Discussion, discourse, and creative insight through STIRring conversations in 2022
by Jincy IypeDec 27, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Jincy IypePublished on : Apr 07, 2023
Irreverent and iconoclastic, Nigel Coates has been agitating the architectural scene for over 40 years. In this warm and compelling autobiography, he explores the highs and lows of life at the cutting edge of architecture. Coates' work collides at the intersection between bodies, sexuality and design. As 'artist-architect' and polymath, he has designed buildings, exhibitions, interiors and products. He is also known for his idiosyncratic and dynamic drawings. From the 1980s onwards he captured the media spotlight and was as likely to appear in 'Vogue' as the 'Architectural Review'.
Featuring over 120 images of Coates' most celebrated projects, this memoir is a visual feast for any devotee of contemporary design. It encompasses his childhood in postwar Malvern, student years at the Architectural Association, the founding of the radical architectural group NATØ, 70s and 80s London club culture, and lost loves along the way. This is a searingly honest, unvarnished personal history of one of the UK's most versatile and influential designers.
Thus reads the astute back-cover blurb of British architect and designer Nigel Coates’ autobiography Lives in Architecture: Nigel Coates, published by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Traversing lost loves and a prolific, if not legendary, design career of over four decades, from Tokyo bars (Caffè Bongo) and London’s Liberty to the Body Zone at the Millennium Dome and Noah’s Ark in Japan, Coates’s 200-paged memoir is as post-punk, queer, sincere and unapologetic as himself. His unvarnished personal and professional history is recounted with grace, gossip, learnings, and unlearning, both deeply nuanced and necessarily provocative.
Coates is a compelling narrator, wise, funny, probing, reflective, vulnerable, and radically honest. Delving into Lives in Architecture one overcast afternoon, I wasn’t expecting to be as engrossed, entertained, and edified as I was—from the smallest details about his pleasant Italian sojourns and descriptive memories of his family and friends, coupled with his professional pursuits, the book honours his life in the architectural vocation, what it ultimately took from him, and blessed him with, instrumental in carving out his delightful forte along the way.
As director of Branson Coates (1984–2006), the 74-year-old author’s oeuvre traversing architecture, interior design, academics, exhibitions, furniture and product designs are recounted within this book which I devoured within a day, fully inspiring and entertaining for all those belonging to the architectural circuit, or even those who reside on its peripheries. His words like inky fertilisers are persuasive, catalysts for the essential learning and growth required to understand and build a creative architectural industry that upholds emotions and personal growth in as much regard as professional achievements, to hold true to oneself, come what may.
Speaking about writing this memoir, Coates commented, “Though daunting at first, I began to relish the writing process as the narrative threads developed. I discovered how serpentine my career path has been, sometimes deviating far from what is normally considered to be architecture and how my personal life and my work have folded seamlessly into one another. Through this book, I hope to widen my reader’s sense of how broad a palette design can be. It’s your perceptions that count and nothing should be excluded from the creative process.”
Simon Allford, RIBA President relayed, “Nigel Coates’ autobiography is an engaging and generous story that illustrates in words and projects why his enquiry and practice are important today. It is also a striking and delightful reminder of the import of life-informing design, all evidenced by his particular and personal exploration of the varied and rich potential of architecture.”
Some people say I’ve been lucky, and I guess I have. But I’ve always been passionate about what I do, whether in the office or in my personal life. The book helped me realise how intimately the two are entwined. – Nigel Coates
I had the immense pleasure of speaking with Coates to learn more about his Lives in Architecture, the consequences of having to face societal prejudices, and the relevance of the written realm.
Jincy Iype: In your experience of writing Lives in Architecture, how does the written format differ from say, a retrospective exhibition or an autobiographical film of an architect/ designer?Nigel Coates: Although I have written a lot, this is the first time I have tackled the life story. When I give talks, I try to defuse the academic with the personal, so this memoir came really naturally. As opposed to an exhibition or a movie, the text is king. My writing was driven by my recollections, and I wrote as each moment came to the forefront of my thoughts. It was an extended meditation that lasted months. As the text began to take shape, it gave me an unexpectedly clear panorama of my past and present. I hope that comes across.
Jincy: Could you take us through the processes, the highs and lows, the research, the joys, and the dilemmas, that led to putting this memoir together?
Nigel: I started by collecting an immense number of images and sorting them into compartments for different periods of my life. Gradually these started to take shape—as my childhood, my university years, and so on. Having settled on the six chapters, I had a framework for positioning stories. Then I’d launch into the clearest periods and spend all day writing, forgetting to eat. Each day I wrote at the same desk indoors with my precious view of the Tuscan landscape outside. Occasionally I’d get stuck on the detail, and have to target a friend for a rumination on past events. The process was like building except I was doing it with text. Brick by brick; word by word. And since we were in lockdown, the seasons kept on turning, offering a meta-narrative to my efforts at unpacking my life.
