Autumn 2004

Predation and consumption: adrift in ecstacity

Guide to Ecstacity

Nigel Coates; Design: Why Not Associates; Laurence King Publishing, £35

Architects with ambition rarely restrict their interests to only single buildings, or buildings in a group, but rather seek to shape the wider surroundings, typically with visionary zeal. For Nigel Coates, an articulation of the (urban) environment, often as a extension of his eccentric buildings, has proved integral to his work since the 1980s. Early ideas were formulated under the aegis of the NATO (Narrative Architecture Today) collaborative, particularly in the pages of its magazine, and later brought together as the imagined ‘Ecstacity’ in exhibitions of the early 1990s and at the 2000 Venice Biennale. They now take book form as Guide to Ecstacity.

Ecstacity, the place, is parts of seven cities (Cairo, London, Mumbai [Bombay], New York, Rio, Rome and Tokyo) conjoined and intertwined. Its complexity is difficult to paraphrase, but as Coates writes: ‘half-real and half-imaginary, Ecstacity builds on the increasingly global outlook of existing cities … it partners a fluid architecture of hybrids with the information world we already inhabit … it invests the everyday with conflations of scale, of story, of emotion, replacing institutional power with shared grounds of identity and desire’. Guide to Ecstacity is a visitor’s guide whose six sections – with Leary-esque names like ‘tuning in’, ‘locking on’ and ‘flipping out’ – ‘frame an experiential interface with the city’. Each section simulates the features and shifting dynamics of Ecstacity and its population of Ecstacitizens, and together help the visitor ‘read’ and ‘write’ the city’s sensuous, branded, information-rich narrative.

Coates’s strategy – a not unimaginative one in the tradition of the architect’s monograph – is to draw together, as ink and paper, his separate projects, built and hypothetical, and to project these outward into a radically interleaved world city. They are situated within a stream of particular and incidental details that suggest the city as a plausible entity and encourage the suspension of disbelief. Ecstacity allows Coates to re-align failed or forgettable schemes (e.g. the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield; the Millennium Dome’s ‘Body Zone’ in London), and elaborate on those that are otherwise circumscribed by realities of site and structure. It also means he can recruit other architects and designers working along similar lines into his construct.

To Coates’s credit, Guide to Ecstacity is candidly declared as a collaboration with David Ellis of Why Not Associates; their goal: an immersive experience in which readers ‘navigate [their] route between the ideas, and … explore [Ecstacity’s] spaces and places as if [they] were really in them.’ As Coates tells it, they attempted ‘a matrix of interrelations within the space defined by the edges, the gutter, the explicit symmetry of the folded paper, and the contiguous nature of the spreads. We joined up dissimilar images, put one picture inside another, or blurred them as if registered in the same moment. We want[ed] to escalate the combined effect of text, image and page as if it were a paradigm for architecture.’ If to graphic designers such descriptions seem commonplace, the approach clearly resonates with other channels of Coates’s practice and, to be sure, it’s a welcome change to hear of graphic design as architecture’s paradigm, rather than the reverse.

Predictably, given Coates’s aims and the habits of the Why Nots, montage is the principal visual effect, bring together texts, photos, diagrams, scribbles and much else. Their ‘blending’ (a Coatesian concept derived from the use of Photoshop) serves both as an analogue for various synthetic concepts such as ‘cross-programme’, ‘graining’ or ‘hypology’ (each defined in Coates’s idiosyncratic ‘hyperglossary’) and as a vehicle for the indeterminacy, multiple readings and shared functions that abound in Ecstacity. The result is a spatial flow of images and sensations of an often indefinite kind that deflect rigorous scrutiny. Each spread is a relentlessly vibrant surface that, within a largely unvarying page structure, gives few clues as to scale or pace relative to the book as a whole. This is also the case with much of Coates’s prose, its spangled and contorted vocabulary and grammatical effects resisting penetration and producing instead only an unchecked narrative stream that can seem without direction, intention or proportion.

There is a link here, if indirect, to Coates’s preoccupation with disorientation as a constituent of the transcendent ecstatic moment and the visceral erotic encounter. Appropriately, a baroque theme runs throughout Guide to Ecstacity (St. Theresa makes several appearances), its tropes of energised surface and elastic space a suitable referent for Coates’s ‘vital spatiality’ and the Why Nots’ digital manipulations. But like the counterpoint of material excess evoked by many things baroque, the book-object itself is corpulent and gross, its glossy stock and faux-silk place-holder encased in a vinyl cover of metallic blue and bronze, blind embossed with an Ecstacity map and stamped with black and silver-foil letters, the whole wrapped in a pastiche luggage tag-cum-belly band.

Guide to Ecstacity is, conceptually and visually, both recondite and obvious, subtle and camp, muscular and fey, in Coates’s formulation: ‘full-on’. It is struck through with complexities and contradictions that are, in any case, intrinsic to Ecstacity the place and to the lineage of postmodern thought in architecture and literary theory that the book builds on but also leaves far behind. When one really sees into or through its conceits, Ecstacity’s transforming possibilities are indeed exhilarating. But progress over the book’s 464 heaving pages is also somewhat depressing. The expectations of the Ecstacity visitor, set against a backdrop of vaguely menacing exotica, seem to narrow into a narcissistic pleasure-seeking unlikely to bring much to the life of the city other than predation and consumption. This impression is probably not the one Coates (and Ellis) intended, but it might be the one some visitors leave with.

Eric Kindel, designer, writer, lecturer

First published in Eye no. 53 vol. 14, 2004

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