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NIGEL COATES: THE ARCHITECTURE OF BODYES AND sOBJECTS

NIGEL COATES: THE ARCHTECTURE OF BODYES AND sOBJECTS


This book aims to reveal the vision and method of the architect and designer, Nigel
Coates. It will trace two parallel paths - a theoretical and explorative one that treats
architecture as a language of expression, and one that gives substance to these
ideas in the real world.
Coates is considered to be one of the most original architectural theorists in Britain;
he moves naturally in the hypothetical world of the project, and has undertaken
a series of city visions, including the ongoing Ecstacity project, based on what he
calls the narrative approach to architecture. Typically these combine sensuality,
movement and complexity. They engender a constant interplay between the world
of unformulated desire and the world as we find it. His narrative invests the formal
language of architectonic space with the ability of the user to map the world, and
invest it with meaning as a result of experience. He not only thinks of architecture as
a physical presence, but as a mental construct that works in tandem with the body.
These ideas emerged at the Architectural Association where he began teaching
in the late 70s. By the mid 80s his influence had given rise to the NATO group
(Narrative Architecture Today). Their iconoclastic yet highly context driven work
was expressed through vigorous and sometimes violent drawings and models, all of
which had a searing effect on the architectural community of the time.
Suspicion turned to celebration when he succeeded in building several projects in
the NATO spirit. When completed, Caff Bongo in Tokyo became a centrefold in
Blueprint. Many projects followed, and in the seemingly chaotic context of Tokyo
of the late 80s, struck a chord. He went on to build in odd pockets around the
world, a nightclub in Istanbul and in London a string of shops with offbeat narrative
interiors that charmed the shopper with their intense artful layering.
By the late 90 s he was engaged in a string of public projects including the Geffrye
Museum in London, the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield and the
extraordinary temporary structure Powerhouse::uk that was commissioned to
celebrate the advent of New Labour to government. This was followed by another
government project, the Body Zone in the Millennium Dome.
Behind all these works it is the sketchbooks, and there are over 20 of them, that
accumulated his thoughts and gave them shape, The sketches they contain capture
his ludic sense of the improbable, his compulsive shifts in scale, his displacement
and bricollage. There are phenomenological maps with a celebratory, often
amplified sense of place. There are references to almost every urban phenomenon,
the hoardings, the crowds and the traffic, in fact the eddies of everyday life in a
city.
This spirit comes through most powerfully in the various installations that have
appeared in galleries and museums since his student days. Such was Mixtacity,
a provocative vision of a possible extension to London staged at Tate Modern in
2007. And at the Venice Biennale of 2008 he mounted Hypnerotosphere, an
installation that combined film and furniture. It gave the viewer a quixotic insight
into how the body could inspire a transcendent architecture.
He often includes giant figures in his city landscapes. Furniture and other design
objects crop up oversized, yet he can see the city inside a room, and architecture at
the size of your hand. His work originates from imagining how it will be perceived.
With all senses blazing, the viewer becomes the protagonist. A building can be
invested with all the psychological complexity of the human being. Furniture and

building alike can flirt with their users. In some ways Coates is more of an artist
than an architect; architecture is the medium. Handled with subtlety and intensity,
the project alone contains enough reality.
A selection of sketches will form the backbone of the book, and act as signposts
along a chronology of ideas, significant moments and realised works. The paths
of theory and product will weave around the central axis of these sketches, and
will be supported by technical drawings, models and texts, as well as photos of
completed works. There will be interviews, and a critical essay that contextualises
Coates perennial reference to the body. A DVD will be included, with a gallery of
projects and the film works realised for exhibitions.

