ARCHITECTURE

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The Independent Culture
Only Nigel Coates, Professor Nigel Coates of the Royal College of Art, that is, could have found a plan of a building designed by the great Sir John Soane that looks perilously like a giant cock and balls. I'm sorry, I'll write that again ... that bears a resemblance to the male genitalia. Architecture is a serious subject and architects do not like jokes at the expense of their mistress art. When they are funny they are only being ironic. They use the word "irony" a great deal. Irony has been fashionable in architectural circles ever since Robert Venturi (a very serious architect from Princeton, New Jersey) published Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture 30 years ago. This was the book that launched tens of thousands of witty, knowing, wry Post-Modern buildings on the world, that encouraged the clip-on school of luridly coloured and overscaled split-pediments stuck on the face of otherwise boring new buildings. If the aim was to match the sensibilities of a genuinely witty artist such as Claes Oldenberg to contemporary architecture, the joke backfired.

For the past five years or so, we have learnt to beware of architectural witticisms. Better a worthy building, handsomely crafted, than an unfunny joke writ large and permanent. There are architects, such as the great Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) who were genuinely funny (his visual puns were much better than his verbal ones: asked by King George V what he thought of his fish course at a state banquet, Lutyens responded, "this piece of cod passeth all understanding"). Of architects working today, Piers Gough (b 1946), is a prince of the type, who makes us smile as he transforms a design for a public lavatory into an electric-blue Guimard Metro station with a flower shop attached (in London's fashionable Westbourne Grove).

Nigel Coates (an imaginative architect and popular teacher, he heads Branson Coates Architecture, best known for outlandish clubs, bars and restaurants) brings a provocative spirit that makes his audience prick up its ears and learn to enjoy an area that is too often in the hands of committees and "men in suits". Nigel would have them in frocks.

Last week he gave the first of a series of nine lectures, in association with The Independent, at the Royal College of Art. "Disturbanisms" is aimed at breaking architectural certainties apart and encouraging us (everyone is invited, but you will have to rush for tickets - honest) to look at architecture upside down, back to front and in ways that may well make you laugh, upset you or drive you wild with anger.

If Coates set the tone last week by penetrating the largely unexplored world of eroticism in architectural design (willy-won't he show another image of a building that reminds us of our dangly bits?), next week's guest lecturer, Gaetano Pesce, will set a rabid bat amongst the pigeons. Pesce, an Italian architect and designer who has produced some of the most disturbing furniture and interiors of his generation, is a truly controversial character. A few months ago I was eating with a group of friends.

When the name Gaetano Pesce was fished up, the dinner exploded like some bombe surprise. The man was compared to the devil, and that was in a generous moment.

Expect more verbal fireworks, and ideas magnificent and maddening, from the rest of Coates' coterie, which includes Bernard Tschumi, Mark Wrigley, Rem Koolhaas, Marc Auge, Enric Miralles, Beatriz Colomina and Daniel Libeskind (architect of the up-and-coming Jewish Museum in Berlin and the V&A's proposed extension). You may want to shout "what cock", or "balls", but "Disturbanisms" will make you think. And even laugh.

Details and tickets: Mairead McDermott, RCA (0171-590 4273).

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