Interview with Nigel Coates - Nigel Coates
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Interview with Nigel Coates

Nigel Coates

Edited By Alessandra Orlandoni - 11 January 2010

Alessandra Orlandoni - Writing a treatise is part of the whole culture of architecture: Vitruvius and Leon Battista Alberti were both influential in the past, ”Learning from Las Vegas” by Robert Venturi and D.S. Brown and “S,M,L,XL” by Rem Koolhaas influenced the present shifting the focus on architecture as a contemporary language. In what way do you want to influence the future with your cult treatise cum book “Guide to Ecstacity”?
Nigel Coates - There will always be aspects of architecture that you can’t express purely through buildings and even if drawings helps, it’s important to express yourself through a parallel medium, such as a book or a film. It’s about enlarging the cultural context of what you’re doing. My aim was to put together a book which people could use as a source of ideas.
Not a list of Branson Coates Associates (BCA) works, but a structure that encourages you to move around within it. “Guide to Ecstacity” represents the space between people, it constantly shifts its voice from the informer, the provocateur, the journalist and the storyteller and expresses architecture through all kinds of different forms and lifestyles. It has more to do with the reader’s feeling as though they are already in the book than with me. This is close to the approach you should have as an architect. A guide gives you advice and insight to go and experience the city for yourself, it should strengthen your ability to get something out of that place. I don’t think anyone else has used the vehicle of the guide as a metaphoric structure of architectural ideas.
A.O. - Ecstacity is a hyperplace, an ideal city realised with actual architecture, multicultural inhabitants assembled into 450 exquisite pages. Is conceiving and publishing a book very different from conceiving and planning a building?
N.C. - Not that different: you need to have an idea, to understand the constraints of a book as an object, its costs and the potential of the layout. I thought of Ecstacity as a complex series of spaces in which each page was a space in itself. It involved a huge number of different collaborators, some doing new art pieces and some documenting the different cities that make up the parts of Ecstacity; I art-directed the book, as well as writing it. It is like a three-dimensional mosaic that parallels the city and is a city in itself. I think it is more spatial and architectural than most books.
A.O. - ” When separated from their city context, building plans mean more in their inner relations than they do as independent types” 1.  Do you think plans are the skeleton of buildings?
N.C. - They are DNA codes or hieroglyphs rather than skeletons: the writing that make a building what it is. The plan is significant because it relates to the ground, therefore it contains the principles of elevation and it is extra significant because it engages the trained eye with the possibility of moving through the space. Every individual building is always linked up in relations to other phenomena and even when it does not fit, typologically speaking, within its context, it emphasises the dynamic role it has with its surroundings and the experiences it generates.
A.O. - ”The idea and its translation into space should always be above matters of mere style”2. I think Peter Cook’s Kunsthaus in Graz fits in perfectly with that concept. What is the dividing line between architecture and building buildings?
N.C. - The Kunsthaus is an object that translates a bigger vision into that urban environment. It has style, of course, but it is more the result of cultural intersection than a precise aesthetic. It comes from many insights into what that particular place is crossed with its anticipated function: a contemporary gallery for new media.
David Greene’s Living Pod came before all those kind of buildings: the Bilbao Guggenheim or BCA project for the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield both play with contextual antithesis and are also the result of current technologies and the desire to show them off. As always, Architecture occupies a particular space between the rational/material world and the cultural one. A big changes that architects have to think about is how modern technologies, such as mobiles or the internet, have helped to re-shape our sense of space. Many architects find it very scary to take that on board.
A.O. - The architect is the greatest communicator of the present tense. You foresaw that 20 years ago with NATO your visual architectural magazine. What has changed since then and how important do you think it is today to describe projects even down their technical details?
N.C. - You put forward architecture in different ways depending on who you are talking to. The technical details have more interest to all the architects than they have to everyone else. It is not necessarily my primary concern, it’s an interesting insight when the public realises the importance of the technical spaces on contemporary architecture, or the possibility to use huge digitally cut glass surfaces on roofing structures. Now there is a greater potential to connect the technology and the concept of a building than there has ever been before.
At NATO’s time we saw the possibility of a separation between the functional use of space and what activities people are performing. The use of a video-camera or a digital typewriter free from any spatial constraints showed a new kind of spatial liberty that, to my mind, meant buildings could be much more playful: they could be dis-functional and become cultural signs. Now architecture as a culture has moved beyond the phase of deconstruction towards much more sophisticated ways of building on the activities in the environment. Architecture comes more from the Big Picture of cities as dynamic totalities than it does from the individual buildings in it. Being synthetic by its very nature, it has the capacity to coincide with the towns we live in.
A.O. - You are the son of a scientist who wanted you to be a civil engineer, yet you chose architecture. Your attitude has always been anarchical in  the sense that you see architecture as a creative system of relationships and lifestyles. As a result, you have often met with the disapproval of the British establishment. Yet with the advent of the Blair government, and “Cool Britannia”, BCA became the icon of “institutionalised anarchy”. Who made the compromise, you or Blair?
N.C. - Well I think Blair, really, because I never really compromised: I didn’t become an engineer! What was most important for me was to follow my heart and not my father’s idea of making a career and that the work I did spoke. As a teacher at the A.A. I continued to research my own idea of architecture, working freely with students in a conceptual way. In 1985 I was asked to Japan to design a restaurant: only then did I take the possibility of building seriously.
A.O. - Your key reference is the body, which immediately reminds me of Le Corbusier. Similarity or differently?
N.C. - I don’t use the body as a unit of measure like Le Corbusier: I am more interested in the body as a space, a sensory framework through which to experience the world. The body is the evidence of a much more complex experiential condition. And it’s the dynamics between each other’s bodies and the way they interface with the building you are trying to make that has inspired many of our projects.
A.O. - On quality architecture and fashionable architecture, who in your view best blends these two aspects: Will Alsop, Future Systems or Zaha Hadid?
N.C. - Well, you chose three architects who all do this, who all have forsaken the rules to follow their instinct as to what makes original architecture. I don’t think any of them are trying to be fashionable for the sake of it.  That comes from other people’s ideas of what they do. To set out to be fashionable is a doomed ambition compared with making something that has quality. I think that quality often comes with the ability to translate your initial intentions into the final thing and I say the same to my students.
Going back to the three stars, and I would place ourselves near to this group, we all apply an artistic and expressive sensibility to architecture as an art form. I think that each of our languages comes about for the same reason: each of us is driven by an insight into what architecture can be, but couldn’t be before. And that sets us apart form many of our peers.
A.O. - I think Zaha Hadid is mainly focused on combining sinuous forms and perspectives, Will Alsop makes big coloured toys, Future Systems give objects a giant scale and BCA projects are theatrical and influenced by a multi-media language...
N.C. - Yes, it is true: all of us are playful anyway, even if arriving at that point from different points of view. Yet there are formal similarities too: Zaha’s recent projects for Connecticut University Fine Arts Centre, where she has been exploring a dynamic landscaped surface that is purely digitally generated, is similar to our Body Zone project for the Millennium Dome. I am not talking about influence so much as accidental crossovers. BCA work tends to be more rooted in the city as an experiential condition reinterpreting and reusing  buildings that are already in it: perhaps that’s why we haven’t yet done so many huge projects.

Alessandra Orlandoni


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