Wells Coates’ dovetailing from the East and West produced a blueprint for modern architecture

Dr Elizabeth Darling gave a talk about Wells Coates at Asia House.

Dr Elizabeth Darling is pictured giving a talk about the architect Wells Coates OBE at Asia House as part of Architecture Asia

Wells Coates’ dovetailing from the East and West produced a blueprint for modern architecture

05 November 2015

By Naomi Canton

`The man whose eyes have been trained in the East will only rarely want to open them in the West’ was a favoured aphorism of Wells Coates.

The Canadian architect, famed for designing the Isokon Building, a concrete block of 34 flats in Lawn Road, Hampstead and the BBC Studio interiors, was heavily influenced by Japanese principles.

Between 1929 and 1939 Japanese motifs such as the shoji (Japanese paper room divider) and tokonama (built in recessed space) as well as Japanese aesthetic principles of minimalism, simplicity and sobriety, influenced the British buildings the Canadian expat designed. Apart from Lawn Road Flats, his buildings included Embassy Court, Brighton and Palace Gate Flats – now symbols of the Modern Movement in Britain.

It was this Japanese influence which was one of his unique attributes which propelled him to becoming a leading figure and one of the pioneers of the Modern Movement in British architecture. He founded the MARS (Modern Architectural Research) Group in the 1930s and constantly strove to bring together like-minded designers and architects to advocate more modern architecture in Britain.

Born in Tokyo in 1895 to Canadian Methodist Church Missionaries, one of six children “his parents were keen for him to experience Japanese culture. But they raised him with the expectation he would go back to Canada,” explained Dr Elizabeth Darling, a Reader in Architectural History in the Department of History, Philosophy & Religion at Oxford Brookes University, in a talk about Coates at Asia House.

There were no English-speaking schools in Japan at that time. He learnt to draw under a Japanese painting master and to use craftsman tools from Japanese architect builders, she said.

In 1913 he left Japan with his father to travel around the world and ended up back in North America where he met his extended family who lived in New York. He went back to Vancouver to study mechanical engineering at university.  In 1917 he joined the Royal Flying Corps and went to war.

After the war he returned to Canada and won a scholarship to study a PHD at Queen Mary University of London on ‘gases of the diesel engine’.

“By the mid 1920s he started to feel disillusioned by the materialistic world and started to change from being an uptight figure to hanging out in London’s progressive bohemian nightclubs such as The Cave of Harmony,” Dr Darling said.

“At this stage he was mingling with outsiders in Britain and already had that sense of not being from this place. He then decided not to be an engineer and instead to be a journalist,” she said.

For the next two to three years he wrote for newspapers like the Daily Express.

Then a turning point in his career came in 1926 when on a mature gap year in the Canadian Rockies, the friend he was with was killed falling off a freight train they were riding.

“He was deeply traumatised by this and went back to the UK to start afresh. This acted as catalyst to end his peripatetic work.  That is when the architecture starts,” she said.

“So there is a 17-year gap between him leaving Japan and becoming a well-known Modernist architect,” she said.

Coates had met his wife Marion Charnier Grove at the Cave of Harmony “who also had her own experience of non-Western upbringing. She was raised in China as father was chief engineer on railway being built and she moved to UK aged 10 to go to boarding school,” Dr Darling added. It was a “tempestuous love affair” but they got married.

It was when Coates redesigned his bachelor bedsit into a marital home that he decided his vocation was not journalism, but architecture. “The bedsit becomes a sparse plain setting and impressed his friends,” Dr Darling said. Through that network he got his first major commission to redesign a silk shop in Silver Street Cambridge selling silks for a manufacturing firm called Crysede Silks.

“The shop design was described as particularly elegant and making a contribution to the architecture of the street that till then had been rather dowdy,” explained Dr Darling.

“Then the boss had a nervous breakdown and decided to sack everyone he had brought on board. He sacked Coates and one of the partners Tom Heron.  But what seemed a blow turned into a blessing,” she said. “Heron was galvanised by the sacking and decided to set up his own company Cresta Silks and decided Coates would be his second-in command.  Heron gave Coates the task of designing the interior of a new factory in Welwyn Garden City factory followed by a series of retail stores mostly in London and the South Coast. The first store opened in 1930 opposite Harrods on Brompton Road.”

