CZWG are an odd kettle of fish and this book catches them at their oddest and fishiest, before their work got sucked too far into the world of D+B commercialism. Commercialism – and populism – was always a strong part of their ethos though, albeit coupled with a wonky DIY aesthetic and a bracing lack of good taste.
I always liked their house for Janet Street Porter, for instance, with its ‘30’s suburban aquamarine tiled roof, graduated fill brickwork and log lintels. Inside it’s less obviously the product of a lurid 1980’s aesthetic. The EML is left unplastered on some walls, exposing the wiring behind plug sockets and the softwood timber batons holding it all up.
The authors of the book are an unexpected bunch: Jonathan Meades, Deyan Sudjic and Peter Cook all contribute essays. There is a certain joy in coming across critics in earlier incarnations and I treasure my copy of Deyan Sudjic’s interior design handbook with its paeans to po-mo but Meades' involvement is perhaps the more unlikely. For all the verbal pyrotechnics of his TV documentaries Meades’ views are ultimately not that unusual, at least in the sense of what he does and doesn’t like. So it’s surprising at first to find him lurking here endorsing Piers Gough.
His short essay though is smartly prescient, suggesting both that their originality lay in their non-originality - that is in their re-use of pre-existing architectural styles - and that ultimately, for all their perversity, they would be subsumed into the era of post-modernism. This is all true although there is little that is straightforwardly post-modern about their early work.
At its best it had an eye for the quirky detail and a love of the awful pun not that far from Lutyens or Voysey and best exemplified by their Porkacabin project from 1980. In fact CZWG’s work looks now like an attempt to return to the Voysesque origins of suburbia, to the sunburst motifs and neo-deco of metroland mixed with Edwardian whimsy, a point which Meades alludes to.
There are other things to like too such as the twisted corkscrew columns of the Bryanston school extension, the rollercoaster for Newcastle Quayside designed to spell out the town’s name and the riderless horse of The Circle in Shad Thames. Then again you would have to have a pretty strong stomach to take their proposal for the National Gallery Extension and their Mile End housing is indistinguishable from trad developer pastiche.
Ultimately CZWG occupy an odd and peculiarly English position. Too jokey and pop for the hairshirt tendency of UK architecture but too provincial for the wider post modern movement. They probably manage to piss everyone off. They were also always blatantly developer friendly which doesn’t help. The net to gross savvy that most successful practices developed in the late 90’s and noughties (think AHMM, Allies and Morrisson et al) was a lot less expected in the ‘80’s especially given the academic background CZWG came from at the AA.
In their early days they were a bit like a low rent James Stirling. They did, after all, happily use the term B Movie architecture to describe their work. Perhaps though it was not quite B movie enough. Not enough schlock and sheer grossness for my taste. More Carry on Camping than Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens.
Purchase price: £3.50