One of the pioneers of the emergence of the modern movement in British architecture and design during the 1930s, Wells Coates (1895-1958) also developed innovative approaches to housing design, notably in Lawn Road flats, as well as electrical products, broadcasting studios and yachts.
“Society today is in a real state of transition,” stated Wells Wintemute Coates. “We are living in an age when a new architecture is not only possible but necessary. As architects of a new order, we should be concerned with an architectural solution of social and economic problems.”
As the architect of Lawn Road flats, Wells Coates built one of London’s earliest most influential modern apartment blocks. Passionate about all things technical and mechanical, he also designed radios, electrical heaters, televisions, broadcasting studios, cinemas and even yachts. Coates was a founding member of two important artistic movements of the period: MARS, the Modern Architectural Research Group and Unit One, an exhibiting group of progressive painters and architects.
A stylish figure, Coates drove a Lancia Lambda, cooked eastern cuisine for his guests and sat comfortably in the lotus position. Yet, like so many of his generation, his early potential was halted abruptly by the outbreak of World War II in 1939. By the time the war ended the opportunity for Britain to embrace the social and political ideals of 1930s modernism had gone.
Born in 1895 in Tokyo, where his parents were Methodist missionaries, Wells Coates was deeply affected by his childhood and education in Asia. It gave him a distinct approach to architecture and design, but also, in later life, a sense of alienation – of being different.
Coates concluded his early years with an ambitious world tour taken with his father and tutor on which they travelled to China, India, Egypt and many European countries, ending up in Canada where he enrolled to study engineering at the University of Vancouver. After completing his studies there, Coates was awarded a grant for research in engineering at London University. He then secured a job as a sub-editor with the Daily Mail newspaper.
By the late 1920s the “modern” style was being adopted by some British shops to set them apart from the rest of the high street. Architects were occasionally commissioned to design entirely new stores, such as Simpson’s in Piccadilly or Peter Jones on Sloane Square, but most were refurbishments of existing buildings like Coates’ first design job to redesign a shop in Cambridge in 1928 for Crysede silks for which he standardised the shopfittings using plywood. The following year one of the partners in Crysede Tom Heron left to found a new company Cresta Silks. He commissioned Coates to design the interior of a new factory in Welwyn Garden City and then shop fronts and interiors for shops in London, Bournemouth, Bromley and Brighton. Coates produced cupboards, shelves, benches and tables for the interiors as well as the original cubic CRESTA lettering. Often he used the then-new materials of glass, plywood and steel.
In 1930 Coates was commissioned by the BBC, then a young organisation which took an interest in modern design. The BBC invited Coates along with fellow progressive designers, Raymond McGrath and Serge Chermayeff, to design studio interiors, equipment and furnishings. His work for the BBC included a control room, dramatic effects studios; news studios and a news editor’s lobby. One of Coates’ pieces of technical furniture became a BBC standard: a suspended microphone on a counterbalanced arm that enabled the microphone to be moved to any part of the studio, while remaining perfectly balanced.
Coates’ design emphasised the functional and his desire to reduce – materials, components or costs. Coupled with his aesthetic sense, this practical starting point, possibly stemming from his engineering background, made his designs successful. One of his most productive working relationships was with the plastic moulding firm E. K. Cole and Son, which initiated a competition for wireless cabinets in 1932. Entries were submitted by Serge Chermayeff, Raymond McGrath, Jesse Collins, Misha Black and Wells Coates, who won with the only circular design which was marketed as the AD 65 in 1934.
The design showed complete understanding of the components and function of a wireless, incorporating a circular loud speaker. It also exploited the properties of Bakelite, which, unlike wood, could be moulded into new forms, and was considerably cheaper to produce thereby fulfilling Coates desire for “purpose related to purse”. In 1937 he designed several varieties of the Thermovent electric fire for Ekco, all produced in brown or black plastic. After the war he continued to design for Ekco as well as working on industrial design commissions for De Havilland, BOAC and EMI. In a lecture Coates described the three dimensions of design: “the dimensions of human beings which have always determined the dimension of things; the dimensions of things – components and elements – which have to be studied in their own right; and last, the dimensions of human beings doing or using things – the dynamic rather than the static dimensions”.
Wells Coates’ first major architectural commission was for the industrialist Jack Pritchard and his wife Molly. They had first seen Coates’ work in plywood for the Cresta shops, when Jack was the British representative of Venesta, an Estonian manufacturer of plywood. In 1929, they asked Coates to produce designs for a house for themselves, followed by another house and a nursery. The Pritchards then commissioned Coates to design a new block of flats in Lawn Road, Hampstead based on Le Corbusier’s studies for the “minimum dwelling”.
Early on in the project Coates experimented with unit living and standardisation. This is reflected in the name of the company set up to build the flats – Isokon, or Isometric unit construction. When his first designs for a small number of single and double-storey houses failed to secure planning permission, Coates went back to the idea of the “minimum flat”, which he had first worked on in 1931. A mock-up of one of these flats was unveiled in summer 1933 at the exhibition of British Industrial Art in Relation to the Home at Dorland Hall.
In 1934 Lawn Road flats opened as a four-storey block of 29 apartments. Aimed at young professionals the flats were made of reinforced concrete with dramatically cantilevered sculptured stairways and access galleries. Coates felt that furniture should be an integral part of architecture and all essential furniture and equipment was built-in. Each flat included a sliding table, a divan with a spring mattress and cover, a radiator, linoleum floor finish, light fittings, a wash basin with a mirror and a glass shelf, a hanging cupboard with a long mirror, a dressing table with drawers and cupboards beneath, an electric cooker, refrigerator, sink and draining board, refuse container and cupboard space.
