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ARCHITECT MATTHEW COATES ON AI, SMARTEST DECISION OF ALL TIME, AND *HIS* IDOL


architect in blazer standing in Times Square NYC
Architect Matthew Coates.


“I grew up in rural northern Michigan and used to do these hikes as a kid… way out into the wild. One day I came across an old, dilapidated log cabin with a tree growing inside of it, all the way up through the roof—or what was left of the roof. It was the first time I had ever seen something like that—and in seeing it, understood how we could create shelters from trees. I knew right then that that was what I wanted to do. It was that simple.”

If there was ever a single moment in time that would change a person’s trajectory, that was it. Matthew Coates would go on to become an award-winning architect. He launched Coates Design, based on Bainbridge Island (just across the bay from Seattle) in 2005. The studio’s portfolio includes residential and commercial projects, and sustainable design and building practices are baked into everything they do. They recently completed reHOME, a development of three tiny homes for farming interns that were built almost entirely with unwanted, found, or otherwise destined-for-the-dumpster materials (read more about it here).

Here, GRAY’s Shawn Williams chats with Matthew about design and life....


Shawn Williams: What’s the smartest thing you’ve ever done?

Matthew Coates: Bet on myself. The smartest thing I’ve ever done was create this design firm and hire people smarter than me.

Shawn: Two things that not everyone can do—make the leap, and know your own strengths and weaknesses.

Matthew: Yeah, having such a strong team whom I collaborate with on nearly everything has been the secret sauce for us. I learned early on that I didn’t need to have the best idea all of the time, I just needed to recognize it. It’s been nearly 20 years since I took that leap, and I am glad I did.

Shawn: You’ve seen a lot, been through a lot in those two decades... trends, fluctuating economies, materials, and processes that have changed over the years. What do you see now as the single largest factor influencing the future of architecture?

Matthew: Like all of the creative industries, Artificial Intelligence is going to have a huge impact on architecture. We’re already seeing huge shifts in the use of AI affecting businesses in writing, graphic design, and film-making. It’s both exciting and a bit scary to think about where this will go. Imagine the day when Autodesk comes out with a program that can create design options in any style or vernacular using just an itemization of spaces.

Shawn: Will AI replace architects?

Matthew: I’d like to think (like many others do) that AI will never be able to imitate true creativity or that its creations will ever have the intangible soulfulness we can imbue in our work… but I’m not sure it won’t come close, or that given the extreme savings a program like that would offer, the masses would embrace it.

Shawn: AI aside, what’s the must-have in every project?

Matthew: Dimmers! I know this is a simple answer, but I am always amazed to see new buildings with simple ON/OFF switches and no ability to control the lighting. It really baffles me. Can you imagine if your television only had one volume setting? No, of course not. It’s important to be able to adjust the lighting to whatever is going on at the moment.

Shawn: See... AI wouldn’t make those opinion-based design decisions driven by actually living in and using a space—at least not yet!

Matthew: I’ll go a step further and add bonus points for a fully adjustable lighting system that can be controlled with your phone.


Shawn: Tell me this, do you have a design idol, someone you feel is or was an absolute rock star in their field?

Matthew: There are so many powerful designers… it’s hard to pick just one but for the sake of answering this question, I would have to say Tadao Ando, the Japanese Architect. I’ve seen many of his works in person and can say that there is something genius and other-worldly about his work. He is someone who gets the most out of architecture… it doesn’t get much better IMO and his buildings are always memorable. If there’s a secret to perfect design, he knows it.

Shawn: Have you ever met him?

Matthew: I did. I had the chance to meet him once in Tokyo. He was not overly pleasant, but I was still thrilled by the experience.

Shawn: I guess it’s well-known but I only recently heard on a podcast recorded a few years ago that he’s a former boxer (if I can find it, I’ll add a link here). Do you listen to podcasts? What’s your favorite?

Matthew: I love podcasts. My current favorite is SmartLess with Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett. I love this podcast because they do amazing interviews, and they take turns covertly inviting guests and surprising the other hosts. The banter is quite hilarious while thoughtful and serious at times.

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Shawn: That’s a good one. They’ve been friends forever so they have a really great dynamic together. Speaking of celebs... here’s an irreverent question to end our chat with: If there was a movie about your life, who would play the role of Matthew Coates?

Matthew: Hahaha, I love this question. I would have to go with Vince Vaughn.

Shawn: Ohhhh, yes, spot on!

Matthew: Vince Vaughn and I are about the same age and build and from what I can tell we have a similar sense of humor. Likewise, neither of us likes to be type-cast. I think he has a pretty “architect” look about him and he’d do a decent job acting and being a better-looking version of me. LOL.

Shawn: Thank you, Matthew.

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To learn more about Matthew and Coates Design, visit their website here and check out their Instagram channel.

See more Architecture + Interior studios here.
Photographs courtesy Coates Design.

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