Wells Coates by Elizabeth Darling, RIBA Publishing 2012

“Wells Coates” is a fascinating new book on the architect of Embassy Court. Painstakingly researched, wonderfully illustrated and immensely readable, this book takes us from Coates’ youth in Japan, to his last great building at the Festival of Britain, and beyond. It is both a portrait of the man and a broad ranging reappraisal of his work.

For many of us who live at Embassy Court, Wells Coates is our architect. He is someone whose work we live with every day. But getting to know him has always been difficult. Until now, there were only two books about him. And his huge influence on architecture and design in the modern era has been recognised only by a select band of enthusiastic architects and designers, and by writers who have had the patience and determination to sift through archival materials scattered across two continents. What a pleasure it is, therefore, to read this intelligent and insightful new book on this visionary architect by Elizabeth Darling. .

The man that emerges from Darling’s book is more than we expect, charming and infuriating, brilliant, uncompromising and driven – almost to the point of destruction. She shows us a restless, radical outsider, whose capacious mind was formed in Japan, trained in engineering and tuned both in the outback of Canada and among the bohemian intellectuals and artists in London’s Fitzrovia of the 1920s and 30s.

Darling assesses all of Coates’ buildings including the less well-known houses such as Shipwrights in Leigh-on-Sea and Homewood in Esher. And there is considerable space given to Coates’ interiors and his designs for ordinary items. It is easy to forget that Coates designed for a transformation of everyday life, and that some of these things, such as his Ekco Model 65 Radio, which were at first so radical, became so successful, so natural and commonplace, that that they came to stand as symbols for the whole period.

Rather like Coates himself, Darling’s engaging and readable style traverses boundaries with ease. She writes on social, historical, architectural and theoretical matters with great clarity and a good measure of common sense. The book is hopefully destined for a reasonably wide readership, but students of several disciplines will find the book very well annotated with an impressive array of sources and with a useful bibliography and general reading.

But what emerges most of all from this book, is the skill, passion, energy and commitment which Coates brought to the formation of a modern movement in Britain. As Elizabeth Darling concludes, it is impossible to overstate his importance in this alone. He showed the way for a great many architects and designers who followed. In no small measure it is his work and his influence that helped to define what “modern” actually meant.

At 154 pages this might be a tad short to be considered the final definitive work on this subject. But who will quibble over that? Elizabeth Darling has written what may well turn out to be the best work on Wells Coates for some very considerable time to come.

Available locally at City Books, 23 Western Road Hove.

Wells Coates by Elizabeth Darling is published jointly by RIBA Publishing, The Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage.

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