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Nigel Coates wins top teaching award

Nominated by the AR, the former Head of Architecture at the Royal College of Art wins the RIBA Annie Spink award for excellence in architectural education

Nigel Coates first hit the headlines in 1983 when no less a figure than James Stirling tried to fail the whole of the young designer’s unit at the Architectural Association. The students had depicted proposals for a memorial to Thatcher’s Falklands War using art techniques picked up from the ‘Transavantgarde’ in New York. Stirling, and fellow examiner Ed Jones, deemed the work to be ‘unassessable’ and − as Peter Cook recalled in last month’s Reputations (AR October 2012) − the unit was only saved by the intervention of the AA’s head Alvin Boyarsky.

Today Coates is again making the headlines for his teaching, but this time round as a celebration of his 35-year commitment to architectural education. At the end of October, the RIBA announced that Coates had won the Annie Spink Award, its biennial prize to recognise outstanding contributions to architectural education. Established in 2000, previous winners include, among others, Peter Cook, David Greene, Dalibor Vesely, Peter Salter, Wolf Prix and Elia Zenghelis. Having been taught by Bernard Tschumi at the Architectural Association, Nigel went on to teach Diploma Unit 10 with his former tutor. In 1978 he took over the unit and started to evolve a new methodology, using messy and energetic paintings and drawings to capture some of the reality of what it was like to experience real London life. As a reaction to the prevailing norms of architectural practice at this point − its formalism and self-referentiality − the students made scenographic and subversive architectural speculations for a city as its story unfolded around them.

After the Stirling episode, Boyarsky proposed the idea of a book of the work, but together the unit decided on the greater immediacy of a magazine. They called it − and themselves as a group − NATO (Narrative Architecture Today). Through the issues and exhibitions over the next few years the work galvanised and the word spread. The group was important for opening people’s eyes to new possibilities and new ways of working: ‘NATO did for architecture in London what the original New Romantics did for the music scene,’ was the recent judgement of Helen Castle, the Editor of Architectural Design.

Later, NATO’s punky spirit matured into an architectural pedagogy that could be passed on from its creator to fuel and guide the larger explorations at the scale of a school. From 1995 to 2011, Nigel was Head of the Architecture Department at the Royal College of Art, where he led his teaching staff to develop their own critical strands and lines of enquiry within this narrative way of working. With all the projects set in London, the students looked to the city around them to situate their works − not just spatially, but socially, politically and culturally. The first GAGA winner Haiwei Xie (in last month’s AR) is a product of the architectural culture that Coates established at the RCA.

Coates was nominated for the Annie Spink Award by the AR, countersigned by our columnists Peter Cook and Farshid Moussavi, and with supporting letters from Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, Amanda Levete, Deborah Saunt and many other former staff and students of the RCA. On winning the award, Coates commented: ‘Over the years I’ve often been referred to as an enfant terrible, so clearly it’s time to bury that idea. This is an honour from the architectural heartland, and it comes as a warm and wonderful surprise.’

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