London: RIBA Publishing in association with The Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage, 2012
Paperback. xii +163 pp. Illustrations. ISBN 978-1859464373. £20.00
Reviewed by Timothy Brittain-Catlin
Kent School of Architecture, University of Kent, Canterbury
The pioneer modernist architect and interior designer Wells Coates, who practised in Britain from 1927 up to the mid-1950s, and briefly thereafter in Canada, has occupied a problematical place in the history of mid-twentieth century architecture. For one thing, he did not emerge from an architecture school and his professional skills seem to have been self-taught. Secondly, he is known for the design of three major buildings alone; in fact, of all his various architectural projects, almost nothing beyond those three buildings has survived to bear witness to his skill, and he wrote little about them that might enable a critic or a historian to link them to broader historical currents. And thirdly, and perhaps related to that, his family and cultural background were so unusual that in every account he inevitably seems to appear as an outsider, perhaps merely visiting England on his way to somewhere else.
Wells Wintemute Coates was born in Japan in 1895 to Canadian parents who were missionaries for the Methodist Church. He lived there until the age of 17, fully absorbed in Japanese culture in spite of the austere religious environment of his parents’ home. He travelled to Canada for the first time in 1913, enrolled in McGill University College in Vancouver as an engineering student, and in the First World War served in France with the Canadian Field Artillery. He completed his studies in 1922, and then moved to London to research for a doctorate on the diesel engine at what is now Queen Mary, in East London.
As this was concluding Wells found a part-time position as a writer for the Daily Express newspaper, plunged himself into London life, and allied himself with the remarkable figure of Alfred Borgeaud, who became his closest friend. The two, in Darling’s words, ‘reinvented themselves as modern intellectuals’. They read modernist authors; they made friends with contemporary writers, artists, dancers and actors. Coates then lived in Fitzroy Square, at the heart of Bohemian society. After Borgeaud was killed in a particularly nasty accident, during the course of a railway trip across the Rocky Mountains, Coates found a job as a press officer before marrying Marion Grove, a student at the London School of Economics; he finally launched his career as a designer by remodelling his own modest bedsit accommodation. All this is worth recording because it bears no resemblance at all to the trajectory of most contemporary modernist architects: there was no architect mentor; there was no school; there was no admiration (as far as we know) of contemporary masters; there was no period of training.
Chance however no doubt plays an equal part with everyone, and Coates’ career as a professional designer took off as a result of meeting Alec Walker, the director of a silk manufacturer and retailer, at a friend’s cottage during a road trip. This resulted in the design of a shop for Walker’s company, Cryséde, and then subsequently for an offshoot called Cresta Silks. The shops, built from 1929 to 1932, were glassy, minimalist, and stylishly lit; it is thought that their austere design, like much else that was to emerge from Coates, owed something to his training as an engineer and his familiarity with aircraft structure and design.
A progressive socialist politician acquaintance of Coates, George Russell Strauss, then invited him to remodel the interior of his heavily furnished Victorian family home in Kensington Palace Gardens, located in what was then, as it is today, the most prestigious residential avenue in London. Here Coates took the approach he had used in his sleek modernist silk shops and merged it with frankly Japanese motifs, for example fine paper and timber screens. From the contemporary before-and-after photographs in Darling’s book, one can see at once that the effect must have been as magical as it was unexpected at the heart of a Victorian mansion. It was, of course, the film-star look, made more substantial by its roots in Japanese architecture and by its happy incorporation of modern electrical gadgets. Indeed Coates applied the same style to a flat for the actors Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester in Gordon Square in Bloomsbury soon after completing the Kensington project.
All this points to another reason why Wells Coates became (in fact, had probably already become) a problematic figure. Was he an international modernist, or was he some kind of glamorous, Japanese-inspired interior designer? Quite possibly there is no answer that would satisfy both camps. The three buildings that Coates designed that went on to establish his reputation – the blocks of flats in Lawn Road, Hampstead, in 1934; in Brighton in 1935; and in Kensington in 1939 indicate both directions. The Lawn Road project was a well publicised exercise in the Existenzminimum, for Jack and Mollie Pritchard, plywood manufacturers with visionary ideas about modern living. The block presents a facade of white rendered streamlined balconies and stairs to the road – a dramatic contrast to the architecture of the nineteenth-century terraced houses all around – behind which lay a series of tiny flats, each detail painstaking calculated and realised. Marcel Breuer lived here during his brief and unhappy period of London exile and so did the crime writer Agatha Christie; and, perhaps thanks to the propagandising efforts of the Pritchards, no one imagines that this is anything other than Bauhaus architecture on British soil. And the Palace Court block in Kensington towards the end of the decade featured clever and careful split-level planning and interior walkways, and the drawings made for it echo the contemporary graphic style of Le Corbusier (and, indeed, presage that of Ernö Goldfinger). A young Denys Lasdun had worked for Coates in the mid-1930s before joining Tecton; these things together constitute Coates’ position as a central figure in the history of British modernism.
