Once more with feeling

Much architecture and design education is merely training for the eye. At the RCA, though, Nigel Coates provides a means of engaging the emotions as well. Jonathan Glancey went to this year's Summer Show
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Oscar Wilde could be mistaken. Not very often, it is true; yet, when he said "those who can do, those who can't teach", he had not met the likes of Nigel Coates, Professor Coates, that is, of the Royal College of Art. For Coates is a shining example of a teacher who does, an architect who has never been less than stimulating to work for and to be taught by, and who, over the past year, has transformed the postgraduate Architecture and Interior Design course at the RCA from a perfectly respectable way of learning a notoriously difficult art (which can also be described as a craft or calling, or, if you have a penchant for bow-ties and suits, a profession or even a business) into a way of looking at how architecture and design might help us lead richer and more enjoyable lives.

The Architecture and Interior Design section of the RCA's Summer Show - an annual public event that attracts much publicity and is a handy guide to up-and coming as well as prevailing trends in these fertile fields - has for some while been something of a Cinderella, overshadowed by more opulent, glamorous and provocative work in textiles, jewellery, photography, graphics and vehicle design. This year, Architecture and Interior Design open an otherwise indifferent show and the Coates' effect can be seen and felt the moment visitors step into the Casson-Conder designed college on Kensington Gore.

What Coates has managed to do is to engage a pack of bright postgrad students in aspects of life in the city. So, instead of peering, slightly uncomprehendingly, at static, if elegant, architectural drawings that could have been produced at almost any architecture school up and down the country, visitors to the RCA Summer Show have an immediate sense of what real contribution the next generation of architects and designers might make to our experience of city streets.

Two student projects stand out as exemplars of how architects can get to grips with urban life without acting like the building-crazy demi-gods of the Sixties who, to a large extent, gave architecture a bad name by bashing the public over the head with it, using crude concrete beams and untried and untested mass-production construction techniques as terrible and divisive weapons.

The two projects are "home street home" by Samantha Moffat, and "the new office nomad" by Robin Clark, Craig Riley and Tom Whitehead.

What these intelligently provocative projects have in common is a lack of specific buildings. Now, this might seem a touch perverse, so much study, and nothing in the way of bricks and mortar. But to expect detailed proposals for theoretical buildings from this course is to miss the point of Coates' teaching. Samantha Moffat has taken a long hard look at Golborne Road, a decidedly colourful west London street that, despite being in the shadow of chic Portobello Road at one end and Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower at the other (a block of Brutalist high-rise council flats as well as home to the young and committedly fashionable), remains a rough-and- tumble haven for working class Portuguese, Afro-Caribbeans and north Africans with its cheap cafes, food shops, rag and bone street market and ragamuffin shops. Moffat has shown how the street could be enhanced without losing a jot of its character or upgrading it to the point where it would lose the essential attraction it has, both for those who live here and those who enjoy the frisson of visiting a street that has yet to become a victim of its own fashionable success.

Instead of studying Golborne as if she was some form of cultural anthropologist looking down her architectural nose at the W10 natives, Moffat has immersed herself in a street in which she has rightly seen that life lived on the pavement is as much home to Golborne Roaders as the brick boxes they bathe and sleep in. Moffat has designed a new bridge at one end of the street that adds to its pavement life. Here is a project about city life that is neither patronising, nor would ever lead to the sort of creepy and condescending tweedy brick houses designed by "community architects", a strange tyranny of British architects who believe passionately in the suburbanisation of the city centre.

Robin Clark, Craig Riley and Tom Whitehead have explored the way in which new ways of working can affect the way we use office blocks and ways in which we could open up pedestrian routes through existing buildings now that so many of us working in city centres are what this team call "office nomads". To make their point about the way in which so many city- centre commercial buildings are out of touch with new working patterns, the three architects set out on an "office nomad" trip through Southwark and captured their curious peregrination on video: the result is one of the funniest, yet most telling stories of how we use or fail to make use of our unyielding and essentially dogmatic commercial environment.

What is so refreshing about these two projects (and others seen at the RCA) is that students are being encouraged to think of the preconditions for designing buildings and the spaces around and through them. Too often, architects are trained to design theoretical buildings that mean next to nothing when they leave the comfort of college. Nigel Coates is asking them to think about the way we inhabit our cities and existing buildings: think before you try to build anew. What do we want from modern architecture? What might an office block be like in 1996? Does it have to be a slick, air-conditioned block unchanged at heart since the Fifties? Does it have to be such a private space, each block divorced from the kind of accidental communal life that makes scruffy old Golborne Road such a delight?

In brief, Coates is working hard to engage architectural students in a course of lifelong study designed to make acutely aware of the way that life around them works; he does not want them to leave college imaging themselves to be smart young cultural mandarins, equipped with a facility for drawing elegant perspectives, convinced of the superiority of their taste over lesser mortals (you, me, other architects) and yet with as much experience of the way other people live and might want to live as some holy ascetic living on top of a pole in a desert.

More than anything else, the work of Coates' students highlights the need to rethink the way we educate and train architects. Just what should students training to become architects study? Many of our greatest architects had no academic training whatsoever. They learnt as apprentices or pupils to their masters and from hands-on building experience. Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), for example, arguably our greatest architect, spent many years toiling at what a young university-trained architect today would consider as drudgery. In fact, the naive drawings that Hawksmoor, a boy from a poor rustic background, made in his early twenties would be laughed out of court by young architects today. What Hawksmoor learnt, from experience and observation as well as from the example and the encouragement of Sir Christopher Wren, a genius and gentleman, was what to build and how to build, rather than having his head filled with exotic theory. Year by year, stone by stone, Hawksmoor emerged from the immense shadow cast by his master. Ironically, in the glorious last years of his career, the gout-ridden architect was attacked again and again by the arrogant young Palladians, a new generation of architectural purists who fought for cultural supremacy with the sword of theory and an increasingly academic knowledge of history. Hawksmoor must have felt belittled by these dilettanti would- be architects, fresh from the Grand Tour (he had never been abroad; Wren had been to France, once), for all he had to fall back on was intuition and skill, observation and feeling.

The Palladians won the day and the seeds of academic architecture were sown. Two hundred and fifty years later, there is little doubt (or ought to be little doubt) that Hawksmoor was a giant compared to the Palladian pygmies. Where Hawksmoor's great designs - the Mausoleum at Castle Howard, Christ Church, Spitalfields, All Souls College, Oxford - appear to rise heroically from the ground as if they had to happen, Palladian buildings at their purest appeared as if out of the ether - cool, detached and mathematical.

The danger of formalistic training is that can lead all too readily to an architecture that never really belongs and no one ever really loves. This is not a plea for a return to the architectural world of the 1690s, but a way of arguing for a form of training that would help young architects to get a feeling for what sort of buildings we might want to design, how we might build them and how they might engage with the needs and emotions of a wide public. These things cannot be achieved by academic training but by thinking freshly and being as involved as possible with the currents of the day. Nigel Coates is on the right tracks. Purist architects will find his approach annoying, because his students are not producing solid, decent designs for specific buildings, but are busily engaged in thinking about what sort of city we might want to live in. The buildings, as Hawksmoor discovered, will come later.

Comments