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1989 January: Retreats of Fashion

At the end of a decade in which we have seen architects and designers parody every previous era and style, it is only to be expected that we now have architects parodying the early ’80s themselves, producing pastiche 1980s work.

Nigel Coates, finally given the chance to build in this country, reworks the themes of simulation and referential chaos that were propagated by his NATØ (Narrative Architecture Today) group in 1983. NATØ’s philosophy and aesthetic, a heady mixture of Baudrillard, Dada and very late punk, belongs firmly to the time in which they were formulated. It is admirable that Coates has a consistent vision of his work, but the examples he has granted us, the slivers of 3-D manifesti, seem singularly un-fresh.

'80s 'timeless' interior by Norman Foster for Katharine Hamnett in Brompton Road, 1986

’80s ‘timeless’ interior by Norman Foster for Katharine Hamnett in Brompton Road, 1986

As Coates is a restaurant connoisseur and designer, the appropriate analogy might be with the vagaries of fashionable cuisine. His built work is the equivalent of a well-publicised, avant-garde chef revealing his cult dish for the ’90s, which turns out to be a Nouvelle Cuisine arrangement of lamb and kiwi fruit, last seen six years ago. The analogy is hardly fair, as cooking is the swiftest of the arts, architecture the slowest, yet Coates does seem undeniably old-fashioned, belonging irredeemably to that early ’80s world of nightclubs and faux-Baroque, the ultra-urban ideal, when pop videos still seemed somehow daring, even watchable.

The NATØ reaction to the culture of Thatcherism was a rebellious explosion of pleasure, a pirate aesthetic treating the city as a playground of sensual experience and literal semiotics, from traffic lights to neon.

By contrast to this raw utopia of eclecticism, the late ’80s has seen the development and consolidation of a revived, modified form of International Modernism as Interior Decoration, which manages the pressures of city life by ascetic exclusion rather than celebration. This purity in itself is in danger of becoming a cliché, a ‘timeless’ look that will be easily classified ever after as 1980s Timeless Style. Both this work and Coates’ are strongly influenced by Japanese culture. The minimalist grace of the traditional Japanese interior is reinterpreted by the school of, to quote both example and archetype, Zen NW3, and modern Tokyo’s crazed jumble of styles: the ultimate fragmented metropolis, which not only inspires Coates, but has given him his best commissions.

There could not be two clearer examples of the different approaches to retail architecture, than the Katharine Hamnett stores, one in the Brompton Road by Foster and the latest in Sloane Street by Coates. Whilst Foster celebrates the vast warehouse space available to him, merely extending the illusion of spatial infinity further by end walls of sheer mirror, Coates has taken a fairly tight space and perversely made it yet smaller, smearing it with detail.

Light at the end of a tunnel tempts one into Hamnett's breathtaking shop

Light at the end of a tunnel tempts one into Hamnett’s breathtaking shop

As the manager of Foster’s store puts it: ‘Believe it or not, in a place this size, there’s just not enough space.’ Indeed both shops, in their very different ways, are exercises in wasting space, Foster with a sense of calm luxe, Coates with decadent frenzy. The only question is whether Coates can afford to throw away the little space he has in a wilful gesture.

Coates has taken the clichés of high-fashion retail display and reversed them. Whilst the present tendency is for shops to maximise their space to the last centimetre, with uncluttered clear glass fronts, minimal typography and stripped-bare interiors, Coates has deliberately blocked the spatial potential of his shop. The front window is controlled by a wall of nine metal fish tanks; the sensation of exclusion and restricted access is further emphasised by a stylised blue drape flowing across the exterior, matched by heavier blue damask curtain inside the window. The effect is of a grand stage set with the curtains pulled back only to snub the audience with fish where they expected some dramatic, sartorial, centre-piece.

This notion of blocking consumer access is not entirely novel . In his San Francisco V. C. Morris Gift Shop, Frank Lloyd Wright deliberately cut off the customary customer axis with a blank brick wall. According to Edgar Kauffman Jr writing at the time ‘Its inauguration created a traffic jam for days on end and its value as a conversation piece has proved itself amply’: words almost applicable to Coates’ shop which has been considerably slowing down the passers-by of Chelsea. As Kauffman wrote: ’ It has been unthinkable to hide behind a wall if one wanted to sell to the public’ and fish tanks take the idea just one step further.

The facade suggests a larger shop than actually exists

The facade suggests a larger shop than actually exists

The problem is that Coates’ effect is laughable where Wright was graceful. The open, full-scale store window has not become a retail cliché out of herd instinct, rather because it works so well. It lets the potential shopper inspect the store before stepping inside, it guarantees maximum daylight, it creates an atmosphere of freedom and optimism conducive to shopping.

Coates’ storefront is perhaps a slim joke on defeated expectation, but it neither provides any room for display nor delights sufficiently in itself to compensate for that missing function. The only opportunity for display, a mannequin on the right of the entrance, seems cramped and fussy. The scimitar doorhandle is one of the frequent decorative details that give brief, wry pleasure, but that do not add up to a total sensation of either sensual reward or novel outrage.

Similarly, the interior is curiously lacking the very flair, the verve that is so evident in Coates’ attractive drawings and writing. However daunting it might seem, at least Foster’s store amazed by sheer volume. Travelling down the narrow tunnel that leads into it, Foster demands, and gets, a reaction from the deliberate switch of scales, overdrawing with a sudden vertigo of space. Coates’ scheme by contrast begins by promising thwarted grandeur and goes on to deliver it.

