Architecture: New Coates for grim old sites

The RCA degree show tackles some of the impersonal, alienating housing in our cities.
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The Independent Culture
The task set this year for the Royal College of Art architecture students was to transform some of the great intractable problems of our cities, such as alienating housing estates and tangles of infrastructure.

But one thing that makes this year's RCA degree show so much fun is that Nigel Coates, head of the architecture school, actually likes that type of urban landscape, just as he addresses ways of making it more acceptable for those who don't. His vision of the city is of a vibrant organism rather than as a set of grid-like geometric lines. "Cities are about living, meeting people, about accidental encounters, changes, risk-taking."

In Jonathan Glancey's book on Coates he reveals: "I see architecture and the city as setting up the conditions that will allow you to get lost or to be surprised. Without the possibilities of experiencing that, the city becomes dull. You might as well be in Holland." His students are encouraged to explore the spaces, meet the inhabitants and find out what they want and need. They make mental and physical connections that surprise us. Their aim is to connect the fabric of the city with the thrust and pulse of modern life, to save a city from imploding into a living museum or a parody of itself.

The degree show tries to connect people with the spaces they inhabit, whether indoors or out. Nigel Coates divided his group of students into three units to address this issue, using test cases in London as examples - the housing estate at Kidbrooke in Greenwich; the tangled infrastructure at Elephant and Castle that isolates people from their houses, shops and workplaces; and hotels - bland, anonymous spaces that could be anywhere in the world.

Their projects show that the architect's role is changing. Part landscape gardener, furniture maker, interior designer, and imagineer (as the exhibition installation experts are called), their task is to try and integrate new designs for the future into the gritty fabric of the old city

Christopher Frayling, rector of the RCA, thinks that Coates' work has taken the course from the "net curtain era to the Internet era, focusing on networks, urban living , the space of flows as well as the space of places". In line with this radical departure from the architect as maker and shaper of buildings, the presentation of the work is more computer- based with fewer plans and elevations. The urban jungle takes on a new meaning with collages of seed catalogues, bits of Wallpaper magazine and real wallpaper pasted over with news shots of people enjoying life in the city.

"The RCA is in the perfect position to explore different creative disciplines," Nigel Coates believes. Here you really can learn to look into each other's world, which makes this architectural school unique. Design solutions don't automatically go to the automobile industry or the graphic designer, but influence the different disciplines."

Dyed-in-the-wool architects will find much to criticise in this free- wheeling approach, but Nigel Coates is no stranger to criticism. In 1983 when he headed a unit at the Architectural Association his degree show students were failed by James Stirling and Edward Jones. In response Nigel established "Nato", an exhibition, a magazine and a group of followers. The polemics that underlined Narrative Architecture Today (sometimes known as Nigel And The Others) inform the attitudes of his students today. "Like `Nato', their work reflects the world as it is, and is people based".

For a long time he believed he would never build anything. Then Tokyo, a city that constantly reinvents itself discovered Branson Coates Architects, the practice Nigel had set up with Doug Branson. Their Caffe Bongo there featured an aircraft fuselage crash-landed into its facade and suspended over the streets. Blurring the distinction between boundaries is a perennial feature of their work.

Recently BCA showed us how sensitively they can treat history with a delicate little extension to the Georgian almshouses at the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch that neatly spans the century symbolically with 19th century Arts and Crafts revisited in a timber, slate and brick building. Wherever he works, Coates puts funky back into functionalism.

In David Greig's play The Architect which was staged last year in Oslo with sets by the wunderkind architect, Daniel Libeskind, one of the local residents of a tower block accosts the architect: "You weren't asked to design houses, you were asked to house people, there's a world of difference."

That difference comes to life with an optimism that makes the degree show a good place to get a good pulse beat about the city, all the more infectious for addressing these real-time sites in London. Nothing so self indulgent as "Houses of the Future" though they may well turn out to be just that.

RCA Architecture Degree Show, 23 June to 4 July (closed 2 July). Open 10am-6pm daily. Open 10am-midnight 30 June. Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7

Charlotte Boyens Housing

"Dysfunctional" is the topical term Charlotte Boyens uses for the 1,000 units at the Sixties-built Heygate estate at the Elephant & Castle. It alienates its occupants from the area. To dissolve the boundaries that exist, she bolts on modular units that snake in and out of the spaces between the buildings to provide gardens, skateboarder tracks, climbing frames, and places to hang the washing. These "activity strips" can be used by different sets of people - gardeners on one, rock climbers on the other can see through the perforations to make eye contact. The shapes are curvilinear to soften the geometric grid of tower blocks.

Francesca Gernone Shopping

At present the Elephant & Castle shopping centre is so inaccessible that even the locals travel to Bluewater. This project focuses on the possibilities of retail and leisure to regenerate the area. Francesca Gernone calls her Blade Runner scheme "arterial spaghetti". Clearing alienating arterial roads, she creates a maze of alternative routes to continue the activities of the street. There are promenades, browsing areas, bridges and an approach that she likens to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Purple lines over the street, crossing up and down, carry tube commuter routes, escalators and rail link.

Matthew McNulty Visiting

Disliking what he calls "blandly prescriptive hotels" Matthew McNulty introduces Flotel to Britton Street in Clerkenwell. The fluid landscape behind an existing Georgian facade has gardens, pools and public spaces which are partitioned by screens as guests check in and claim a space for a night. Walls and screens allow the hotel to slowly change as the space is occupied. The possibilities for reconfiguring to allow the garden to become a bedroom, and a bedroom to change into a buzzing bar. The architectonic furniture changes too - a bedroom chair folds into a bath unit.

Carl Turner Landscaping

Flower-covered dinosaurs inspired by Jeff Koons' pansy-covered dogs are designed to diffuse the unrest on a housing estate caused by the "suspicious architecture". Can a housing estate become a park? This alternative seven- year plan allows residents of the Ferrier Estate at Kidbrooke to take control of their environment, in response to complaints about trouble caused by teenagers hanging around with nowhere to go. Residents want a new community centre so Carl Turner gave them 11, at the base of each of tower block. These centres offer sports, a creche, a meeting hall and educational facilities. He introduces larger private gardens with new communal keyholder gardens for tower residents and an expanded central public space linked with a network of pathways.

Karen Adcock Learning

Trying to make a community out of disaffected residents at Kidbrooke Estate, Karen Adcock carved up dolls' house furniture to explore different scenarios. Her adult literacy centre is not a stigmatised area, but a comfortable sofa with a wall in the middle. Her table made from hay bales is designed for horsing around. Double bunk beds provide a coffee shop on top with a small hob. Fantasy, yes, but the aim of these playful pieces is to introduce activity areas that bring people together. A hedge provides a haven with oxygen on tap nearby - not so unlikely when you consider that the Co-op sells bottled oxygen in plastic bottles. Underscoring her project was the wish to channel energy into "pleasurable moments".