One hundred years ago the handsome Central School of Arts and Crafts was built in Holborn with its dome, its Eric Gill sculptures and William de Morgan fireplaces. Designed under the watchful eye of the architect WR Lethaby who wanted a building that was "plain, reasonable and well built", it grouped related subjects together on different floors and pioneered a new kind of teaching where students learnt by using tools in a workshop environment.
Over the past century, hundreds of student illustrators, engravers, printers and etchers passed through its doors and the college itself morphed into a different creature, becoming Central St Martins and then part of the University of the Arts London.
It is one of London's, indeed Britain's, most revered art institutions with a glittering list of alumni, including Lucien Freud, Terence Conran, Gilbert and George and Antony Gormley as well as Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.
Students and staff have bonded with the ageing Holborn building as well as with the other sites in Charing Cross Road and Clerkenwell. But, as the Central St Martins staff will tell you, these old buildings are difficult to maintain, inflexible and don't suit modern teaching and learning practices. And they are scattered around the capital – which is why CSM, as it is known by staff and students, is to move to a new home on the 64-acre King's Cross goods-yard site being developed by Argent.
"You can't stay in out-of-date accommodation," says Sir John Tusa, the new chairman of the University of the Arts London, briskly. "The advantages of being able to have a purpose-built art college are extraordinary, never mind one of that size and that is centred round the historic Lewis Cubitt Granary building at King's Cross.
"It will give us more profile and will make us more visible. Central St Martins will be a really major art college development and one for the 21st century."
The £170m development is one that any art college would give a Tracey Emin installation for. Jane Rapley, CSM's principal, says its central rationale is to bring together all the disparate bits of the college, apart from Byam Shaw which will remain at Archway and house fine art.
But the new home will do much more than that. "We will have something that is very smart and very high spec," says Rapley.
"The location is fantastic because it's between the two stations [King's Cross and St Pancras], it's on a transport hub with connections to Europe, and has all sorts of benefits for staff, getting them to Europe and back – and it's great for students."
Whether all the students and staff will agree when the college comes to move in 2011 is debatable. Art students are notoriously difficult to please. The University of the Arts London gets low scores in the National Student Satisfaction Survey. When Chelsea College of Art moved into a beautiful historic building next to Tate Britain, students held staged protests. And art college staff are famous for their awkwardness.
Rapley looks harrassed as she describes all the work ahead of her. "The students at the moment are vaguely interested, and vaguely perhaps sad because they are attached to the sites which are part of their lives," she says. "With the staff there's a sadness and a grief. We have been in these buildings a long time. They have character and they bring character to what we do. And some of the staff were students here.
"I feel very sad. I have been here 20 years. It will be very sad to leave. But a number of staff are also very excited about the opportunities the new site will give us. With all such changes, you have your bunch of radical adopters who are keen and your bulk of staff who are interested but concerned, and you have your other group for whom it will be a disaster whatever happens. But it won't be a disaster. It will be difficult and a challenge, but we will move on.
"Every 20 to 25 years the educational establishment needs something radical to shake it up."
The move will cement Central St Martins' reputation not only in Britain, but in Europe and around the world. The college will become the centrepiece of the new King's Cross development, providing a cultural, artistic heart to a huge pedestrianised area leading down to the Regent's Canal just north of Goodsway where, in the 1990s, prostitutes used to accost kerb crawlers.
"The developers want this to be a new Trafalgar Square, to make it an important cultural space in London," says Rapley.
If the architects' drawings are anything to go by, the new development will be breathtaking. The art school will be housed in the six-storey Granary building, built in 1852, and the enormous 19th-century train sheds that stretch 180 metres north behind it. This was where trains would chug in from East Anglia in the 1800s carrying grain, or from the North-east carrying coal, and unload their goods into transit sheds from whence horses, tethered in underground stables, would shunt them on to canal barges.
Historical evidence of all this activity remains. The architect Paul Williams, of Stanton Williams, who is charged with adapting these old industrial buildings for a 21st-century art college, relishes his task.
He is adamant that all the lines of the new buildings will come out of the existing period proportions of the old. "When you get it right – the juxtaposition of new and old, one enhances the other," he says.
In the Granary will be the college's library and gallery, and in the train sheds will be everything else – flexible studios, workshops and lecture theatres built around a broad, glazed "street" with overhead walkways. The intention is that this space will be very fluid, enabling the different departments to talk to one another, to spark ideas off one another, and to work in the most flexible way imaginable.
In the former stables underneath the transit shed will be a place for students and staff to park their bicycles – a fitting modern home for the two-wheeler, Williams believes. What is so precious about the site is the scale of the buildings. "Where else would you find a footprint the size of this so close to central London?" he asks. "The whole centre of gravity of London is going to shift north."
The development of Central St Martins should also be seen in the context of a general spiffing up of university campuses around the country as institutions try harder to please students and compete with one another. At a time when students are having to pay more for their education, and when overseas students pay full-cost fees, universities can't get away with being scruffy any more.
"You can't say, 'Come to us. We're the best,' and then not provide students with the best possible environment and accommodation," says Tusa.
Central St Martins is the second art college to announce a move and a radical revamp. Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication said recently that it would be moving from leafy Kent to a spanking new building next to the O2 in Greenwich, expanding and becoming more user-friendly along the way.
CSM will be in good company at King's Cross. It will have its own gallery and museum, but nearby will be another gallery, specialising in illustration, promoted by Quentin Blake, and there will be one or two other galleries not far away, as well as a concert hall. The plan is to make the area into a new cultural quarter for London with public art and activities in the square. The hope is that Central St Martins will send out ripples, says Rapley.
If you get hungry in this new creative zone, you will be able to nip into Sainsbury's new headquarters, which will contain an experimental store stuffed with wonderful goodies for the public to try out. You will also find big high-street shops on the site as well as smaller start-up shops to tickle your fancy.
It may sound a long way from WR Lethaby's "plain, reasonable and well built" building, but the architect and the college principal are hoping that his values will continue to prevail.
"It is the spirit of the thing, the values of the place that are important, and the fact that you carry on forward with your community and staff," says Rapley.
Central St Martins: vital statistics
Created in 1989 from the merger of Central School of Art and Design (founded 1896) and St Martin's School of Art (founded 1854). The 1960s and 1970s were its golden age, when it produced the likes of Gilbert and George, who met there, and Richard Long, and employed artists Anthony Caro and Barry Flanagan as teachers.
Pop music links
The college was immortalised in Pulp's song "Common People", as the place where the woman who caught Jarvis Cocker's eye (along with Jarvis, right) studied. Also the site of the Sex Pistols' first gig.
Number of students
Some 4,626, of whom 3,000 are undergraduates.
Fashion, textiles and jewellery; fine art; graphic and media design; drama, dance and design for performance; product and industrial and ceramic design; architecture and spatial design; innovation and cultural theory and practice.
Frank Auerbach, Jeff Banks, Cressida Bell, Terence Conran, Peter Doig, James Dyson, Lucien Freud, John Galliano, Antony Gormley, Katherine Hamnett, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Bruce Oldfield.