Referential chaos in Coates' interior for Katharine Hamnett Sloane Street.

Referential chaos in Coates’ interior for Katharine Hamnett Sloane Street.

Six identical fish tanks are repeated at the rear, cutting the axis to the changing cubicles, pitiful spaces with a single wall-mounted Genii bulb, Coates’ trademark illumination that just looks like a mistake in this context.

The ‘exploded’ Adam ceiling is described by Hamnett’s as a moulded lip of soft white cloth, rolled and held in place by chains, a kinky detail that sounds more titillating in description than in practice. Likewise the grand Venetian mirror, a homage to Cocteau that ends up looking more Bebe Berard, is less exotic than straightforwardly kitsch, too large and clumsy to be funny, especially crowning a Coates version of Dali’s lips sofa. Producing a new version of a piece of throwaway joke furniture is doubtless ‘exuberant misquotation’ as Hamnett’s would have it, but nothing can save it from the charge of imaginative bankruptcy.

The interior gives no sense of movement or adventure, the loops of white draping, the semi-circle of admittedly pretty carpeting, the spaced Murano-glass lamps, do not act upon each other to produce the intended drama. The individual elements are nothing but jokey tack in their own right, without any interplay between them the humour falls very flat. It must be said that the interior complements the present Hamnett collection very well (or perhaps that should be the other way round), both rich in perverted Classicism. But unless the present interior can be modified or adapted to suit the mode of future collections, it could look seriously inappropriate, even more evidently outdated.

Fish tank blocking consumer access to Sloane Street defies promised grandeur but attracts mothers and children.

Fish tank blocking consumer access to Sloane Street defies promised grandeur but attracts mothers and children.

Perhaps part of the problem was working too closely with Hamnett herself. Branson Coates were ‘invited by Katharine to pore over books on Beaton and Cocteau’. If they had been invited to pore a little more over their own ideas instead, the outcome might have been happier. That said, sales at the shop have been extremely good and the goldfish window is apparently a great draw, especially for mothers shopping with their children. Hamnett herself is very pleased with the shop, more so than with the Foster store, which was never actually completed due to contractual difficulties. And more so than with Coates’ first shop for her in Glasgow.

This is a smaller space, in the Prince’s Square development, which as with Sloane Street has been made yet smaller still by Coates. In fact only standing right at the back of the shop, in the staff room, is it possible to understand the full original width of the space, from wall to wall, which Coates has transformed into a smooth, rounded caravan. The shop is much smaller than it looks from outside, occupying the prime site, at the top of the main stairway, a doorway symmetrically flanked by windows and plants that gives the illusion that the shop occupies the whole width of the stairway, rather than only the right- hand unit. In fact the shop occupies the biggest single unit in the whole shopping-centre, but Coates does his best to obscure that.

The entrance is guarded by Hamnett’s name in burnished metal and three flashing white lights, an idea lifted from the exterior of Berwick Street stripclubs that works very nicely, in spite of opposition claiming it might spark epileptic fits.

A retail unit is transformed into a rounded caravan swathed in Moroccan-Moorish colours

A retail unit is transformed into a rounded caravan swathed in Moroccan-Moorish colours

The interior is a whorl of Moroccan-Moorish colours, a textured terracotta floor with an inset serpent of bright mosaic that also runs round the outer circuit of the circular space. Whit a central metal and glass cash-desk and display unit providing the fulcrum, the space genuinely flows around it, giving a sense of tilting giddiness emphasised by the circular track- lighting and colourful main lamp.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the tight space there is a sense of tangible pleasure, of warmth, even seduction, in form and coloration. The back exit is of smoothed Adobe-style curves, faced by a screen of fish tanks, partially revealed by patches in the misted-glass, joined by a video of the latest collection that plays next to the fish. Here the fish tanks are calming rather than aggressive and their juxtaposition with the video suggests shared humour between Coates and Hamnett at the pomposities of both high-fashion and architecture. The five small changing cubicles are handled with modesty and some wit.

Fish tanks form backdrop for Hamnett's suitably decadent present collection.

Fish tanks form backdrop for Hamnett’s suitably decadent present collection.

The three on the right of the fish tank divide are approached by a wall of mirrors that causes immediate disorientation and confusion, and then good humour, as it becomes apparent that the further space (the other cubicles) does not exist apart from in the convincing mirrored depiction.

Other than the vague sensation of sea-sickness induced by the faint tilt of the main floor, the overall effect is one of comfort and ease, of a space deliberately making itself smaller in order to be better. The colours work very well with the present deep red jackets and black velvet of Hamnett’s collection, but it would be hard to think of any clothes that would look tatty in the warmth of the space.

Unlike the Sloane Street shop there is no feeling that the place would look better, more convincing as a Coates drawing. The pattern of concentric circles, the layers of repeated movement, hold buyers in an almost Tantric spell, as if leading them along the mosaic serpent inexorably to the cash-desk.

The Glasgow shop works because it is an exercise in modesty and simple, though far from ascetic pleasures, in the basics of colour, space and texture. The Sloane Street shop aggravates where Glasgow amuses, bores where Glasgow titillates, because it tries to mock grandeur in a manner that is finally impertinent and paradoxically pompous in itself.

The combination of richly coloured clothes and decor creates a warm, seductive interior.

The combination of richly coloured clothes and decor creates a warm, seductive interior

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