Accommodating an Art School    

By Professor Gaynor Kavanagh​

​​​Our brand new School of Art and Design building

In its 150-year history, Cardiff's art school has been housed in a number of different locations in the city.  It began its days in a cramped first floor room, looking over St Mary's Street, which at the time also contained a burgeoning library and museum collection. 

From there, it moved several times to available accommodation across the city.  Only in 1965, did it move into a purpose-build facility in Howard Gardens, designed by the Cardiff City Architect, John Dryburgh. Eleven years later, in 1976, the School was one of four colleges that joined together to form the South Glamorgan Institute of Technology to become, in time, Cardiff Metropolitan University.

Accommodating an art school is not a straight-forward venture.  The need for light, space and specialist equipment, along with libraries, reference collections, material storage and social spaces, render all arts schools an architectural challenge.  Cardiff's art school was certainly that and unlike many of its contemporaries, including Newport School of Art (founded in 1841 and moved to a purpose built building in 1910), it was not accommodated in a purpose-built building until 1965

This would certainly not have been because the design of an art school was not understood; it clearly was.  In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, an architectural form for arts schools developed.  Perhaps the most celebrated and treasured is the Charles Rennie Macintosh designed Glasgow Art School (1907-9).  Other examples proliferate, with the peak period of design and build being from the 1880s through to the First World War. Manchester Art School was completed in 1880–81 to the designs of G.T.Redmayne. Similarly the Slade School  at UCL had new buildings in the 1880s. Edinburgh School of Art's red sandstone main building was designed in the Beaux-Arts style by John More Dick Peddie and George Washington Browne, and was completed in 1909. Even Penzance Art School, founded in 1853 and part of the same movement for the training for the artisan, moved into its building in 1881, notwithstanding that it was never incorporated into a University.

The reasons that Cardiff's art school was not similarly accommodated in a dedicated and well designed building may lie in Cardiff's erratic development into a city, its fragile economy being at the mercy of how well coal and therefore the docks were doing, and its spasmodic emergence as a retail and administrative centre.  At the critical time when the prosperity of other cities was evident in the talismans of progress, particularly the architecture of the town hall, library, museum, law courts and art school, Cardiff appears to have had more ambition than cash.  A dedicated building for Cardiff Art School, at the peak of similar developments elsewhere, just didn't happen.

Once dedicated premises became available to it, on the Howard Gardens Campus from the late 1960s onwards, the School began to come fully into its own.  Not that the years before had been without significant achievement. Alumni of the standing of the cartoonists and illustrators, Joseph Morewood Staniforth (1863 - 21 December 1921) and Leslie Gilbert Illingworth (1902/79), the sculptor, William Goscombe John (21 February 1860 – 15 December 1952), painter Ernest Zobole (25 April 1927 – 27 November 1999), and the award winning film production designer Brian Savegar (24 August 1932 – 31 March 2007) are testament to that. 

However, from the 1970s onwards Cardiff School of Art was to prosper as a constituent part of a University, which gave it stability and a genuine sense of academic purpose.  It became known as Cardiff School of Art & Design.  The School gradually developed a portfolio of specific awards at undergraduate and postgraduate levels that would characterize the School as a place for critical enquiry into creative practices. It gathered a reputation for ceramics, fine art, product design, graphic communication and construction, later adding to these textiles, illustration, and most recently, maker

From this, the School built a lively research degree programme, a range of enterprise activities, including Cardiff Open Art School serving the wider community; along with research that in 2006 placed the School in 11th in research power out of 67 other art schools and confirmed that the School's research was both world leading and internationally excellent. By the 2000's, the size of the School was such that it was located on two campuses, three miles apart, at Llandaff and in the centre of the City at Howard Gardens.

In 2011, Cardiff Metropolitan University addressed how best to accommodate and consolidate all of this on the Llandaff Campus, by initiating a bold £14m investment in accommodation for the School.  The brief was to house an arts school that was worthy of a European Capital City, that could house 1208 full time equivalent students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, a suite of highly specialist workshops, everything from a non-ferrous metal foundry to a digital stitch facility, and a research and enterprise active staff team, dedicated to excellence. 

Designed by the architects Austin Smith: Lord and developed by a project team led by the University's Estate Department, the School now occupies a new purpose built building, as well as refurbished accommodation in N and A Blocks, on the Llandaff Campus.  The project came in on time and in budget.  The movement of the School three miles across town happened over the summer of 2014, without accident or incident. In September 2014, CSAD's students and staff properly took up residence and a new era in the life of Cardiff's School of art had begun.​