I GO FOR ARCHITECTURE THAT OVERLAYS AND


ENHANCES. BY BLENDING OBSERVATION AND WIT
WITH REASON, I WANT MY WORK TO GENERATE A
SENSE OF THE UNEXPECTED, AND THE SEEMINGLY
SPONTANEOUS.
Born in 1949, and trained at University of Nottingham and the Architectural Association. Coates is one of Britains consistently original thinkers in architecture, interior
and product design having led a parallel career in teaching, design practice and
artistically driven, internationally recognised work. His subversive spirit first came to
public attention in 1984 with the publication of NATO (Narrative Architecture Today)
magazine. A manifesto for a socio-culturally engaged and popular, narrative driven
architecture, it advised readers to be the architects of their own lives, and in doing so,
to radically adapt the buildings around them. Certain themes, in particular the notion
of narrative, have continued in Coates designs and research ever since. Narrative,
he asserts, can overlay the real or original function of design with associative triggers.
The hybrid conditions of his designs typically result in the sensation of being in two
situations simultaneously, as if each narrates the other.
He has continued to explore the communicative and experiential potential of architecture as a language drawn from the commonplace. He believes that the city is best
understood if explored as a living organism, and that popular experience and culture
are central to the experience of architecture. His work plays on psycho-geographic
association between the built environment and desire. Time and motion, he says, is the
dynamic partner to the fixed, physical world.
Art and literary strategies, including the curation of others, find their way into many of
his projects. Coates has designed and built interiors, exhibitions and buildings around
the world. His buildings in Japan include the Wall, Noahs Ark and the Art Silo, and
in Britain, the National Centre for Popular Music, Powerhouse::uk and the Geffrye
Museum.
Through out his career as a practitioner, he has pursued experimental work that has
been shown in an art and design context, including such exhibits as ArkAlbion shown
at the Architectural Association in 1984, Ecstacity at the same venue, and Mixtacity at
Tate Modern in 2007.
He is also a prolific designer of lighting and furniture, with links to Alessi, AVMazzega, Ceramica Bardelli, Frag, Fratelli Boffi, Poltronova, Slamp and Varaschin. Examples
of his work are held in museum collections around the world including the Victoria &
Albert Museum, Cooper Hewitt and FRAC. He has been Professor of Architecture at
the Royal College of Art since 1995

LOST IN SPACE - AREA 102 - PP 138,149


Turin november 2008
Margherita Caldi Inchingolo
Guido Incerti

Guido Incerti: This issue of Area is dedicated to the theme of leisure and enjoyment:
what is your idea of enjoying yourself through your work?
Nigel Coates: I get real pleasure from avoiding the rules of architecture. In the sense
that I love the idea of drifting, I feel like a latter day Situationist. Our ability to discover and enjoy the unexpected is a trait we should learn how to use better, especially we
architects. Architectural culture is always trying to impose rules when instead it should
be able to transport us towards the unexpected. For me, this has been an important lesson. I continue to work on architecture so as to invest it with meaning, and within this, I
try to work with our most ludic tendencies.
Margherita Caldi Inchingolo: As a result of new mass media technologies and the
internet, how do you think the idea of leisure has changed in recent years?
N.C.: I think that the internet has been positive because it has opened up possibilities
of moving around the city
M.C.I.: But has it not perhaps deprived us of the element of surprise?
N.C.: Not necessarily. In fact in internet language the term surfing means wandering, and this is exactly what people do on the net. On the one hand, we have access
to an overload of information, and on the other, we have to filter and shape this information according to our own desires. I think that mobile phones and the internet have
opened up new possibilities with regard to the city. Things that seem normal to us now,
of course werent 20 years ago.
Now, thanks to mobile phones, people can meet up whenever and wherever they
want. Of course there is also the danger of people becoming isolated as a result, of living in a virtual city, even though in theory the choice is theirs. It is interesting to look at
how different cultures use technology generally, and in particular, use mobile phones.
In Italy you love to chat, see people, meet friends. In other cultures like mine in Britain,
some people tend to live more in the world of the mobile than in face-to-face situations. Constantly alert to calls and texts, these people avoid being one hundred percent
present in any real moment. They are immersed in a fluctuating bubble between physical and virtual space.
M.C.I.: So its true that we lose ourselves less easily, dont explore as much, and as a
consequence are less surprised?
N.C.: For me this balance between the real and the virtual opens new way of using

the city; this morning, for instance, I left the hotel and after just several paces
I got lost, finding myself in an unknown place, at which point I realised I was enjoying the uncertainty of it all. During the night it had snowed, but while I was walking
I came across an installation where fake snow had been used. So the fake snow was
mixed with the real snow along the road. It was great. Then minutes later, while passing by the church of
SS. Sudario, I saw the Guarini cupola under restoration. The protection panels of the
scaffolding were covered with drawn elevations of the building inside them, creating a
really surreal effect.
Loosing oneself like this helps you understand how cities have changed, and how we
have learned to look after them better. Turin, for instance (where the interview took
place), has made a tremendous effort to renew itself for the occasion of the Olympics.
The result is a prouder city. Its an organism thats more aware of its own value, and
as a consequence can be lived in to the full. If I think back to years ago, in Italy and
in other European cities, generally people used the city less than they do now. There
were fewer people in the streets, less activity, less everything, especially in the evening.
Today, people are in search of pleasure and naturally this triggers commercial interests
to steer the public in certain predetermined directions of benefit to them. As a result,
not everyone can, or wants to experience the fantasy of getting lost in cities.
G.I.: As architecture we occasionally get the chance of designing places for leisure,
but isnt there the risk that your designs channel people towards a uniform experience?
How can we envisage an architecture of leisure that is open to the imagination of each
visitor?
N.C.: A project for a discotheque could raise the level of the experience when it includes characteristics that originate from some other place, for instance the narrative of
a house, a city or an airport. Then the occupants can live within a structure that tells a
story. A place where the public can only drink or dance is not sufficiently transgressive.
The important thing about pleasure is that at least you have the impression that you are
breaking the rules.
Another example is that of shops: in our commercial world, where people are not only
more informed but happy to lose themselves in a consumer universe, shopping is a
typical form of leisure.
Even at La Rinascente in Milan, one of the few examples of department stores in
Italy - in England we are more accustomed to entire streets consisting of department
stores such as Oxford Street - the concept is nonetheless that of losing oneself within a
world of the unexpected: you may have some idea of how departments are organised
but the success for the store depends on the people who go one step further than finding the product they set out to buy. The Casinos of Las Vegas apply the same psychological framework, in fact the opposite of that of a simple supermarket which steers the
shopper quickly past all the products on offer.
The department store displays everything so as to catch your attention. Of course it
applies the art of merchandising, of retail design and an approach to display, but
there is also the desire to make the shopper engage in unexpected ways from the very
beginning of the experience.
Despite the clarity of its guiding pathway, Ikea is a very is a very clever mechanism
for literally diverting the shopper. Its a perfect leisure system. People are guided
through the house where they see furnished rooms, then a few paces further as if
zooming in, they come to a marketplace of products. Finally they arrive in the warehouse, which almost cellar-like, is where products are collected. This home-oriented
mega-warehouse changes what could be a simple enough shopping experience into
one in which objects inspire the shopper to transform their own space at home. As an
architect, a designer and cultural commentator, I have the responsibility of considering each individual on a higher level than that dictated by commercial forces. And