Jincy: The book’s dedication reads ‘For Fearless’—whom did you have in mind? You also mention ahead, “While my approach was less overt, I too invest all my work with erotic nuance.” Was that true for this exercise as well?
Nigel: I intended the dedication to be private—‘fearless’ knows who ‘fearless’ is! As to the erotic, that’s outside the scope of the book, but intimacy, yes. Stories of my amorous relationships crop up repeatedly, stressing the fact that often my loves had a big effect on my work.
Jincy: Could you elaborate on the way the memoir’s chapters are named and sectioned?
Nigel: Essentially, each chapter’s title circumscribes an epoque in my life. Together they define a roadmap leading the reader through my life story, but never so directly as to exclude a few detours. Each chapter has its own conflicts and opposites built into its own narrative arc. Throughout I wanted to weave architecture in with what was happening to me.
Jincy: Apart from the Goliathan task of condensing your colourful, 40-decade-long career into Lives in Architecture, your memoir also exceptionally weaves in ‘personal stories including those of lost loves’. Why was this format of inclusion deemed crucial in the documentation?
Nigel: Unlike many architects, the personal has always been central to my way of working. My identity, even my sexuality, has influenced directions of my career. Both the good fortune I have had and many of the prejudices I have encountered have helped lead me forward. Some people say I have been lucky, and I guess I have. But I have always been passionate about what I do, whether in the office or in my personal life. The book helped me realise how intimately the two are entwined.
Jincy: You state in the preface—“Thanks also to Ludovico Einaudi and Frank Ocean, whose intoxicating music has accompanied me during days of writing.” I am curious to know what other elements and ensuing anecdotes accompanied your writing sessions.
Nigel: During lockdown, my partner John and I were ensconced together, and while I initiated the book on my own, he was able to bring a critical eye to the text and remind me of times and places that had escaped my memory. I made extensive use of the library at the house. This was weirdly fortuitous since so much of my life has unfolded in Italy.
Jincy: The preface of the book also follows your experience of the pandemic while in London, and finally travelling to the Italian countryside to immerse yourself into writing. Correspondingly, you have explored at length, your relationship with Italy, its culture, landscape, architecture, films, cuisine, and people—“Being in Italy has helped me understand its inherently healthy relationship between town and country; a relationship long lost in Britain." Why was it important for you to outline this preference, in comparison to your conceived dislike of London?
Nigel: Referencing Boccaccio’s Decameron seemed like a natural opener. Our withdrawal to the countryside seemed uncannily like his. You can step away from the city—be it London or Florence—to take a clearer, more reflective stance. I certainly don’t dislike London but I am aware that compared with earlier decades, this town has lost some of its extemporary edginess. In many ways, Italy has been the perfect antidote to London’s relentless commercial drive and anonymity. I come from a rural setting in England and London was important for finding the real me. Later in life, I wanted more authentic, more lyrical experiences—an outlook that acknowledges a sense of place and human grace, which I subsequently found in Italy.
Jincy: “Without pretence, I realise I am both artist and architect—something of an archist , to coin a term… And in that sense, I can justify almost anything as architecture, or I can gain architectural insight from a mental exercise that has no intended built outcome.” Did you, classifying yourself as an archist, build into the book’s essence and content?
Nigel: Very much so. I like to think I work through and with the medium in hand—in this case a physical book. Writing it helped confirm my conceptual work as an architect to be just as important as my built work. I believe ideas to be every bit as memorable as buildings or things. When in the flow, I found myself taking sudden changes of direction just for the hell of it, or ending a chapter on a cliffhanger. I was experiencing the pleasure of the text, and I guess that embodies artistry.
Jincy: Does your 'narrative approach to design' and your 'phenomenological approach to architecture with a lightness of purpose' find roots within the memoir’s structure?
Nigel: Not so much in the structure as in the voice. By its very nature, the book has a narrative. But I was also constrained on some occasions by the editorial process, but I wanted to include my lateral experiences as having contributed positively to my design approach. The editorial process meant submitting chapters in chunks and then getting notes back. For the most part, these comments were on the nose, but we did get into tussles over language especially when the experiences or people I was describing raised a woke alert. On a couple of occasions, there were online meetings just to straighten out potentially offensive bits. Overall, I am super-pleased with how the process turned out. I think the book succeeds in coming across as a story.
Jincy: Addressing another one of your endeavours in writing, what can you tell us about the punkish and collage-based magazine, NATØ, published together with your students at the Architectural Association, London? Does Lives in Architecture in any way, reference your earlier published works such as the Narrative Architecture and the Guide to Ecstacity?
