The nine London-based members of Narrative Architecture Today have immense designs on us all. Over bottles of San Miguel in one of Soho’s poky underground bars, they are talking big concepts and I soon see why the abbreviation NATO is preferred to the insectile NAT. But why is the last letter imported from the Danish alphabet? ‘The globe on it’s axis‘, coolly explains Carlos Villanueva. Well what other symbol for this group’s far-reaching aspirations? NATO has plunged into the stagnant puddle of the city and hope their ideas will spread like concentric ripples. No patch escapes unruffled - all the bits and pieces of our environment are needed to revitalise the urban scene. As Nigel Coates, the group’s mentor, proclaims: ‘Tape decks, disc drives and VTRs have outgrown their status as commodities. They’re spare parts of the architecture of our daily lives.’
Members of NATO are certainly not the only ones to despise the purely functional and to condemn the sterility ofour cities. But what kind
of antidote is advocated by their
current exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery? Is Gamma City little more than a collection ofcleverly constructed junk with a few hi-tech elements like video screens thrown in for contemporary flavouring? Radicals usually destroy the old order to make way for a new system. NATO’s solution however is not to pull down yesterday’s mistakes, but to use what is already there and to use it subversively. It reminds me of a late-night visit to Moscow‘s State University. The building is an ugly tribute to the Stalinist view of the individual: huge marble corridors swallow up space, while students live in rooms the size of broom-cupboards with ﬂimsy partition walls. Feeling ant-like, I
? crept along the corridor when
1 suddenly I heard music and loud
voices - some people had dragged make-shift tables laden with food and vodka into the hall and were dancing under Lenin‘s nose. Similarly NATO aims to hi-jack the dead spaces and hold impromptu parties all over the city. They are
i thinking of ‘city life as a patchwork
of events’ and by turning ‘obsolescent structures into local
dynamos’, NATO hopes to restore a
' sense ofcommunity and create
exciting fusions between public and private domains.
However Coates’ ‘intermediary architecture poised to refurbish rather than rebuild’ is perhaps more to do with pragmatics than with choice. After all, most young architects are doing conversion jobs 'or working on parts of large projects under supervision. Designing a building entails a bewildering number of factors like strict budgeting, planning restraints and client interference. Architecture is simply the most expensive form of self-expression there is, and the high cost insurance premiums forced on less experienced practitioners can be prohibitive. Therefore a lot of excess
ﬂcrgy is channelled into theory and 4 The List 2— ism H
Lucy Ash meets an alliance of new architects and asks if there is any substance to their high ideals. Photograph by David Banks.
’ the hot bed ofit all. the international
forum ofideas, is the Architectural
Association(AA)where NATO was I
born. At the AA, Britain’s only
- independent school ofarchitecture,
teaching is organised in units and
within these some tutors assume a
guru-like status. Now four NATO
members, including Coates. are AA - tutors: ‘We are supposed to be the
v naughty boys, but they‘re now
paying us to inﬂuence a new set of
students‘, observes Villanueva triumphantly. NATO was formed in the summer of 1983 following a row over a final year project submitted by Coates’ Diploma Unit 10. James
1 Stirling, the external examiner.
objected to project Albion. based on i a Bermondsey site because he felt it
could never be built. This is the
crucial issue - the drawings and models in Gamma City cannot be
read as blueprints. However they are
supposed to generate a fresh awareness of the cityscape. ‘Now built architecture is further from our experience than ever - but experience is far more architectural', - the NATO 3 magazine. which doubles as the exhibition catalogue. In fact magazines are the life-blood ofNATO because narrative architecture is really a literary concept. All too often this approach
leads to irritating pretentiousness: ‘Our allusions make micro landmarks in dynamic
tensions .... ..how perfectly can a chair respond to the ubiquitous tribal beat?‘ The list could go on and on but Pseuds Corner would have to move into a warehouse to accommodate it all. Maybe NATO is the architectural equivalent of Sigue Sigue Sputnik - all hype and no substance.
‘Build-in fictional gestures and narrative side-steps’ urges Coates. but words cannot be trusted to replace or dramatically alter things. Windows made ofwitticisms and staircases of similies look a bit silly and are bound to fall down. Some of the artefacts in Gamma City display a wonderfully inventive use of materials, such as Mark Prizeman’s Leather Table, with bandaged legs standing on bullets or Catrina Beevor‘s Seaweed Chandalier made of surgical tubes. Yes we all want ‘sensual architecture, architecture which stimulates' but nothing will persuade me that a lamp or table, however intriguing, are somehow solutions to the urban crisis.
The current vogue for butch names like NATO and NASA (not the US space programme but the National Association of Student Architects) suggest that young architects yearn
for something substantial. However solid imagery is one thing and solid buildings quite another. Terrible things can happen when intricate
plans reach the fight - what if brilliant N
theories eventually deliver a boring grey lump barely distinguishable from its neighbours. Buildings are frightening because of their permanence, their solidity. NATO’s Peter Fleissig plans to side-step this dilemma by designing a building with moving parts; apparently the work is still in early stages. His approach seems typical of NATO - the most important thing is not to be boring, to stay on the move, never mind the coherence. NATO members feel that by working on group projects they curtail individual self-indulgence. They are fond ofstressing their corporate diversity. ‘We are all very different, doing different things’, says Fleissig, ‘we are like a microcosm of a successful city.’ Self-reliance seems closely allied to the DIY ethos - NATO encourages people to personalise their environment by using whatever comes to hand, and salvages materials from urban scrap-heaps. This approach suggests that building is now easy and accessible. Villanueva, however, is anxious to stress two things: firstly, low-tech materials are no excuse for slapdash craftsmanship. A little piqued, he says his charred wooden joists supporting TV sets are ‘not junk - they were very carefully burned.’ Secondly, NATO are not using cheap everyday materials for the sake of artistic democracy: ‘The defence that fuels architectural experimentalism works contentedly within the confines set up by bourgeois society and does in no try to create a new political reality.’ This statement makes me wonder whether there is any connection between Gamma City and the separate daily practices of NATO’s members. How does Prizeman for example reconcile his Gunfetish Club or bizarre table with his job at a ‘very traditional’ firm of interior decorators where he designs £200,000 garden pavillions? Melanie Sainsbury, who concedes that ‘there will probably never be the right market forces to get Gamma City built’, is now making do with a conversion ofShirely Conran's five storey house in Regents Park. ‘I don’t feel I’m being schizophrenic’ she says, ‘my work in NATO has taught me a tremendous amount about how to generate ideas, how to create layers of meaning in a building’. Coates’ refurbished Tokyo restaurant sneaks in some doors recycled from demolition sites and a couple of anarchic columns which rest on the entrance canopy instead ofholding it up. However, are they not merely tinkering with the surface of things? Does this whole critique of the urban scene ultimately boil down to some wacky detailing in a posh restaurant or designer kitchen? Maybe it is too early to judge NATO but it would be depressing if so much energy and inventiveness produces nothing more substantial.