Chaos As Creation


8 February 2017

It behooves all avant-garde groups to have a robust foundation tale. Narrative Architecture Today (NATØ) is no exception.

In 1983, while acting as external examiners at London’s Architectural Association (AA), the architects James Stirling and Edward Jones were horrified with the work of Unit 10. Rather than formal architectural drawings and plans, the students had presented a series of fantastical perspectives of a chaotic, ruined London, where buildings were secondary to the human presence. Aghast, Jones and Stirling failed the class.

Unit 10 was saved by the AA’s director Alvin Boyasky, who overturned the initial decision and encouraged the former students to publish a book. Under their tutor Nigel Coates, however, a loosely grouped set of eight graduates instead decided to create a magazine. Later that year, NATØ issue one was released. Two more followed, in 1984 and 1985, before the group splintered to follow their own trajectories.

NATØ was unlike any architecture publication before. Drawing on the cut-and-paste aesthetic of street fashion magazines like i-D and The Face, it blended expressionistic drawings with stories and parodies. One article saw the group design an imaginary house for the film director Derek Jarman, while another burlesqued interior magazines by suggesting do-it-yourself objects made from scrap items. Perhaps most subversively, it overturned architecture's conventional hierarchy of images above texts. An article by the member Mark Prizeman, for instance, used a surrealistic short story in which buildings where encountered through fictional narratives.

This was narrative architecture, formulated by Coates as architecture that prioritises human experience, and allows those who encounter it to transfigure that experience into stories. According to Coates, it runs from Hadrian’s Villa in Ancient Rome – which was designed in parts that echoed the architecture of different parts of the Empire – to practices in the present day such as OMA and Assemble.

NATØ is now the subject of a book. NATØ: Narrative Architecture in Postmodern London, written as a Royal College of Art (RCA) thesis by the architectural historian Claire Jamieson, takes a chronological path through the group’s story, pre-history and influence. On the occasion of the book’s publication, Disegno talked to Coates – who was head of Architecture at the Royal College of Art between 1995 and 2011, and now chair of the Academic Court at the new London School of Architecture – about NATØ’s genesis and revelations.

Nigel Coates encouraged expressionist painting, experimental drawing and film-making as architectural medium. This artwork presents an aerial view of Paris' opera house, and focuses on the public spaces around the building. IMAGE Courtesy of Nigel Coates

NATØ was a product of the early 1980s. What made this particular moment so febrile?

In the proceeding decade, there was weak government and economic hardship, with three-day weeks. I suppose that in the beginning of the 80s, there was this new bravado among the creative and young folk of London who wanted to, and were given the opportunities to, meet and exchange ideas, engage and with music and nightlife. London was a desert at night for the most part. But if you found yourself with your friends going to places like the Blitz, you suddenly felt part of a world, and that was empowering. So on the back of economic deprivation, there was a sense of self-confidence, there was a permissive attitude towards sex and the way you presented yourself, what you wore. But also to speculating on new stuff, helping artists and architects with a view of where you want your world to go and the society you were a part of. There was a cultural vacuum that begged to be filled.

Retrospectively, it seems to be a time when subcultural matter – music, fashion – could influence fields beyond their typical sphere of influence.

What I loved about the fashion was that it was so easy to do; essentially you could make it in your living room. It had a proximity that we as architects, who were also interested in objects and making things, could share, along with designers like Tom Dixon and André Debreuil. And the ethos was very much DIY: “We're not going to go and work for big companies, we are going to make it ourselves.”

It was the same with the ideas about architecture: “We don’t care what's in the Architecture Review or the AJ, to hell with them. We're going to imagine the city in a different way, which is a combination of seemingly discordant factors manifested in unexpected ways, as though there were some kind of hidden forces in the town, which could accentuate its differences and ad hocism.” So we were kind of agents of making and promoting that ad hocism, which you could see particularly in south London and in industrial areas, where railway lines had smashed through the streets of Victorian houses without any regard whether the houses could survive or not. And that sort of layering of London was a spirit to be encouraged.

I get the sense that British architectural education was relatively staid in the late 70s and early 80s.

Yes, it was. The AA was radical in relation to other schools of architecture, but it still produced the big names in the profession, who subscribed to the idea of architecture and city planning bringing a degree of rationality to the city, replacing small buildings with bigger ones and so on. Whereas much of creative London, which we now take for granted, was based on being able to see how the conflicts and aberrations in society and the city could actually become something positive. You could invent something out of the detritus. That’s why I like places like Golbourne Road, because it’s not conventionally controlled but instead has a way of evolving and balancing itself. Many interests crossover each other’s territories, and out of that comes a sort of vitality. That is what we identified at the time as something to be encouraged rather than eradicated.

Were there any architects in Britain who you admired?

Not among the architects. I had more admiration for historical context. I was a great enthusiast of Italian gardens, and the reason for that was that, although they were more contrived and controlled than the phenomena of the city that we were looking at, Italian gardens were devised to disorient and encourage seeking of pleasurable experience. That had a connection, I thought, with what we were doing in the city.

