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The shape of the future: Ravensbourne College

A small design college is thinking big by building an innovative new campus

From leafy Kent to gritty, urban south-east London: that is the move that Ravensbourne College is planning in 2010. Faced with a tough choice four years ago expansion or a merger with a larger institution to ensure its survival Ravensbourne chose to make what could only be described as the hazardous move from suburbia to edgy inner city.

As a small, specialist design and communication college with around 1,000 students, it had been receiving loud and clear the message from the Higher Education Funding Council that it couldn't go on as it was. However, the merger would have meant Ravensbourne losing its identity and that was something that neither the principal, Robin Baker, nor the staff, wanted. Expansion appeared the only hope.

So, the search began for new buildings or, more daringly, a site on which to put up a new design college for the 21st century. After toying with the idea of buying another building in Bromley close to the existing campus near Chislehurst, it was decided that relocation could be a real option. It was a huge risk. How many other colleges, faced with effective closure, have upped sticks and started afresh, 12 miles from where they have lived for 45 years and resolved to get bigger at the same time?

The answer is virtually none. But Baker and his staff swallowed hard and set out on the long road of selling their bucolic 16-acre site in Kent (which turned out to be extremely arduous) and finding a place to erect an exciting new building containing state-of-the-art facilities as befits a college that is at the cutting edge of new digital technologies.

They wanted to move closer to London, but to stay south of the river and to find a place with good communications. Before long they had alighted on empty land on the Greenwich peninsular next to the Millennium Dome, now renamed the O2 centre, and decided it was superior to anything else they had seen. One of its great advantages is that it's on the Jubilee line. "It was a site with huge potential and not much developed," says Baker. "We would be helping with its regeneration. It was fantastic."

Both the sale of the Kent campus and the purchase of the new site were done in parallel and involved a large number of consultants and lawyers. Baker does not dwell on the difficulties but one gets the impression they were legion, not least because they had to make a planning application for the old campus to be zoned as residential land in order to secure a decent price for it. They only succeeded at the second attempt.

The college wanted to find a small but creative firm of architects, who were not particularly high profile, to design what they hoped would be a jaw-dropping new home for their students of fashion, design, broadcasting and computer animation.

They chose a firm of architects called Foreign Office, who designed the Yokohama port terminal in Japan and were shortlisted for Ground Zero in New York. "They were hungry for something like this," says Baker. "We were very lucky. I think this was one of our best decisions."

The building, which is chevron-shaped, will be in black, silver and white and will be covered in a tessellation designed by the Cambridge mathematician Sir Roger Penrose, who produced decorative motifs similar to those in Islamic art. Originally the exterior was going to be ceramic but that proved too heavy, so now it will be made of aluminium.

Inside, there will be two atria in which students and staff will be able to meet and talk. The building will be open 18 hours a day. The plan is that everyone should be flexible about their use of the space to meet the criticism that higher education makes inefficient use of seminar, lecture rooms and studio space. Baker sees this as the college's greatest challenge. "Having got the new building we need a new institution to put inside it," he says. "We're in the process of changing the institution to confirm the idea that small specialist education has a real future and can play a part in creating industry in London. We want to provide an education for students when and where they want it."

Janthia Taylor, director of postgraduate development and innovation, says there will only be a small amount of fixed space in the new building and a lot of space that she calls the "learning landscape", which academics and students book just for the time that they need it.

According to Miles Metcalfe, head of ICT research and development, the new Ravensbourne will be a much more hands-on place. And those in charge of the institution are excited by rumours that Google may be moving to nearby Canary Wharf because that will offer opportunities for synergy between the college's work and new media. The Greenwich peninsular is also expected to contain businesses devoted to entertainment and new media, which is what Ravensbourne is largely about.

There will also be opportunities created by the fact that the Olympics will be on the doorstep of the college in 2012. Media training is one task that Ravensbourne is hoping to fulfil, says Bob Harris, who is being employed as a consultant to advise on regeneration of the Greenwich peninsular. Another idea is a student Olympic channel. They hope to expand student numbers from the 1,400 it has now to 2,000.

The college is planning to lay on programmes in management of the creative industries as well as a new course in digital music and another in broadcast engineering (jointly with an employer). "We want to make a niche institution that says it's not an art college any longer," says Baker. "Design education needs a broader focus. It needs management, technology and design. We're trying to pull together other disciplines you won't usually find in art and design."

Work on the new 50m building is set to start in March 2008 and to be complete by September 2009. It is due to open to students in autumn 2010. When it is finished, the college should truly be able to live up to the memorable name of its website www.rave.ac.uk.

Ravensbourne College: small and perfectly formed


Born in 1962 out of a merger between Bromley, Beckenham and Sidcup schools of art. Began to drop its art college focus in the 1980s to reflect its teaching of broadcasting.

Vital statistics

Has two faculties, design and communication media.

The former includes courses in fashion, design and product design, the latter degrees in broadcast technology, sound and production as well as computer animation.

Glittering alumni

Fashion designers Press and Bastyan, Sarah Sturgeon and Bruce Oldfield. The pop singer David Bowie and fashion designer Stella McCartney did the foundation course here.

Who's the boss?

Robin Baker, former professor of visual computing at the Royal College of Art.

The future

Digital and on the Greenwich peninsular.