Anna Basham

Completed PhD - From Victorian to Modernist: the changing perceptions of Japanese architecture encapsulated in Wells Coates’ Japonisme


Wells Coates (Arch.)

10 Palace Gate, Kensington 1939

Photograph Anna Basham, October 2003

This thesis chronicles the change in perception of Japanese architecture from the Victorian era, where it was little recognised, to its becoming an inspiration for inter-war modernist architecture and lifestyle; it aims to record how Japanese art, particularly the way in which it was displayed, underwent a similar renaissance, and the part played by architect-engineer, Wells Coates, in this reversal of opinion.

Japanese ‘influence’ on British design from the mid-1850s until the development of Art Nouveau is generally accepted, but during the inter-war period inspiration from Japan is less readily acknowledged. However, this experience continued during the 1920s and 1930s and can be perceived as an important inspiration on modernist design and architecture, as the work of Wells Coates demonstrates.

Born in Japan, Coates was an eminent figure within the British modern movement and was responsible for some of the most advanced modernist designs in Britain during the inter-war period. He frequently referred to his formative upbringing in the East and it is palpable that this childhood influence had a profound effect upon his work. Coates was fond of listing the skills he had acquired as a child in Japan and explaining how this Eastern training had been dovetailed into his Western scientific education. He considered Japan to be more advanced than the West in many aspects of design and living; an exemplar for a free, uncluttered, modern lifestyle and an inspiration for modern architecture.

However, Coates was not the only modernist designer in Britain to be inspired by Japan. In this thesis I discuss Coates’ dissemination of knowledge relating to Japan and Japanese architecture, analyse the use of features taken from the traditional Japanese domestic dwelling by modernist architects-designers in Britain, and to question whether this Japanese inspiration could be considered a continuation of Japonisme during the inter-war period.

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