The original services included hot water and central heating, cleaning and bed making with meals provided in a central kitchen. The kitchen was replaced in 1937 the Isobar, a bar designed by Marcel Breuer that became a centre of Hampstead intellectual life and a magnet for newly arrived refugees from central Europe. Walter Gropius, founding director of the Bauhaus arrived in England in October 1934 and stayed at Lawn Road with his wife Ise until they left for the US in 1937, as did Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy. Never had reinforced concrete been used on this scale for a domestic building in Britain and Coates’ notion of the “minimum flat” was a practical realisation of Le Corbusier’s ideal of the “machine for living in”.
An idealist and enthusiast, Coates embraced the opportunity to engage with like-minded men and women across Europe. In 1933 he co-founded the MARS group of 30 architects, planner, engineers and academics to represent Britain at the influential Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne. Coates was one of the MARS Group members to attend the famous fourth CIAM congress in 1933 on a ship moored off the coast of Athens, attended by Le Corbusier, Gropius and Alva Aalto. MARS organised two exhibitions to raise awareness of modern architecture in Britain in 1937 and 1938.
Coates took his experiments with the “minimum flat” further with his own flat at 18 Yeoman Row, Knightsbridge. At one end of a large open plan living room with very high ceilings he built a wall of window and at the other end two bedrooms were positioned above the kitchen and bathroom to be reached by boat-like ladders. One of the beds sat on a plinth of glass bricks which fed light into the bathroom below. There were no sofas, but Coates created a hearth area covered with tatami mats and contained by shelving surrounding an electric fire. The possibility of providing so many services in such a limited space makes this flat particularly pertinent for today’s cramped urban living.
Perhaps Coates’ most overlooked achievement in his development of the urban flat was his design of the three-two planning system. Used to great effect at 10 Palace Gate, Kensington, a block of flats designed for the developer Randal Bell and completed in 1939, this gave greater spatial variety to each apartment. It enabled the sitting rooms to be larger with higher ceilings, while bedrooms, bathrooms, service rooms and corridors were smaller in scale.
During World War II, Coates served with the RAF. After the war he presented a quarter full-size model of the Wingsail Catamaran he had designed at the 1946 Britain Can Make It exhibition, and then designed the Telekinema for the 1951 Festival of Britain with a glass-walled projection room to enable the public to see the workings. Yet his post-war career was full of projects which were developed but seldom realised. This caused severe financial difficulties for Coates, who was obliged to accept a teaching position at Harvard Graduate School in 1955. This year-long post was not renewed and Coates moved to Vancouver where he worked on a report into mass rapid transit systems for the British Columbia Electric Company. Coates died in Canada in the summer of 1958 when developing Project ’58, an Urban Design for the Central Area – Downtown Business district for exhibition during the British Columbia Centennial celebrations.
An intense and energetic man, Coates experimented continuously with architecture and design. His idealism drove him to pursue projects that seldom offered financial rewards and were often abandoned. Despite his lack of realised work after World War II, Coates’ achievements as a champion of modern architecture, his work to create relevant architecture for a changing society and his success as a product designer make him stand out as a unique spirit in the vibrant period of the birth of modernism in Britain.
1895 Born in Tokyo, Japan as the eldest son of Canadian missionaries.
1913 Embarks on a Grand Tour with his father and tutor, visiting China, Java, Burma, India, Egypt, Europe, the United States and Canada. Enrols on the engineering course at the University of Vancouver, British Columbia.
1915 Interrupts his studies to serve in the army during World War I with the Second Division of Canadian Gunners and later the 66 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps.
1919 Resumes his engineering studies.
1922 Moves to London as an engineering research student at London University and produces a thesis on the Gases of the Diesel Engine.
1924 Joins the Daily Express newspaper as a sub-editor.
1927 Marries Marion Grove.
1928 Secures his first interior design commissions for Crysede Silks and Cresta Silks. For the next few years he designs shop fronts and interiors, where he uses his d-handle for the first time.
1929 After meeting Jack and Molly Pritchard, Coates starts work on the designs for Lawn Road flats.
1930 Birth of the Coates’ only daughter Laura.
1931 Designs broadcasting studios for the BBC.
1933 Sets up an architectural partnership with David Pleydell-Bouverie. Attends the CIAM congress off the coast of Athens.
1934 Unveils the first Sunspan house at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition in Olympia, London.
1934 Exhibits with Unit One at the Mayor Gallery in London. The exhibition then tours to Liverpool, Manchester, Hanley, Derby, Swansea and Belfast.
1934 Starts a long collaboration with the electronics manufacturer E.K Cole and designs the EKCO radio AD65. Completion of Lawn Road flats.
1935 Converts the top floor of 18 Yeoman’s Row in Knightsbridge, London into a studio flat for himself.
1936 Designs Embassy Court, a block of flats in Brighton.
1938 Co-founds the MARS Group as the British wing of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne.
1939 Designs a block of flats at 10 Palace Gate in Kensington, London.
1940 Serves with the Royal Air Force and works on the design of fighter aircraft.
1946 Designs a 16-ft catamaran, the Wingsail.
1950 Designs the Telekinema for the Festival of Britain. It later becomes the National Film Theatre.
1954 Designs for a 30-ft yawl, Fey Loong, which is launched the following year.
1955 Starts two years of teaching at Harvard Graduate School in the US.
1956 Moves to Canada.
1958 Wells Coates dies of a heart attack in Vancouver, Canada.
Sherban Cantacuzino, Wells Coates – A Monograph, Gordon Fraser, 1978
Laura Cohn, Wells Coates: Architect & Designer 1895-1955, Oxford Polytechnic Press, 1979
Laura Cohn, The Door to a Secret Room: A Portrait of Wells Coates, Ashgate, 1999
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run in collaboration by the Design Museum and the British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain