Is it an architect? Is it a designer? No, it’s SuperNige, aka Nigel Coates, risk-taker, body-builder, hedonist, scourge of the architectural establishment and doyen of the multidisciplinary approach to design.
Now, rather surprisingly, we can add shop-keeper to his growing list of accomplishments, since Branson Coates (the company he set up with Doug Branson in 1985) recently launched a store in the City of London exploiting the success of his Dome installation – the interlocking male and female figure otherwise known as the Body Zone. Trinkets and crockery adorned with the Body motif may appear to be bordering on the naff, but Coates’ high fashion rating right now – not to mention his bare-faced chic – means that he could give a pair of fluffy dice a hip replacement and get away with it.
Dominating the new gallery is the Coates mission statement – a huge three-panel semi-abstract painting entitled Ecstacity. If you look at it for long enough, you can see that it’s a view of central London, looking across the Thames from the south side of the river. It aims to capture the organic vibrancy and diversity of city life. Coates finds inspiration in what he calls the “richly stimulating chaos” of the technological age. “All my work, whatever its scale, emanates from being in touch with contemporary issues. It’s as much about the new electronic age – the nightclub, the theme park, the Internet – as it is about the city’s history.
“I see the nightclub as a key contemporary urban space but this doesn’t preclude an understanding of historic references, from classical to modern.”
This radical departure from more traditional values and aesthetics has led to some startling developments, such as his bridge design for the Royal Academy’s 1996 Living Bridges exhibition that resembled a giant penis, and his “London unzipped” project in which he proposed turning bus shelters into open-air urinals.
In the mid-1980s, long before his career had taken flight, Coates published a subversive magazine entitled NATO (Narrative Architecture Today, also known as Nigel And The Others) in which he and a like-minded bunch of mavericks expounded their own urban agenda. They were branded anarchists by the architectural establishment.
These days, as a 50-year-old professor of architecture (at the Royal College of Art), the enfant terrible tag looks faintly absurd – “my students probably think I represent the establishment” – but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Coates still enjoys the odd bit of creative disruption. “I never set out to shock,” he protests. “A lot of the things we advocated in NATO are now perfectly acceptable in design and culture generally… the sexuality I put forward in my work is utterly commonplace and part of everyday life.”
The fact that we are conducting this interview on a very stylish sofa emblazoned with the male and female genitalia might suggest that Coates’ idea of what is utterly commonplace and mine aren’t necessarily the same. You get the feeling that this bright boy from the provinces never quite got over the liberating culture shock of coming to London in the early 1970s. “It wasn’t until I came to London that I realised I wasn’t a freak. I was a late starter. There weren’t many gays in the Architectural Association. Work was the centre of my life, my sexuality was always on the edge, like a party on a Saturday night.
“Now, work and pleasure overlap for me. Going out on the town is part of my research. I sketch in the oddest places, on a plane, sitting in a cafÃ©, they are often the most creative moments, when you first encounter the germ of an idea. I’m not one of those people who leaves work and cuts off. It’s always there in my head.”
The last few years have seen Coates graduate from respected and colourful renegade to serious contender, with important commissions such as the Geffrye Museum extension (opened by Princes Charles in 1998), the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, the refurbishment of Christie’s auctioneers, and of course the Body Zone at the Dome, which launched his profile into the stratosphere.
These projects had their highs and lows, but the Dome was specially memorable for Coates because it was an opportunity to do something that would win him a worldwide reputation, while being uniquely difficult to execute.
“I learned a lot from it. I found it difficult to grasp what the whole Dome thing was all about, so we just got on with our bit. It was harrowing because of the sheer complexity of what we were trying to achieve, the business of conveying large groups of people from one part of the body to another using ramps and escalators. I’m really proud of the fact that it’s not a committee-created piece, it’s true to our original vision.” Being true to his vision is clearly high on Coates’ agenda… and the visions keep coming, from dainty pieces of jewellery to grandiose urban redevelopments. “I like designing at all scales,” says Coates, “from the chair to the city itself.”
1949- Born in Malvern, Worcestershire
1974-77 – Studies at Architectural Association
1985- Forms Branson Coates partnership with Doug Branson
1988- Designs stores for Jigsaw and Katherine Hamnett
1990- Opening of Nishi Azabu Wall building in Tokyo
1992- Wins competition to design Geffrye Museum extension
1995- Appointed professor of architectural design at Royal College of Art
1996- Designs Living Bridges exhibition at Royal Academy
1998- Opening of Powerhouse: UK exhibition; opening of Geffrye Museum extension by Prince of Wales
1999- Creates Body Zone for the Dome