Free spirit

Nigel Coates says that much of his work in the UK involves transforming a space into something altogether new with interior design. With the restrictions on architecture, he explains, it’s the only way for people to express themselves

You couldn’t wish for a better view than that from Nigel Coates’ office at the Royal College of Art. But while looking out across Hyde Park to the Albert Museum might hint at the RCA’s Victorian heritage, it is rather at odds with the ethos of an internationally acclaimed architect who, since the 1980s, has promoted the idea of narrative in an overtly urban context.

It was 1984 when Coates first provoked controversy in architectural circles with the launch of the magazine Narrative Architecture Today, democratising design by urging readers to adapt the buildings around them as they become ‘architects’ of their own lives. The spirit of Nato, highly subversive in its day, lives on at the RCA through London-centric student projects, such as last year’s Babylon:don installation for the Venice Architecture Biennale, which address ‘urban concerns’.

This followed naturally on from Coates’ 2000 Venice installation Ecstacity, a project exploring the emotions and interactions of city life, which spun out into a film, Learning from Ecstacity, and a book on the subject, Guide to Ecstacity, published by Laurence King.

‘Part of the ethos of the RCA is to connect to the cultural issues of the time,’ explains Coates in the college’s 2006 Architecture Annual, a rich source of alternative views on how to infiltrate the built environment while making better use of the spaces in between.

Coates was a rare find for RCA rector Professor Sir Christopher Frayling when he was appointed professor of architecture and interiors in 1995. He was the latest in an illustrious teaching line-up that had included Sir Hugh Casson, Derek Walker and Dinah Casson at one time or another. True to Nato, he has graced the place with a touch of the avant-garde and a strong belief in architecture as an intervention in the city rather than a monolith in its own right.

But the appointment has proved controversial, with ex-alumni up in arms at the start of the year at the way ‘interior design’ has been dropped from the title of the masters course.

Both Frayling and Coates deny there has been any dumbing down on the interiors front, but the name change – instigated by Coates almost two years ago – provoked an angry response from interiors luminaries who had served their time at the college before Coates became involved with it.

In his defence, Coates has experience of both architecture and interiors – and strong views on both. At the time of his appointment at the RCA, he was in the ascendancy in the UK, along with Doug Branson, his then partner in architectural practice Branson Coates.

Coates had established a strong reputation in the 1980s in Japan for projects such as the Bohemian Jazz Club, the Metropole and Café Bongo in Tokyo and the Hotel Maritimo in Otaru. But the 1990s saw him and Branson working extensively in the UK. In 1998, for example, the duo had four key projects completing: Sheffield’s ill-fated National Centre for Pop Music – now a music venue for Sheffield Hallam University; the Oyster House, which addressed the domestic environment; Powerhouse UK, a temporary structure housing an exhibition of the output of Britain’s creative industries; and the Body Zone within the Millennium Dome at Greenwich, which used techniques based on the digitisation of the human form.

There was also the wing of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, completed in 1993. Ten years later Coates built the Dublin Tower, an iconic commercial building at the city’s edge. And Coates has worked in Turkey, Italy and beyond, taking sustenance from such ‘odd-ball places’ and the unconventional commissions they yield.

On the interiors front, apart from the Tokyo clubs Coates created Jigsaw’s Knightsbridge branch, with its show-stopping sculptural copper façade, among other retail projects. He has also worked in exhibitions, notably the Design Museum’s Erotic Design show of 1997 and recent Luigi Colani exhibition. His latest installation, Mixtacity, is part of the Global Cities show, which has just opened at London’s Tate Modern.

And again he has an angle. In his lavish, coffee-table book Collidoscope: New Interior Design, published by Laurence King in 2004, he maintains that ‘interiors now are about a state of being’. He talks of ‘outdoor interiors’ – ‘public spaces as living rooms’ – as a humaniser in the city.

Coates also sees interiors as a fantastic way for designers and inhabitants to express themselves at a time when building design is heavily governed by regulation and uniformity prevails. ‘Almost none of the imaginative force that architects can offer is channelled into new buildings compared with the effort that goes into changing existing ones,’ he says, believing architecture per se is ‘in a dire situation’ in the UK, despite the country’s ‘proliferation of talent’.

There is also furniture – for Hitch Mylius and Contempo, among others – lighting, notably fittings for Italian manufacturer Slamp which twist traditional concepts of form, and glassware.

It adds up to the kind of eclectic portfolio you would expect of an internationally renowned architect. But despite this, Coates is arguably one of the least object-focused designers there is. He is fascinated by technique on the one hand and social concepts on the other, blending the research aspect of his professorship with design practice in a way that stretches the minds and skills of the students who work with him on his projects as much as it does to those who experience the results.

‘Like all research units, we see ourselves as a lab whose advantage is the licence to experiment,’ he explains in the 2006 RCA annual. ‘Our innovations are applied: we believe in a grounded tilt on innovation.’

As for his own work, on which students collaborate when appropriate, he has ‘forced each project to have a research dimension’ so that it is never formulaic. The state-of-the-art technology at the RCA helps to bring that off.

No longer working with Branson, Coates has intentionally ‘downscaled’ his practice to ‘upscale’ his reach. ‘I don’t want to be a person within a big office,’ he says. ‘I operate better as a free spirit in the design world.’

Going back in time, he reckons, ‘Most European architects went with a style of architecture. I went with a way of thinking.’ And style is something he has little time for, preferring a contextual approach.

In Collidoscope he writes, ‘Selecting a style is as out-dated as pigeon post.’ This stance fits well with his role in education. ‘My professional work has always been influenced by education and work that pushes ideas about design in the city,’ he says. ‘Sometimes polemical work emerges as something else, like an exhibition or a book.’

But working effectively solo hasn’t limited him. He’s working in Japan for the first time in 15 years, on a big café/patisserie two doors down from Prada. He is also collaborating with Italian manufacturers such as Slamp and textiles company Varaschin.

He is damning of the UK as a patron of architecture and design. ‘Here I’m not asked to do what I’m good at,’ he says, saying it is more about complying to procedures than design.

His work may be ground-breaking, but Coates purports to be down-to-earth in his approach. ‘I never wanted to be an architectural magician,’ he says. He describes himself as ‘questioning and challenging, not so much pulling tricks with smoke and mirrors’.

He is interested in architecture in everyday life, addressing issues as diverse as human nature, sensuality and ugliness. ‘I hope I have brought this into architectural debate,’ he concludes. Looking at his students’ output, he has not only brought it in, but promises to keep it on the agenda.


Nigel Coates is an architect who strays naturally into design. In the tradition of his profession, he has worked on furniture for Hitch Mylius and lights for Slamp, among others, and created interiors for retail and restaurants across the world, as well as buildings.

His work pushes the boundaries of form and materials, taking it beyond style, and his fascination with urban ‘interventions’ emerged in 1984 with the publication of his Narrative Architecture Today.

Coates’ emphasis on exploration and research fits neatly with his position as Professor of architecture and interiors at London’s Royal College of Art and his continuing practice.


All pictured designs by Nigel Coates


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