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The Subversive Spirit of Nigel Coates

“Life wasn’t unhappy, just very limited. When I go back there now I can’t believe how conservative it is, how I survived it, but I expect I didn’t know any different, even if I knew it wasn’t really me. I hated it. I couldn’t wait to leave.”

Born in 1949, and trained at University of Nottingham and the Architectural Association. Coates is one of Britain’s consistently original thinkers in architecture, interior and product design. He has led a parallel career in teaching, design practice and artistically driven, internationally recognised work.

He grew up as a gay teenager in Malvern, the determinedly provincial spa town in Worcestershire. “Life wasn’t unhappy, just very limited. When I go back there now I can’t believe how conservative it is, how I survived it, but I expect I didn’t know any different, even if I knew it wasn’t really me. I hated it. I couldn’t wait to leave.” His father, an engineer, wanted him to get “a proper job. But he’d take us all on family trips to see cathedrals and castles, which kicked off my interest in architecture, and he was a hobby painter, one of those who copy things in minute detail.”

His subversive spirit first came to public attention in 1984 with the publication of NATO (Narrative Architecture Today) magazine. A manifesto for a socio-culturally engaged and popular, narrative driven architecture, it advised readers to be the architects of their own lives, and in doing so, to radically adapt the buildings around them. Certain themes, in particular that of narrative, have continued in Coates’ designs and research ever since. Beyond issues of function or style, narrative, he asserts, is a language of design that builds on people’s everyday experience. Form must follow fiction.

He has continued to explore the communicative and experiential potential of architecture as a language drawn from the commonplace. He believes that the city is best understood if explored as a living organism, and that popular experience and culture are central to the experience of architecture. His work plays on psycho-geographic association between the built environment and desire. Time and motion, he says, is the dynamic partner to the fixed, physical world.

Art and literary strategies, including the curation of others, find their way into many of his projects. Coates has designed and built influential interiors, exhibitions and buildings around the world. His build works in Japan include Caffè Bongo, the Wall, Noah’s Ark and Art Silo, and in Britain, the National Centre for Popular Music (now the Hub), Powerhouse::uk and the Geffrye Museum.

Throughout his colourful career, he has pursued experimental work that has been shown in an art and design context, including such exhibits as ArkAlbion shown at the Architectural Association in 1984, Ecstacity at the same venue, Mixtacity at Tate Modern in 2007, and Hypnerotosphere at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008.

He is also a prolific designer of lighting and furniture, with links to Alessi, AVMazzega, Ceramica Bardelli, Frag, Fratelli Boffi, Poltronova, Slamp and Varaschin. Since 2010 he is represented by the Cristina Grajales Gallery New York. Examples of his work are held in collections around the world including the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cooper Hewitt and FRAC. Having lead the Department of Architecture at the Royal College of Art from 1995-2011, he is now an RCA Professor Emeritus. His book Narrative Architecture (Wiley) will be published in 2012.

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