Yet the second of the major projects, the Embassy Court flats in Brighton, tends albeit superficially towards what the satirist Osbert Lancaster called the ‘Modernistic’ style: that is, the building has the styling of the Bauhaus tempered with Art Deco, complete with a jazzy foyer mural by E. McKnight Kauffer, even if the bold rear elevation with its stack of stair balustrades looks (in an impressive photograph in this book) like a gigantic development of the same feature at Lawn Road. During this period Coates also designed a series of houses called ‘Sunspan’ for a speculative builder, which may have been modernist but which may equally have been an attempt to bring a stylish version of the modernist style to popular housing; and it is probably significant that a young employee, Patrick Gwynne, designed The Homewood, his gadget-filled house for his parents, as an employee in the Coates office.
The truth is that the answer to what kind of architect Coates really was most likely lies in works that no longer exist. His own bachelor apartment in Yeoman’s Row, near Harrods department store in London (his marriage was a short-lived one), was, in spite of its Japanesey look and details, scrupulous designed and technologically sophisticated. One of his most highly regarded projects at the time was for studios for the BBC, in his role as one of the progressive designers brought in to counteract the distinctly reactionary external architecture of the Langham Place headquarters building itself. Here Coates designed news and dramatic effects studios – which also meant that he was closely involved with the design of the equipment itself. He was, after all, an engineer with a doctorate. The technical requirements for these interiors demanded smooth, curved surfaces, as well as the neat organisation of controls to facilitate operation and editing. An architect from the dogmatic heartlands of continental modernism would have found it hard to deal with a space like this with Coates’ combination of stylish but rational flair and technical proficiency. Significantly, Coates’ most popular success was arguably the design of a circular Bakelite wireless set, the AD65, for the electrical company Ekco in the mid 1930s. It was then not as clear where the boundaries lay between the creation of functional form and the application of styling as it has appeared to recent historians; and the fact that Coates understood the technology he was dealing with adds a further level of sophistication to what he did. In fact his final significant project, the ‘Telekinema’ built for the Festival of Britain in 1951, could have provided a new and more architecturally rewarding prototype for the cinemas of the post-War era.
It didn’t, however, in spite of Coates’ efforts. Coates evidently believed that the professional establishment was against him, and was particularly aggrieved by the failure to win the commission for the BBC’s new television centre in West London. During the 1950s he prepared an escape plan: he began fostering links with Canadian organisations, and eventually, after emigrating, spent his last years making plans for unrealised company towns. Darling attributes his want of success to his dogmatic nature as much as to his lack of a native’s understanding of the nuances of Canadian politics. He seems in any case to have been a touchy man, falling out for example with the Pritchards; another writer, Fiona McCarthy, has suggested that the gruesome manner of his friend Borgeaud’s death permanently unhinged him. Sadly, the first realistic, high profile project with which he became involved, for the urban renewal of the city of Vancouver, came to a premature end when Coates died in June 1958, at the age of 62, of a heart attack.
This short, fully illustrated book is the eleventh in a series on twentieth-century British architects published by RIBA Publishing but conceived and brought to fruition by Elain Harwood and Alan Powers, the two leading writers on and promoters of twentieth-century British architecture, now joined as series editors by the Lasdun scholar Barnabas Calder. I must declare an interest: I contributed to the series two years ago as the author of a monograph on Leonard Manasseh & Partners, and I am now a member of the publications committee of the Twentieth Century Society which, in effect, is the motor for the series. But I joined this team well after Darling’s book was commissioned. The idea behind the series is that each title should be accessible to the general reader, and illustrated not only by contemporary documents and images but also by the fine new photography by James O. Davies that constitutes the contribution of English Heritage to the project. All the books are divided into short, readable chapters, and include gazetteers and a bibliography with full footnote references. In some cases (although less so here) the idea has also been to catch some first-hand reminiscences before living witnesses disappear. To date there have been three significant publications on Coates: a monograph by Sherban Cantacuzino of 1978, and two memoirs by Coates’ daughter Laura Cohen of 1979 and 1999. This new book should effortlessly succeed both of them as the primary source on the architect. Elizabeth Darling is an architectural historian at Oxford Brookes University who has specialised in the past on mid-century British modernism, interior design, and domestic space: she was thus eminently qualified to write this book and to place its subject in its full and complex context. The language is accessible, and references are broad and wisely selected. Anyone planning a visit to London to enjoy its modernist, pre-War architecture is heartily advised to take a copy of this book with them.
Cercles © 2012
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