they already know. We all do. Perhaps finding our own ways to engage is the key lesson of life anyway. Including, as Cedric Price taught, ways of engaging with the very buildings that define us, often by confining us.

An artist friend of mine once told me that he thought a curriculum could be entirely practical – lessons, for example, in desktop publishing, or how to wire the electrics of a building. The things they never actually teach you in school. ‘Just show us how the thing works, how to put it together.’

Another friend, who actually did an electrical engineering course, reminisces about her favourite lecturer: ‘He just had that way of describing things without fully explaining them; made you want to go off and figure the thing out for yourself.’ When I asked her what his subject was, she couldn’t remember: ‘I’m not sure’ she said, ‘something like wave-theory, I think.’ It made me laugh. The most inspiring teacher of all and you don’t even need to know what he’s talking about.

A school is still only a building with a school in it. Take some of the school part out and it might work even better.