this is the architects problem: if he or she works for a company, Ikea for instance, the
architect must carefully assess the entire spectrum of knowledge we have been talking
about. But who should really bear all this in mind? The architect or Ikea? Generally, the
architect works on cities, master plans and buildings in order to create places, possible
local identities and a territorial culture. Architects find themselves caught in a conflict
between large scale purely commercial opportunities to build and their social conscience. They have a huge problem.
M.C.I.: What is the architectural icon that you most associate with the concept of leisure?
N.C.: I dont think just one icon is sufficient to answer this question. For instance In a
building like the museum in Bilbao, the internal space is devised according to the idea
of in-built leisure. In fact, Koolhaas interpreted it as a shopping centre. The experiential typology of the Bilbao Guggenheim is this: exploring the differences between
galleries, linking the experience of one with the other, and enjoying losing oneself.
Although their architecture is more protective, also Tate Modern or the Moma represent an idea of enjoyment that comes from abandoning oneself to more significant
experiences. Today, we have learnt how to give people more opportunities to lose
themselves. We know how to make individuals believe they have more choice, and this
falls within the modern ideology of a society which is none other than a fake world, a
world made of mirrors.
G.I.: So the concept of leisure is linked to the idea of losing oneself. On the contrary,
however, it would seem that modern technology steers our way of living in a pre-determined way, and no longer permits us to lose ourselves.
N.C.: This is true, but paradoxically, technology provides the individual with the security that enables him to lose himself even more, precisely because we never lose
ourselves completely. He is like a child who distances himself from his parents in a
public place where the chance to be free seems magnified. But at a certain point he
is frightened and starts to cry, leading to the immediate arrival of the parents. He has
been found, but for those few moments he experienced the glory of freedom amongst
strangers.
M.C.I.: For Nigel Coates is it easier to make playful objects or playful architecture?
N.C.: For me, to be enjoyable both objects and spaces must be intelligent enough to
transport you into unexpected worlds. Neither of them can simply be a toy.
If I think of all of Alessis products, the ones I like the most have a hidden message.
Alessi understood that fun is an important feeliing, and not everything has to be serious. Their most successful objects have a hidden message that is discovered over time.
Objects and architecture alike are able to touch our child-like sensitivity, that sensitivity
we so often try to drive away.
Sex for instance is also part of childhood culture. Early on one learns that the exploration of ones own body raises possibilities for pleasure, communication and seduction.
In architecture it is often difficult to reach this level of sensitivity. In the installation I created at the last Venice Biennale I tired to do just that. I worked with seduction, although
on a very soft level.
Now it is normal to see adverts on passing trams of naked men or women often in
provocative poses, but when we get home, within our own walls, we are inexpert at
interpreting these signals. We are evolved enough to know what gives us pleasure in
the world at large but when we encounter hints of this in our domestic setting, it is hard
to accept them. In this respect we live with double values.
It is precisely in this field that I work. I try to create frameworks with a degree of comfort, yet nonetheless are able to instil a sense of uncertainty. I make projects that carry
us towards a slightly scary world, that touch our subconscious and our will to explore
pleasure, that reveal a dizzy universe in which to experiment with the unpredictable.
Going back to architecture, the dimension of enjoyment in a building needs to be the

