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Coates of Many Colours

Narrative Architecture by Nigel Coates draws on contemporary culture to chart provocative new directions for architecture and the city

Take any letter of the alphabet in the index of Narrative Architecture and read down the list of entries. A, for example, offers − in no particular order − Arte Povera, Archizoom, American Gigolo, Architectural Association and Angry Birds. S gives us Saarinen, Satnav, Seditionaries, Starbucks and Sex, while N stands for Next (high street store), Nieuwenhuys, Nostalgia and NATO (Narrative Architecture Today). And, from such a reading, you might know without even seeing the cover or leafing through the body of the book that N also spells Nigel, loud and enjoyably clear.

Nigel Coates has a lively, enquiring and all-absorbing mind. Nothing is wasted on this architect, designer, teacher and writer: whether the latest cult Hollywood film, lifestyle fad or enjoyably mindless computer game. Small wonder that Coates has been a much loved professor of architecture at the Royal College of Art, and a cult tutor before that at the AA. His ability to draw from so many strands of contemporary life and to weave these into provocative new ideas about architecture, design and the city infused and mapped with a genuine love and understanding of architectural history, make Coates an undeniably attractive personality, a provocateur and activist shot through with irrepressible energy and a genuine sense of fun, along with that of the eye-catching and the absurd. Architecture is an inherently serious business and Coates has over the years often seemed to play the clown to those for whom humour and playfulness − not to mention sex [‘changing attitudes to’, p136, ‘commodified’, p137, ‘as narrative driver’, p137] − are not proper professional concerns for architects.

Drawings by the architecture group NATO (so by Nigel Coates) some of those eclectic perspectives over London

Drawings by the architecture group NATO (so by Nigel Coates) some of those eclectic perspectives over London

For Coates, though, ‘We live in an age of blurred boundaries. The distinction between architecture, art, and urban and cultural theory grows ever more fluid … architects are no longer the sole protagonists in the creation of the built environment or of what is perceived of as “architecture”.’ No: today the Coatesian architect should be − although nothing, no tenet laid down in this book is any way posited as mandatory − a novel fusion of thinker, designer, writer, editor, curator, director and novelist.

The architect is a narrator, a kind of latter-day Pepys or Boswell, who engages with, or knowingly observes, the sheer eclectic, multi-layered experience of the contemporary world (synonymous, on the whole, with the city) and works this, in a multiplicity of ways into the realm of architecture, whether through films, exhibitions, books, buildings or ideas for the future of the city. Narrative Architecture, says Coates, is not meant to be the last word on the subject, but ‘a primer’ that ‘will encourage others to add to or contradict the interpretation of narrative that I arrived at through my experience as a designer, academic and curious onlooker’.

He begins with a spirited spin through history, encompassing Hadrian’s ‘consciously narrative disposition of buildings, spaces and landscapes that freely represent faraway spaces’ at the Roman emperor’s expansive villa in Tivoli; and stops off in William Kent’s 18th-century English landscape garden at Rousham − ‘a highly tuned spatial instrument for bodily and perceptual awareness that would be hard to match in the confusing and overloaded context of the city’; at Gaudí’s Parc Güell, where ‘relationships are free to coalesce’; the Alhambra-like 1930s roof garden designed by Ralph Hancock on top of the Derry & Toms department store in Kensington High Street; and on through the Casa Malaparte; and Casa Devalle, one of the curious Carlo Mollino’s Turinese ‘chambers of seduction’; to a Study for a Temple for Erotic Dances, 1972-3, by Ettore Sottsass.

Parc Guell by Antoni Gaudi

Parc Guell by Antoni Gaudi

Nigel’s narrative becomes more complex as he goes on to explore New Babylon − ‘a physical environment … for a culturally, sexually and politically liberated society’ − envisaged in the early 1970s by the Situationist Constant Nieuwenhuys, along with provocations and modern eye-catchers by, among others, Hans Hollein, Archizoom, Superstudio and Rem Koolhaas. Mix these with Coates’s experience of punk, new wave clubs, graffiti and ‘street culture’ from the mid-1970s, and his own distinctive esthetic and take on architecture and urbanism emerges at the heart of this engaging book.

NATO − or Nigel And The Others, as this lively group of students and tutors was fondly known − was Coates’s attempt to make Narrative Architecture work, on paper, in models and in a spirited magazine, of which just three issues were published, through his Diploma Unit 10 and the AA. The results were not, as Coates reminds us, appreciated by external examiners, including James Stirling and Ed Jones who declared that the anarchic, punky drawings they were presented with were ‘unassessable’, which − lacking proper plans, sections, elevations and perspectives (worm’s eye or otherwise) − they were, at least in conventional terms.

And yet Coates got to build − with Doug Branson and others − from the mid-1980s, at first in Tokyo and then in London and elsewhere in the world, as a new generation of clients, especially in the world of fashion, revelled in his practice’s ability to build wild ‘narrative’ designs that had seemed until then to belong on paper only, or else tricked-up in papier-mâché (or biscuits, dried fruit and sweets) for exhibitions.

Any of Nigel Coates' built work in Tokyo

Any of Nigel Coates’ built work in Tokyo

A characteristically generous section of the book − this is not a self-regarding monograph − celebrates the work of other architects who, in their different ways have, in Coates’s view, sought to build ‘narrative’. So, here are scintillating designs by Herzog & de Meuron, Diller & Scofidio, Enric Miralles, FAT, Rem Koolhaas (again), Ugo La Pietra and AL_A.

‘My ever-increasing engagement with narrative in architecture’, says Coates, ‘has involved turning for inspiration to sources from archaeology to anthropomorphism, and from film to flight. By providing associative triggers to enhance the visitor’s experience, I have tried to create hybrid environments where identity can be experimented with and ideas stirred up.’ Coates likes Andrea Branzi’s consideration of the city as a ‘factory of life, a place of genome exchanges, sexual experiences, development of one’s own gene’, and believes that the free-thinking of writers − ‘none of whom was an architect’ − with a truly free and creative imagination, like Italo Calvino and JG Ballard, offers insights that often exceed those of architects themselves.

Coates, though − for all his freedom of thought and intriguing and enjoyable associations − is very much an architect. As the book draws to a close, he cannot help summarising a list of 12 true principles of Narrative or Coatesian architecture and, delightfully, and although it’s not quite as assertive as Sullivan’s ‘Form forever follows function’, he even works on a memorable dictum: ‘architecture needs now more than ever to connect through function and with fiction in equal proportions’. From Angry Birds to Zumthor, Peter, Narrative Architecture is certainly a good read.

Narrative Architecture

Author: Nigel Coates

Publisher: Wiley

Price: £27.99

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