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Wells Coates

Updated Monday 26th November 2001

His parents were missionaries - and some of their zeal can be seen in Coates' approach to architecture.

Wells Coates Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Copyright

Date:
(1895 - 1958)

 

Nationality:
Canadian

Famous Buildings:
Lawn Road Flats ("the Isokon Building"), London

Modern Living for the Modern Man

Wells Coates was born in Japan in 1895, the eldest son of Canadian missionaries. He spent his childhood in the Far East, built his most important buildings in Britain, and retired to teach in Canada, where he died in 1958. His itinerant lifestyle fitted well with the ethos of the Lawn Road Flats, his most famous building, where every effort was made to cater for the modern man who liked to live life unburdened "with permanent tangible possessions".

Wells Coates was an idealist. He would often boast of his voracious appetite for reading and learning, and frequently stressed that a rational, scientific, formulated approach to architecture was what was needed if society was to progress. Coates was a founder member of MARS (Modern Architectural Research Group), the British wing of CIAM.

He attended the famous 1933 CIAM Congress which produced the Athens Charter, and corresponded occasionally with Le Corbusier, Gropius, and other architectural giants of the time.

When MARS was founded by Wells Coates and five colleagues (among them, Maxwell Fry, architect of Kensal House) in 1933, its founding principles adhered strictly to the guiding philosophy of CIAM.

MARS would seek to: formulate contemporary architectural problems; to represent the modern architectural idea; to cause this idea to penetrate technical, economic, and social circles; and to work towards the solution of the contemporary problems of architecture.

A Future Which Must Be Planned

Wells Coates expanded his philosophy in his paper "Response to Tradition", written in 1933; "As young men, we are concerned with a Future which must be planned rather than a Past which must be patched up, at all costs… As architects of the ultimate human and material scenes of the new order, we are not so much concerned with the formal problems of style as with an architectural solution of the social and economic problems of today. And the most fundamental technique is the replacement of natural materials by scientific ones, and more particularly the development of steel and concrete construction."

However, the 1930s was a time of disappointment for many of the bright young men of Modernism. They wanted to change the world and yet commissions were few and far between. Coates saw it as his duty to keep the pure flame of Modernist doctrine burning, to formulate clearly what kind of buildings modern architects should be producing, until such time as the world caught up with their thinking.

The Lawn Road Flats

Lawn Road proved to be Wells Coates' finest achievement. Heavily influenced by Le Corbusier, it epitomised not just the new architecture of the time, but attempted to offer a new, modern way of living to its tenants. On the opening day Molly Pritchard asked the assembled crowd; "How do we want to live, what sort of framework must we build round ourselves to make that living as pleasant as possible?" The answer, Coates believed, was in his block of fully-furnished, strikingly modern apartments.

Lawn Road soon became a popular haven for intellectuals and artists, many fleeing from the new National Socialist regime in Germany. Famous refugees included Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Agatha Christie also kept an apartment in the block before the War.

But after the War, the block failed to attract a similar band of wealthy intellectual tenants. It was eventually taken over by Camden Council, and was sold in 2001 to the Notting Hill Housing Trust, which plans to renovate the block and sell eleven of the thirty-six apartments on the open market.

The rest will form part of the government's 'Key Workers' scheme, offering public sector workers a rung on the daunting London property ladder.

The Modernist Architects

 

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