I was asked to prepare a slide show as part of the staff development day for Leeds Metropolitan University Library. Drawing on archival sources, anecdotal/oral history and rarely seen images from the Library’s own extensive Slide Collection, the presentation concentrated on the early days of what was then Leeds Polytechnic in the period 1969-1978.
The slides follow a rough chronology charting the amalgamation of the constituent Leeds colleges (schools of law, technology, commerce, catering, art and architecture), the founding of the Polytechnic as an institution in 1970, and the period of expansion through the 1970s under the helm of Professor Patrick Nuttgens.
The slides are a rich resource that offer a window on what was an optimistic and ambitious period in higher education provision; one that was radically different to the model we see today.
In Leeds, one of the first cities to be designated for a new Polytechnic, expansion through the amalgamation of Leeds Central Colleges led to further integration with the addition of James Graham College, City of Leeds College of Education, and the Carnegie Physical Training College in 1976.
The City site was landscaped, trees were planted and work began on ambitious building projects that led to the construction of iconic (or infamous – depending on your point of view) buildings such as Brunswick Terrace and the H Block – both since demolished; the former sold off and pulled down in 2009 to make way for the new Leeds ‘First Direct’ Arena.
Under Nuttgens the ethos of “education with a purpose” came to the fore with an approach that sought to combine academic and vocational disciplines opening opportunities for higher education outside of the traditional university system. Nuttgens was one of the great polymath academics – an architect, painter, educator, raconteur, television pundit and a prolific author perhaps his best known book being the influential ‘The Story of Architecture’. From his Obituary in the Guardian April 2004:
“Patrick was the product of two traditions: education for its own sake and, through his craftsman father, education for a purpose, via practical experiment. The possibilities of merging these two traditions thrilled him when, in 1969, he was appointed as the first director of Leeds Polytechnic: “Doing, making and organising are fundamental activities, and they are what a polytechnic is all about.”
The 1970s were a turbulent period particularly in education. Initial enthusiasm for the polytechnic concept quickly turned to hostility in some quarters, especially from within art schools. There were fears that the independence of individual schools would be lost and the free spirit which had built their reputations in the 1950s and 60s stifled by bureaucracy, ‘technocratic meddling’ and budget cuts. Headingley-born artist Patrick Heron, in his famous article for the Guardian newspaper in 1971, argued against colleges’ integration into the polytechnic system – describing as he did – Leeds College of Art as ‘the most influential school in Europe since the Bauhaus’.
Amidst the political ferment of the early seventies, the Leeds Polytechnic Fine Art department thrived in what was to become a creative and often confrontational atmosphere – where traditional boundaries between staff and student became blurred. With legendary figures the likes of Jeff Nuttall and Geoff Teasdale among the teaching staff (read ex-Leeds Poly student Marc Almond’s autobiography Tainted Life), and a notorious reputation for headline grabbing radical performance art – Derek Wain and Peter Parkin’s notorious “Violence in Society” performance being only one of the more well-known examples of what was going on at the time – the success of the School culminated in a triumphant show at the ICA in London in 1972, an accolade that was unprecedented for an English regional art school at the time and one has never been repeated since.