result of a hybrid, an ensemble of contradictory forms and images. It must be a threshold that opens countless possibilities.
In the 1990s, I designed a nightclub in Istanbul inside a former printing factory: it had
3,000 sq m. on three floors with a restaurant, bar, dance floor, and priv. Most of the
effort went on the inside.
Behind the original faade, we inserted frosted glazing with a Turkish-inspired pattern, a technique I used throughout the interiors. There were familiar images yet these
were destabilizing by their new context: there was a 30-m-long landscape of sofas in
a wave with anthropomorphic curves, all made on site by local craftsmen. Then there
was
a sequence of other spaces, a bazaar with colourful fabric awnings and a dance floor
that adopted the language of the airport airside.
The airport was always an important metaphor for me. I find airports very amusing
places, above all because they suggest how movement can be captured in a space.
The deejay booth was set up on one of those goods hoists used to load luggage onto
planes. I was looking for a pretext to create a place where visitors could follow their
instinct, and in getting lost, could live their own stories. Using the language of airports
and at the same time, that of Turkish decorative arts made the club work well for bohemians of all kinds, both local and those visiting Istanbul. I think the project was successful precisely because it created a structure that was invisible from the outside, but
which the public discovered little by little. People could invent their own way of behaving within its framework; the architecture captured the mood of the time.
G.I.: If we take your work as a starting point, where architecture is often worn on the
body as if it were a suit or an accessory, do you Think that architecture is re-clothing
the city in a more seductive form, on the one hand to attract financers, and on the
other to give people a good time? Or, making a parallel with those who enjoy shopping, do you think the city tries to raise the pleasure level by wearing new outfits?
N.C.: This is a good metaphor because wearing a garment is to wrap oneself in a
very intimate way. However, it is currently an uneasy moment for iconic architecture.
We need to work on a more subtle level.
Going back to clothing, the metaphor works because it conveys the idea that we can
invite people to come into contact with space and approach things without merely
judging the objects from afar. If in fact we were to be drawn in, we would be able to
discover other worlds. For instance, the world of interiors. Worlds which allow many
possibilities, which plays between inside and outside. In fact, the outside can promise
all or nothing, as in the case of the club in Istanbul. Once architecture has attracted
us, it can lead us into fields of the unexpected. This is its power, and is almost equivalent to the power of religious mysticism. An example which springs to mind is that of
the Galla Placidia mausoleum in Ravenna: in the mosaics inside we see a whole new
universe, while on the exterior it is only a small, reassuring Romanesque brick building. The unexpected scale of the inside leads naturally, so to speak, to the theatre and
in the modern era, to the shopping venue. Both play on the power of seduction to lead
us beyond the pure image.
G.I.: The erotic spirit of the city is often cited in your writings and in your urban theories. How does it relate to leisure?
N.C.: The problem is that the citys erotic spirit has already been assimilated by commercial interests, so we have to continually reinvent the means. We must create contexts which are in the hands of people, and not of institutions, an idea with a 1968
protest movement twist, which constantly brings into play the importance of narrative.
In fact, narrative is a theme on which I worked during the 70s and 80s, and which
gives countless possibilities to our work. Narrative, or better, a narrative tone can help
us imagine, design and create places that do not just have convenience value as an
ultimate goal. I am looking for something more.

M.C.I.: This years Biennale was strongly criticized, even by architects, for the lack of
canonical architecture. Nevertheless, it was the most visited Biennale. Perhaps its
opening up to other artistic disciplines suggests how architecture might move forward.
N.C.: From the outset, we knew that this Biennale would be criticized and that people
would say: Ah, these architects want to be artists.
Personally, I didnt try to be an artist in the strict sense of the word. But I have to admit
that I am driven to use artistic means. Its instinct that leads me to work this way.
In England, we have a class of architecture critics who like concrete boxes, and when
they see a Biennale trying to raise the level, they think that architecture is showing
signs of self-destruction. These critics are afraid of the city and of taking what it offers.
They are afraid of the potential for a city to tune in to peoples sensitivities and real
experiences
Going back to the Biennale, in truth, some of the invited architects didnt try hard
enough to make a real impact. They designed something easy. I worked five or six
months on Hypnerotosphere (the title of the installation presented at the Biennale), but
in the end it seemed to me to be lost inside that supermarket of exhibits. On the one
hand, we architects are similar, and respect each other as a creative group, but on the
other, we feel very distant from one another and tend to be overly self-involved.
What struck me most, and even confused me, was the number of architects who
constructed buildings inside the Corderie. The title of the Biennale was Architecture
beyond building and what did many of the architects, Gehry included, create if not
buildings?
In exhibitions, architects normally need to see their architecture displayed with maquettes and drawings, and this should be a good enough reason not to do so on this
occasion.
Aaron did the right thing