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Penniless perfectionist

review: The Door to a Secret Room: A Portrait of Wells Coates by Laura Cohn. Scolar Press,1999. 240pp. £25

Wells Coates (right) is remembered for his 1934 circular Ekco bakelite radio, his 1928 D-handle for Cresta shops, and for two London buildings - the Lawn Road flats which have lasted badly, and 10 Palace Gate which has lasted magnificently. In the post-war years, when the lonely pioneers of ciam and the mars Group reaped their reward in publicly-funded commissions for housing and schools, Coates did one London building, the Telekinema for the 1951 exhibition, which became the National Film Theatre and was then demolished.

He died, penniless, in Vancouver in 1958, a disappointed man. In this elegantly composed and evocatively illustrated book, his daughter unravels his story with complete fairness to all those friends with whom her devoted father quarrelled. Her account of his relations with his clients, Jack and Mollie Pritchard, is a miniature Honeywood File, but the undertow is always Coates' shortage of cash. In everything he did he was a perfectionist, driving people mad by design refinements when construction was under way. And the merest hint that a commission was possible would lead him to assume that he had a client.

Coates was the child of Canadian Methodist missionaries in Japan and when Gropius visited that country in 1952 he wrote to Coates that 'the old Japanese house is the most modern in conception I know of - a real revelation for me.' After Coates had died, Gropius explained to Laura Cohn: 'I wish you could have been with us when he visited us after we had just returned from Japan. It was as if a door to a secret room had suddenly been opened and he became more and more entranced after our remarks about Japanese culture had started a whole reaction in himself. His deep tenderness for his early Oriental experiences made him really glow.'

Cohn sees the influence of the Japanese catamarans of his childhood on the revolutionary 16-foot Wingsail catamaran which he launched in 1948 and which, as boats always do for their owners, added to his mountain of debts. And it was in aj 4.11.31 that he illustrated plans and sections of a Japanese 'dwelling of the first class'. Once seen, this shows the influences at work in his remodelling of 34 Gordon Square for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, in his own flat at 18 Yeoman's Row in Chelsea, and above all, in Lawn Road and Palace Gate.

Wells Coates really belongs in the novels of Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell. He had 'lacerating' wartime experiences in France in 1916-18, a disastrous journey through the Rockies in the 1920s in which his companion (riding the rails on freight trains) was killed, a glamorous London life in the 1930s when he couldn't pay his daughter's school bills at Dartington - and a long love affair with a Lancia Lambada car.

The story is beautifully told in this enjoyable memoir.

Colin Ward is co-author with Peter Hall of Sociable Cities (Wiley, 1998)

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