Monday, 7 August 2017

Exploring radical architectural group NATØ

Earlier this year, Routledge published my monograph on the last radical architectural group of the 20th century – NATØ, Narrative Architecture Today. My book, titled NATØ: Narrative Architecture in Postmodern London, sets out a detailed, contextual history of the group, told through photographs, drawings, and ephemera. NATØ never built together, so this is an architectural history without buildings – and I argue that architectural production is constituted as much by the drawings, texts, models and exhibitions by architects as it is by built works.

NATØ portrait by Sheila Rock, 1985. L to R: Peter Fleissig, Melanie Sainsbury, Catrina Beevor, Mark Prizeman, 
Christina Norton, Carlos Villanueva Brandt, 
Martin Benson, Nigel Coates, Robert Mull

NATØ emerged from the Architectural Association, where they studied under Nigel Coates. Coates and his students developed an approach to architecture that drew on fashion, television, music, video and nightclubs – very much in opposition to the more serious and inward-looking work happening elsewhere in the school. Indeed, they formed following the dramatic failure of the cohort by AA external examiners James Stirling and Ed Jones in 1983, who deemed their work little more than a ‘bunch of cartoons’. Initially conceived around the production of a magazine, NATØ went on to produce several exhibitions together, alongside three issues of NATØ, disbanding in 1987 following a major installation at the Boston Institute for Contemporary Art. Their approach was emphatically against the professional mainstream of architecture, both in discourse and in terms of practice. They sought an audience in the fields of fashion and design more broadly, aligning themselves with magazines such as The Face and iD. Indeed, NATØ aimed to ‘destroy the notion of the profession’ and ‘travel over the frontier and join the rest outside architecture’ – envisioning a city made by its inhabitants, without the top-down imposition of design by professionals. In their ‘apprentice’ character NATØ described an individual who somewhat ambiguously both discredits and becomes the professional: ‘From now on none of us, and yet all of us, will be professionals’. They imagined a street-savvy, creative individual who can make or alter their surroundings in the same way they would modify or customise their clothing, self-publish or record their fanzine or punk demo, and weld furniture from found materials.

Invitation to the first NATØ meeting, from Nigel Coates to Mark Prizeman (1983)

NATØ issues 1-3, magazine covers (1983-85)

Tracing the formation of the group at the AA, my book examines the evolution of Coates's unit, including his formative years alongside Bernard Tschumi between 1974-80, before investigating NATØ's short period of activity between 1983-87 across the media of drawing, publishing and exhibiting. I had access to a fascinating body of archival material from the period, held primarily in the private collections of the NATØ members, which is published for the first time in my book. The book is structured around these three core outputs – examining first the drawings, then the magazines and finally the installations. Through the analysis of these archival materials, the book explores NATØ’s preoccupation with narrative, drawing terms and definitions from narratology into architectural discourse for the first time to develop a new vocabulary of architectural narrativity.

NATØ, Gamma City exhibition at the Air Gallery (1985)
Objects from NATØ's Gamma City, left: 'Soft Chandeliers' by Catrina Beevor; right: 'Totem' by Carlos Villanueva Brandt (1985)

Catrina Beevor, ‘Terminal Culture (an english landscape)’ from Heathrow exhibition, ICA Boston (1987)    

Carlos Villanueva Brandt, 'Heathrow' from Heathrow exhibition, ICA Boston (1987)        

Part of the importance in telling the story of NATØ is the restoration of a more complete account of postmodernism, with the book reinstating one of the many contours of the inherently multifaceted field. The book contributes to the growing body of literature that is recuperating postmodernism from the often-reductive discourses that pervade writing on architecture. My contemporary re-reading of postmodernism through NATØ's work avoids the simplifying definitions of architectural postmodernism that have focused on the stylised, two-dimensional modes of pastiche historicism. Instead, NATØ’s provides a case study of architectural postmodernism that prioritised the pleasure and creative potential of the complex and chaotic, avoiding reduction to surface decoration in favour of rich, narrativised experience.

Finally, the book also describes a specific urban milieu: 1980s London. Contextualising NATØ’s work from a spatial, social, political and cultural perspective, I align the group with the street subcultures of the period, discovering parallels between their approach and the work of contemporaneous filmmakers, graphic designers, product designers and fashion designers working in London. Indeed, the specific state of post-industrialising London and its urban decay forms an integral part of understanding the work of both NATØ and their contemporaries – an idea I expand upon in the book.

I will be building on some of the ideas developed in the book in my paper ‘DIY and disorder: NATØ’s approach to making and materiality’ for the Design History Society Conference at the University of Oslo in September 2017. In March 2018, my TVAD Talk will explore the work of product designers including Ron Arad, Tom Dixon’s Creative Salvage group and Daniel Weil whose work echoes many of NATØ’s preoccupations.

Dr. Claire Jamieson is lecturer in Critical and Contextual Studies for BA Architecture and BA Interior Architecture and Design at University of Hertfordshire.