In 1930 Coates wrote a letter to his mother in Japan. “In that Coates wrote that the quiet, sober classical culture of Japan gave him the sense and perhaps sensibility to do ‘his appointed job in the west’,” Dr Darling said.

His Japanese, Chinese and Eastern outlook had enabled him to reach this point of practice, he wrote in the letter.  He also wrote that Japanese rooms were quiet, distinguished and beautiful but at the same time liveable, convenient and efficient.

Next his friend the painter Paul Nash got him a commission to design the BBC Studio interiors. As that was nearing completion Coates was asked to write an autobiography. He opened it with a clear statement: that he was born in Japan. “Coates was always keen to attribute the development of this architectural language to the fact that he had been born and brought up in Japan, leaving only in 1913,” Dr Darling explained.

“Japan is very central to how Coates understands what he does,” she said. “It can be seen in the formal language of his architecture.  The persona he developed is a sense of coming from a distance (from being born in Japan) and then moving across the globe, so he came to things afresh. Being a Modernist allowed him to do things other architects maybe did not feel the freedom to do.

“It was not just Japan which made him an architect and allowed him to achieve what he did – rather it was a process of synthesis which allowed him to become an architect. He refers to a dovetailing of his background of Japanese culture, his early Eastern training and its synthesis with his Western scientific training and the blending of those two things which allowed him to become the remarkable architect he did,” she said.

It was over the next two years from 1930 that Coates developed his Eastern outlook to his work. “That became a narrative in his talks and writing about how the East (which he eventually refines just to the Japanese) had shaped him,” Dr Darling said.

In 1932 Nash noted the work of Wells Coates in his articles. He wrote about Coates’ training being inspired by his Japanese childhood and early training at hands of Japanese. He made a link between Coates’ Japanese experience and his set of values, she said.

Dr Darling said that Wells Coates OBE used Japanese motifs such as shoji and tokonama in his British designs.

Wells Coates used Japanese motifs such as shoji and tokonama as well as principles of simplicity in his British designs owing to having been born in Tokyo

In 1934 Coates designed the well-known Lawn Road flats in Belsize Park which was his largest project and represented a new way of urban professional living. “It was very tightly designed minimal dwellings for modern urban professionals in a concrete frame.  It was quite a simple design, but beautifully done,” Dr Darling said. “He took the Japanese principles of calmness and used shoji (sliding screens) to open and close a space. It was ‘one room living’ with furniture with a built in heater and cocktail cabinet at the end,” she said. “He followed the principles of streamlined rooms with no clutter and no overcrowding, creating the rooms around the people, and not the display.”

He disliked “barbaric” paraphernalia and overloading in rooms that people had in the West then, she said. Indeed he wrote: “how rarely is a European aware that a room exists for a man and not vice versa and that he not the curtain or picture should be given the best possible setting.”

In 1932 Coates was invited to form the English chapter of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM). This international gathering for modernist architects became MARS, a group of 30 architects, planners, engineers and academics, which Coates co-founded.

“That became an important gathering point for Modernists in the 1930s and after the war became the focus for the rethinking of Modernism across Europe,” she said.

But after 1939 his Japanese narrative in his work diminished.

“During WWII he doesn’t talk about it all – it was his technical prowess he talked about. He wanted to become part of the war effort – to work on bomber plane designs and be in the RAF. Then after the war he wanted to resume his place as a leader of Modernists and emphasised his pioneer work in the 1930s, but he had no success so went back to Canada and doesn’t mention his Japanese influences anymore, rather his Canadian genealogy,” she said.

Nevertheless the “dovetailing from the East and West produced a blueprint for modern architecture that would be equally influential and inspirational on subsequent generations,” she concluded.


This talk was part of our Architecture Asia series. To find out more about upcoming events in this series click here. 

On 18 November British-Iranian architect Omid Kamvari will discuss the role of architecture in the 21st Century city. To book tickets click here.

As part of the Architecture Asia series, Omid Kamvari, has co-curated a multi-disciplinary exhibition exploring novel approaches to occupying and utilising cities as well as the unused and unrealised potential within them, bringing together works from a range of architects based in the Middle-East and the UK. The exhibition Latent Urbanism is open between 11 November and 18 November in the Asia House Gallery and is free admission. For more information click here.