One of my favourite places in England is Rousham, William Kent’s 18th-century pleasure garden in Oxfordshire. The entire estate is arranged for discovery, with follies and new perspectives repeatedly emerging as you travel through.

And surprise, balancing the familiar with the unfamiliar. You know what trees and avenues of trees are like, but then you follow a stream and you might finish up in a place which within nature would make a connection to a cultural trope or a mythological tale, or something of that kind. Which is eccentric, beautiful and sensitive, not what you could do in a city. Because there is space for the imagination in a garden, so it's easier to allow those reveries to come out. In my book Narrative Architecture, I use Rousham as one of the first examples.

In a city, I looked to the early surrealists, who were able to achieve this sort of revelry in Paris because of its funny layering of mythological places, particularly the arcades. There is a book by Léon-Paul Fargue, Le Piéton de Paris, which is basically about the reverie, and experiences of the city that are based on contrast, the proximity of the rational to the off limits, the demimonde. And I think that NATØ was based on these borderline filmic, surrealistic interpretations of what’s in front of you.

Coates' two Muse Britannia paintings were his own response to a task he set Unit 10 students in 1982: to respond to a brief for a museum of the Falklands War, exploring the "odd mixture of the war as gruesome reality and myth" and taking a battleship on the Thames as starting point. IMAGE Courtesy of Nigel Coates

A lot of NATØ’s content concerned the London Docklands, which at this point were quite dilapidated…

It was a desert. I mean, there were a few buildings there, blocks of flats, a few communal houses, and some of the docks were filled in and some weren't. It was being trumpeted as a new beginning for London, but rather than it being based on the way people wanted to live, it was based on making it easy for speculators to build whatever they like.

When I think of that milieu, I think of Bob Hoskins as a gangster trying to redevelop them in The Long Good Friday, and the mystic, anarchic Docklands in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee and The Last of England.

It really gets the imagination going, doesn’t it? There's nothing like a dysfunctional, decrepit city to get the mind working in imaginative way. Jarman’s films revelled in the ruins of a post-industrial society, which has now turned into a sort of Monte Carlo playground for the international rich. One of Mark Prizeman’s projects in the first issue was for a housing project in the Surrey Docks, which proposed there was a wild wolf park on the roof. But there was no contact between the human and lupine residents: the wolves were just there.

It strikes me that, along with the Docklands, NATØ focused on rivers and waterways as a sort of focal point for the city.

I found rivers interesting, because they are bigger signs than any of the built elements of the city. They orientate the way we experience London, and it is a sensual form that we think of as straight, although it's not straight at all. I hesitate saying the majority of cities, but many of the great capitals are located either on the ocean or they are by a river. In Rome, Cairo and of course London, it’s all about communication, ships sailing in and up. There are paintings by Kokoschka and others who painted London from there. The implication of movement in the form of the river is a kind of subliminal mark that we can't help but recognise. If you draw Tower Bridge and that curve, you sort of recognise it.

There was a collective project we did around Venice, where Mark proposed floating cable cars and I suggested that all the palazzos on the Grand Canal would become exhibition spaces for brands – something that has now happened, to some extent.

What form would you think NATØ would take if it were to emerge now? Would it have worked as an online publication?

I guess so. The magazine was the most multimedia and transgressive form that we could take at that time. And there were lots of fanzines, and there was The Face and i-D, which were not conventional – they are buccaneering and anti-establishment, and they tuned to the sensibility of the time. Terry Jones's i-D was about saying that you could photograph people on the street and put it in a magazine, and it was just as valid as what Vogue would do. The director of the AA wanted us to do a book, but we thought a magazine was much more savvy and would have more reach.

Books tend to consolidate and they last for a long time. They're a bit like buildings – they're heavy. Whereas a magazine is inherently disposal and ephemeral, and able to catch the spirit of the time. And I thought the faster format publication, which was cheaper and easier to do than it had ever been before, was the right medium. We also had events – exhibitions of course, evenings, and a nightclub one night, which was mobbed. So the magazine was part of the language of communication.

Do you think there are many architects practicing now who follow the same narrative impulses, and many buildings that you would describe as influenced by NATØ and narrative architecture?

I think so, yes. Take post-modernism: it started as a creative force then became a ghastly, clichéd trope for poor buildings. You could say that Garfunkels, Giraffe, all those awful chain restaurants are a sort of watered down version of narrative architecture in the way they attempt to create experiences.

On the other hand, take Assemble. One of the things the new book deals with is the idea of taking a group of people, rather than a big architect, as the paradigm of forces in the city. As a group of people you can capitalise on a creative potential of there being differences of opinion, differences in view and difference of strategy. It has the potential to resolve in a narrating kind of environment. And Assemble does that very well now, because they go to the place, they examine it, they let people talk, they listen to people, they suggest and they respond to the reaction, and that produces an architecture which is modifying, modest but occasionally audacious, and actually not just about the great genius architect painting the bigger picture. In that, I think that they're practising something that is essentially similar in sensibility.