The informer

Nigel Coates has been professor of architectural design at the Royal College of Art for a year. Liz Farrelly finds out what he has achieved

It’s the end of Nigel Coates’ first academic year as professor of architectural design at the Royal College of Art, and we’re standing under a strip of pink neon connecting the elephant grey and castle pink paint jobs of the Gulbenkian and Entrance galleries, surrounded by work from the school of architecture, interior design and furniture. From his pocket, Coates produces the first volume of 8th Floor Annual, which is intended to be a regular graduate showcase.

The annual’s introduction is by the head of school, Floris van den Broecke, after which come extracts from Coates’ diary. Coates comments on the last nine months as professor, and provides the degree show visitor with a deeper understanding of how the architecture and interior design course is organised.

Our discussion elaborates on to the diary and the work, and it becomes obvious that the values and approaches which inform and constitute Coates’ own practice have found a second and appropriate outlet in his role as an academic catalyst. Indeed, so well do his preoccupations fit the requirements of the college and the students that you have to question why they didn’t give him the job years ago.

I ask how he came to accept the task of heading up a course which hasn’t enjoyed the best of reputations. “There were questions hanging over the course because it never really sat comfortably in the college. There was an interior design department, and then John Miller insisted on running architectural projects and won RIBA recognition. By the time my appointment was made the thinking was ‘get the interior and architecture department together, or else’. So they decided to appoint a professor of architectural design, and I must confess that when I applied for the job I didn’t understand what it meant.

“But it was clear to [the then rector] Tony Jones that the way forward was to offer a special set of parameters that would make the activity within the department clearer to the outside world and the rest of the college. An obvious reason why they appointed me is because of my span of work, from furniture to interior design to architecture. I make no distinctions.”

But why move to the RCA, with its confused vision and dubious reputation, after successfully running Unit 10 at the prestigious Architectural Association since the late Seventies? Coates responds: “Because of the opportunities the RCA creates to study the art of handling space. It remains unmatched by other schools of architecture because of its laboratory tradition. It has a ‘doing and making sensibility’, because of the workshops and due to the proximity of all departments, it has the potential of culturally rubbing architecture up against other disciplines.”

Much to the “irritation” of technicians, the architecture students were encouraged back into the shared workshops via a project called “one2one”. Fulfilling the course’s technical requirements, students constructed full-scale sections of their buildings. The result, says Coates, was “a creative shot in the arm… and some bizarre hybrid objects”.

To Coates, the RCA’s diversity represented a microcosm of the outside world: “I know it is an artistic institution, but at least it’s multidisciplinary, while a lot of architecture schools are quite happy to be pebble-dashed bunkers.” The emphasis is on gaining technical skills and exploring diverse media – students have made promo videos, music, photographic installations and computer-generated imagery – and by experiencing an approximation of the collaborative working practices, they’ll slot into the real world. It’s no coincidence that, in his own work, Coates has made multidisciplinary collaboration his aesthetic trademark.

To achieve his aims, Coates adopted the metaphor of the “site”, applying the same mechanisms for transformation to the course as he would to any other urban space. “All kinds of new possibilities could occur if it was slightly tinkered with. I wanted it to evolve.”

Coates set up three architectural design studios (ADSs) run by a current tutor teamed with new blood. “Like an arranged marriage, it was a bit of a risk,” he explains. Capitalising on the fact that there are only 40 students on the course, he rejected the “tight little ateliers” of the unit system. “Because it’s a small department the students are more aware of what’s going on in the other ADSs. It’s difficult to achieve cultural diversity at this scale, but we have a flux within the course, instead of, as in the past, trying to move along as a single mass.” The ADSs operate under identifiable, but convergent, “flags”.

Coates describes ADS1, run by Dinah Casson and Knut Hovland, as “refitting the city. The fact is that the bulk of architectural work is on existing buildings. It also has a political dimension of looking at the city as an interior. Often a very small adjustment can change its character quite radically”. Students of ADS1 identified “flip-sides” between the north and south banks of the River Thames, and aimed to straddle the disparate areas by emphasising and mirroring differences.

Concentrating on the under-resourced area around the soon to be rejuvenated Bankside and Jubilee Line extension, ADS2, run by John Smith and Alex de Rijke, looked at architecture through its materiality. Coates describes this as “setting up provocative relationships between the building as an artefact and what happens in it”. Low-cost, low-impact solutions catered to the changing needs of a mixed population of “nomadic” workers, tourists and residents.

Habitation was the theme for ADS3, run by Julian Powell-Tuck and Sally Mackereth. Using primary research, each student studied the living patterns of three different individuals, and “totally blew away” existing data about family units and “two point five children”. After identifying particular structures, students were encouraged to “extrude” the information, offering the clients a next step solution rather than simply indulging in their own idea of aesthetic progress.

“What all these projects allow is space to think about aspects of architecture which won’t necessarily materialise. They’re about relationships and reactions and the city as an endlessly changing backdrop.” Each project stems from a suggestion made by Coates to the tutors: “Like commissioning an artist, you say ‘this is my idea for the whole thing, now it’s up to you to develop it’.” After the tutors formulate the brief, the emphasis is thrown on to the students to make creative decisions about scale, media and “extruded” intention. “We throw them into an abyss,” explains Coates.

When asked what skills the students were expected to acquire, Coates neatly summarises the entire undertaking: “It’s a case of being sensitive to the world outside you, not just the material world… to process and feed it back into the environment, clearly, cleverly and wittily… to layer the intellect over the possible and harness the instant.

“But you can’t teach anything directly. Our approach is to be provocative, sympathetic and not prescriptive.” Judging from the results, as seen at the degree show and in the pages of 8th Floor Annual, Coates has kick-started the course and instigated a new approach to architectural training. In the process, his strategies have unearthed a rich vein of creativity, propagated a “sympathetic sensibility”, and redefined the dry practice of research. All this by way of a metaphor, by equating the college, the course and a bunch of individuals with what he knows and loves best – the city.

So what next? “Each year is a journey with different people… I thrive on interaction,” Coates explains. Watch that space.

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