Nigel: Both the NATØ magazine and Guide to Ecstacity beamed outwards towards their audience in a specific way. NATØ was commanding, and manifesto-like, with vital graphics. The Guide was channelling guidebooks as a trope. This book would whisper to you and engage in a one-to-one voice as though talking to a friend. With its raconteur stance, the narrative could unfold like scenes in a film, with the camera zooming in and out. There are wide shots allowing different views of similar situations. Each of my books has its own set of codes and rules that are there to be broken and this one is no exception.
I think of myself as someone who has moved the discourse and broadened the architectural canvas. – Nigel Coates
Jincy: I read into a slight contrast as the book progressed, giving the reader an insight into your roles within the Academia and practice of architecture and design—“I loved architecture but felt uncomfortable at the table. I didn’t really fit.” vs. “No career in architecture ever follows a straight line.” Could you comment on that?
Nigel: The point I was trying to make is that I often found myself to be a rebel outsider, whether I chose that stance or not. I have freely cultivated that marginal stance—using my interest in fashion and lifestyle—to enrich or disrupt my output as a designer. That cultural contamination was my rocket fuel when I started working in Japan. When Caffè Bongo opened critics in the UK felt compelled to pay attention even if it went against their instinct that bricolage on that scale was irresponsible and bad. It was the media rather than the architectural establishment that encouraged me. I was a controversial figure too popular with clients to be dismissed. Enfant Terrible as a title has sometimes been used as a stick with which to beat me—even at this stage in my career!
Jincy: I’d like you to elaborate on something else that caught my attention—"Like Zaha, I believed in the civitas of architectural culture. I worked as an atelier and stuck to my guns. We both annoyed and influenced architecture by stealth. Most architects would have been happier had neither of us existed. They had to come to terms with us, and that was sometimes painful.”
Nigel: For Zaha (Hadid) as a woman and myself as a gay man, we were automatically placed outside the norms of the architectural establishment, which has endured as a gentleman’s club. To understand, you only have to look at how often the wives and partners of male architects are side-lined and disappeared. Similarly, I’d ask you to list the LGBTQIA+ architects that you are aware of. There is still an unspoken fear that gay designers are unable to be socially responsible.
Jincy: Would it be possible for you to define the purpose of writing Lives in Architecture? And whether you feel you came close to or were able to accomplish that purpose thoroughly?
Nigel: The book was a commission, and I did my best to fulfil it with openness and panache. I wanted the book to be a pleasure to read, and for that to be a reality I had to enjoy writing it. It cannot poke around in every corner of my mind, but I hope the narrative clearly sets out the mood of each period. And as such I was only able to tell a part of my life story. One day there might be a second volume with a slightly different stance.
Jincy: Could you summarise for us, as you do in Lives in Architecture, what the profession, the vocation, and the practice of design and architecture have given and taken from you, in tandem with facing discrimination and stereotypes along the way?
Nigel: Incorporating my life and lifestyle into my work was always one of my key methods, and on the whole, the risk has outweighed the pitfalls. I guess our reputation faltered around the early 2000s, perhaps at my own hand; I put so much into exhibitions like the Venice Biennale and the Mixtacity show at Tate Modern, but these diverted our attention away from architectural commissions. I was the first person to point out that nightclubs had a specific kind of architectural alchemy, and they were worth looking at in depth. I think of myself as someone who has moved the discourse and broadened the architectural canvas. If you look at post Millennial London you’d be hard pushed to see any effect of this thinking. Most of what has been built falls into the generic beige-brick category.
Jincy: “I must have been six when I first noticed the architecture books left casually around the house like sweets. There were ones on Modernist houses, Le Corbusier and ancient Rome. I’d turn the pages of black-and-white illustrations and ponder these wondrous achievements. My mother and I conspired that one day we’d go to Rome and see the Colosseum together... I coveted the idea that architecture could shape my destiny. Books fascinated me, or at least the illustrations did. At home one of my favourites was an encyclopaedia of everything.”
So, is it safe to conclude that your journey and ensuing experience in this industry, did indeed, begin with books and words on design and architecture, apart from your mother’s keen interest in buildings and interior design, as you elaborate in the chapter ‘All Roads Out’, and how it comes full circle with this memoir?
Nigel: In actual fact, it was drawing that kickstarted my adventure; and drawing remains the most vital aspect of my practice. When I was growing up, writing didn’t come easily, I was much more fluent with the pencil. Nevertheless, I have come to use my fluid approach to drawing to articulate the language of architecture both in words as well as images. I love the neat idea of the book closing the circle, but in truth, I am already onto the next things, and one of these is a book on my drawings.
‘Lives in Architecture: Nigel Coates’ published by RIBA Publishing can be ordered here.
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