'Imagination will take you everywhere'
On a balmy June evening I came out of Aldgate East tube station into the hustle and bustle of the East End; the buzzing creative heart of our capital – if not the country. With the Whitechapel Gallery, Brick Lane and Old Spitalfields Market being the well-known hotspots that mark out the area as the place for mould-breaking art, design and culture. A place where diversity, spirit and experimentation oozes from the (spray-painted) brickwork. Galleries, arts centres, artists’ studios, street art, rooftop cinemas, basement theatres and market stalls pop up around every corner.
But this is not a love letter to East London; it is a battle cry.
One of the most important buildings in this artistic community is a bold block of modernist architecture. Central House on Whitechapel Road, dubbed the ‘Aldgate Bauhaus’ and revamped by the architect Florian Beigel, dominates the busy crossroads which directs traffic either straight on to the City, left towards Tower Hill, or right into Shoreditch.
This building has been home to the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design – part of London Metropolitan University – since 2012. It is where the creative talent of tomorrow are educated, where they are based until they spill forth into the world to make their mark.
And what a prime location to educate the future furniture-makers, architects, fashion designers, film-makers, jewellers and photographers. Famous alumni includes Tracey Emin, the jewellery designer Alex Monroe and the founders of Assemble (the architecture collective who won the 2015 Turner Prize). The Cass may well be nurturing the next generation of YBAs and Turner Prize winners.
But this temple of creativity is under threat.
In February 2016, London Metropolitan sold Central House to Frasers Property UK (FPUK) for £50 million, as well as their other building on Commercial Road. The sale will help pay for the university’s £125 million vision; One Campus, One Community, which will see The Cass moved to Holloway Road in Islington to join the main university campus in August 2017. As well as uprooting over 2,000 students, they plan to cancel courses such as the prestigious silver-smithing and jewellery and the country’s only musical instrument-making courses.
This has provoked much opposition from students, teachers and industry professionals, who argue that they would be destroying The Cass’ identity as a renowned arts school in its own right. The dean of The Cass, Robert Mull, resigned over opposition to the plan in December 2015 and a letter from leading art professionals, such as the artist Jeremy Deller, the director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota, the architects Sir David Chipperfield and Lord Richard Rogers, and the artist Anish Kapoor, was published in the Observer.
“We call on London Metropolitan to pursue a two-site solution that keeps the education of art, making and design alive and kicking where The Cass began – in London’s East End.”
The letter criticised the “homogenised vision of academic education”, as well as the “failure to respect the integrity of hands-on creative education”.
Despite the letter, a petition with over 3,000 signatures, numerous protests and a definitive lack of student support, the plan is still believed to be going ahead.
My sister, Ellie Williams, is a Textile Design student at The Cass, and although the move won’t affect her as she will graduate in 2017, she says that the location is a major positive and helps students gain inspiration for their work. “East London is a cultural hub; We have lots of galleries on our doorstep and Graduate Fashion Week happens in Truman Brewery. The location is an important part of The Cass’ identity as an art school, which it will lose when it moves to Islington.”
She adds; “The main thing that has angered students is the cutting of courses and the redundancies that will come with that. Many current first year students worry about the disruption it will cause when they have to move.”
Last week I attended The Cass’ annual summer exhibition and was blown away by the quality, imagination and variety of work on show – from chairs to printed textiles, jewellery to dresses, massive installations to tiny intricate creations. But as I walked around the studios I couldn’t help but imagine this building – now whizzing with energy and possibilities – turned into another block of luxury flats or offices. Just look outside the window and you will see building sites and cranes and shiny glass towers looming over you. An urban jungle which will soon envelope Central House and spit it back out as an indistinguishable building; a ghost of its past self.
This is becoming a recurring theme around East London; a big developer buys up a building, knocks it down and rebuilds a spanking new one – usually as a hotel, flats or offices. It is slowly destroying the identity of the area and driving out the artistic community which came here precisely because of the low rents in EC1 during the post-war period.
Furthermore, the whole point of The Cass being based in a deprived area of London, the East End, was to enable better access to education for people from every background and to enrich the community. This was the wish of Sir John Cass, the philanthropist who died in 1718, and whose foundation helped set up the institution.
I wonder what Sir John Cass would make of the move?
To sign the petition to save The Cass, click here.
Below are some photographs I took of the work on display at The Cass Summer Show 2016 (Part 1: 10th – 18th June, part 2: 24th June – 2nd July).