“At a certain point,” says the architect and designer Nigel Coates, “you have to ask yourself what makes a city worth living in.” It’s a question he’s been pursuing for half a century and more, with designs ranging in scale from stools and vases to sweeping visions for vast swaths of London, with bars and restaurants fertilised by Japan’s 1980s bubble economy somewhere in between. Also, constructional expressions of the Cool Britannia moment of the early Blair years, all realised in a riotous, polyglot, louche, fluid style, which, as he puts it, “is not how you’re supposed to do architecture”.
Now he has written a book, titled simply Nigel Coates, published by the Royal Institute of British Architects in a series called Lives in Architecture. It’s a somewhat institutional frame for a publication that is anything but, combining, as it does, projects and products with the loves, friendships and struggles of a gay man who reached adulthood just as homosexuality ceased to be a crime in Britain. He credits his singular approach to architecture to the experience of “having to try extra hard to accept who I was. It was a fight from the start, which arms you with a certain courage.”
He was born in 1949 and grew up in the scenic Worcestershire town of Malvern, the son of mismatched parents – a rational telecommunications engineer father and an art-loving “dreamer” mother. He studied architecture first at Nottingham University, where “we could design anything we could want so long as it had a flat roof and was made was brick”. Looking for greater excitement, he went to the Architectural Association (AA) in London, “a free-for-all, a playground”, a “radical experimental school” that was then becoming a nursery for future stars such as Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas.
Coates later taught at the AA, encouraging his students to produce impressionistic, wall-size drawings of “fictional reworkings” of London’s Docklands and make city models out of obsolete electronic components – work that was almost failed en masse by examiners for being “unjudgeable as architecture”.
Coates’s work was considered unbuildable until, with his Japanese designs, he and his business partner, Doug Branson, proved that it wasn’t. Their Caffè Bongo in Tokyo featured a portico in the form of an airliner’s wing, with a baroque ceiling painting inside. L’Arca di Noè in Sapporo was a restaurant in the form of a petrified Etruscan-style Noah’s ark. The Wall, a multi-tenanted building in Tokyo, looked like a crumbling Roman ruin. They offered versions of “decaying, decadent Europe” to Japanese audiences eager for such things.
In all these projects, Coates was striving to go beyond the usual boundaries of architecture. He drew inspiration from the post-punk energy of clubbing and fashion, from art and film, from Federico Fellini and Jean Cocteau and Vivienne Westwood, and from his friends Katharine Hamnett and Derek Jarman. At the same time, his work is infused with a knowledge of architectural history, with Italian Renaissance gardens and Roman palaces, one that recovers the sensuality and outrageousness they would have had when new.
He collaborated with artists, designers and fabricators. “I was like the producer or the conductor,” he says, working with “a bunch of people who happened to be about – a creative soup.” He has written, published and taught as well as practised: he was head of architecture at the Royal College of Art from 1995 to 2011.
Although his designs grew from his own life experiences, he says: “I never practise what I would call ‘queer architecture’. You don’t have to be gay or anything in particular to enjoy them.” He aimed to make “spaces that made you wonder, that perhaps you could feel drawn to. I was trying to softly seduce people.” He says he “tried to believe in other people’s experience and tried to enrich it”.
He therefore feels dismay when he contemplates the developments “driven by saturated financial requirements” that have tidied up and smoothed out London’s areas of decayed magnificence, places once inspirational to him: King’s Cross, for example, for which he once presented a proposal of planned anarchy, where different uses and users overlapped and contaminated each other. Now, he says: “It has filled up with chain shops. It’s patronising. People deserve better than that.”
Coates wants to see “more schisms, more rub, more grist”. The reason “why people would come to London was to find themselves, but it has become inhospitable in all respects”. He now lives mostly in Italy, in a house he bought cheaply long ago, but on a recent return he saw on the city’s transport systems “people marching along the corridors with madness in their eyes”. “This great city,” he asks. “Does it have to be so stressful?”
He eventually got to build in the 1990s in his native land. He designed an extension to what is now the Museum of the Home in east London and a silvery, drum-kit-shaped building for the former National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield – now the students’ union of Sheffield Hallam University – an endeavour undermined by a flawed business plan and weak exhibits that were beyond Branson and Coates’s control.
In 1998, they created Powerhouse::uk, a glowing, inflatable temporary structure amid the classical formality of Horse Guards Parade, intended to glorify British creativity and industry. They designed the Body Zone, a giant hermaphroditic figure that was the most convincing element in bonfire of inanities that was the Millennium Dome.
There was a tendency, though, to treat Coates as a bit of a circus act, to assign him to projects that weren’t entirely serious. For several years, he has focused on designing objects and installations rather than buildings.
Some of this rankles: “I’m not expecting everyone to be like me,” he says. “But we would like to be considered as valid contributors.” And, looking at the half-century of output in his book, it’s hard to disagree. Architecture could do with bold energy and generous intelligence such as his.