Ecstasy by Nigel Coates

Fiona Castineira

When Nigel Coates, the British architect, furniture designer and master storyteller of sultry urban scenes, was a young man, he invited a journalist to the flat he had refurnished with his then lover. Peter York, the writer, described the place in a 1980 article in Harpers & Queen as such:

“Homeowners’ Favorite Ideas [are] monumentality and misery, Pier Paolo Pasolini [the Italian director of rather lascivious movies] and Andrea Palladio held together in a kind of conceptual membrane. The atmosphere is “classic”, sacred and profane. This is worth thinking about, as it makes English interiors smart on whatever level it is really gross.

Coates views his design as narrative, privileging this strategy’s ability to evoke, if not accurately describe, fantasy worlds over the abstractions of geometry and structural expression.

That seems like a pretty nifty way of summing up the work of Nigel Coats, not only then but since. You definitely get that feeling reading his autobiographyLives in architecture: Nigel Coates– which has just been published by the Royal Institute of British Architects. Although enamored of classical and baroque forms, as well as all things Italian (he has lived in the Tuscan countryside at least half the year for decades), he is also still a queer British post-punk who, in the book, proclaims his pride in having brought provocation, grunge and elegance, assembled from everything found on the streets of London, into the mainstream of architecture.

Coates was a central part of the London architectural scene from the late 1970s. It was then that he, his classmates and friends were, in turn, part of a larger revolution in music , fashion and lifestyles that went from groovy and mod to punk and then to a fusion of historical forms and popular forms merged into a collage slipping into a flamboyant unity. Pioneered in the music scene (think Fine Young Cannibals and Boy George) and fashionably developed by Vivienne Westwood and later Alexander McQueen, this line of inventiveness was eventually appropriated as “Cool Britannia” under Tony Blair and sold to the rest of the world. Coates grew up and rode the crest of that wave, his most famous “building” being the “body area” exhibition inside the monument to this movement, the Millennium Dome.

Note the quotation marks around “building”. Although Coates was trained as an architect, apprenticed in the design services of London Council’s housing office and designed a few freestanding structures, he soon realized that his interest was not in making great landmarks. As he says:

“Rather than dreaming of the standalone masterpiece, my focus turned to how to push what already existed. Developers were already on it. Warehouses were chopped up into lofts and banks became pizzerias. first signs of a radical reorientation of the existing urban fabric, which corresponded to my own taste for the all-purpose city. Instead of being bulldozed, I knew that the buildings could be converted and that it would only be better.

Instead, Coates made his career designing the interiors (which sometimes bled on the outside) of shops, restaurants and nightclubs, both in London and, during the 1980s, in Tokyo. The spaces were marked by a fusion of furniture and structure, emphasizing intertwining tendrils and melted versions of whiplash curves, which often wrapped around industrial spaces whose bare bones remained visible. Made up of assembled and layered elements, Coates’ work nevertheless had the feeling of being an organic outgrowth of its raw and ready environment. It was the space equivalent of high fashion pieced together from historical elements and mylar strutting down the street in high heels strapped to military boots.

Coates views his design as narrative, privileging this strategy’s ability to evoke, if not accurately describe, fantasy worlds over the abstractions of geometry and structural expression. As he argues: “Storytelling can pierce ‘architecture for its own sake’. He can easily draw symbols and metaphors from everyday life… People could see and feel what we were doing and seemed to enjoy his eclectic array of willful and contradictory references. Narrative design was knocking on the doors of perception.

The designer’s narrative expanded beyond physical forms early in his career. He published a punk and collage-based magazine, NATOwith his students from Association of Architects, the London school that was at the heart of the architectural scene from the 1970s until the turn of the millennium. He also created a series of projects which were exhibitions, installations and publications rolled into one. The most notable of them, Ecstasy Guide (Princeton Architectural Press, 2003), reimagined the city as a continuous set of overlapping experiences in a living, ever-changing body that was something of a metropolis. It was like a big nightclub where bodies, outfits and music had merged into a show:

“The concept of revival of Ecstacity…evolved from the town where we already lived. Experimentation and preservation could go hand in hand and tend towards the city as a complex paradigm of the human body, with its own bone structure, muscles, organs, metabolism and circadian rhythm. This symbolic, collective body was also our body, your body, my body. It should never be superficial or unnecessary, but could and should support sensual rewards and emotions. As if to reinvent Le Corbusier’s Modulor Man for our time, the human condition, not buildings, should always drive the metropolis.

In many ways, Coates’ work and vision has long mirrored that of his close friend, close classmate, and fellow Architectural Association tutor, the late Zaha Hadid. Against or within the explosions and slippery forms that Hadid then threw into the world, Coates created forms that resembled the bones, flesh, and costumes of this architecture. It is queering – both in the sexual sense and as the distortion and “strange fabrication” of forms – in which Coates’ own life as a homosexual plays an important role. “I invest all my work in an erotic nuance”, shyly lets go of the architect. Coates’ work ended up being not just a combination of Palladio’s unified architecture and Pasolini’s explorations of society’s erotic underbelly, but an effective fusion of these into narratives of urban life realized as places shopping and partying.

Coates was hugely influential not just through his work – much of which was sets for shops and the night that were cultural hotspots in both London and Tokyo during the boom years at the end of the 20th century – but also as a teacher. and later Head of Architecture and Design programs at the Royal College of Art. He also designed furniture for traditional Italian manufacturers and more offbeat lines, and contributed to cultural icons in surprising ways, for example being the designer of the 1982 film. The designer’s contractone of director Peter Greenaway’s weirdest and most influential films.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Coates and her husband have lived full-time in their Tuscan area, and the book feels like a goodbye, especially since he no longer teaches and admits to having more or less given up on the idea of design anything like a building or an interior, focusing instead on furniture design. It’s hard to believe, however, that someone whose imagination produces such beautiful and bizarre forms as Coates will ever stop writing his tale of ecstatic architecture.

The opinions and conclusions of this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or the American Institute of Architects.

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