Thirty years on, the unimaginative critics of PoMo have been proved wrong and inventiveness and ingenuity are still our watchwords, writes CZWG’s Adam West
Not every architect strives to create timeless architecture, that can outlive trends or influences of the moment. When CZWG worked on schemes in the 1980s the drive was for an immediate need to express an emotional and inventive response to client, location and cultural zeitgeist. We wanted to be in the moment but doing our own thing, not channelling received wisdom or aiming for immortality. However no less than six of our buildings (and one jacuzzi*) were included in the recent tranche of Historic England listings of Postmodernist architecture.
But how about the future? How will Historic England view the current moment in 30 years’ time? Architecture has always been a game of Snakes (normative temptations) and Ladders (imaginative desires). It may feel like an era when there are many more examples of the former than the latter. There is not much denying that the built environment is experiencing a tightening of building regulations and our planning system is the most restrictive it has ever been, with myriad design guides, regulations and regulatory bodies to satisfy.
Combined with the real need for more homes, the recent reaction of architects has been towards a more normative and conventional response, particularly in housing. And, no doubt at some time in the future, the best examples of ‘London Vernacular’ will become worthy recipients of a Historic England listing.
Another developing trend is the reintroduction of prefabrication. We’re advocates for this method of construction – to improve the working conditions of the building trades, apart from anything else. There was, of course, a less sophisticated but common mass-produced method of construction in the 1960s and ’70s. Postmodernist architecture was in part a response to the banality of those system-built ‘prefab’ towers and slabs of the era. Some would argue there’s a risk of history repeating itself now, albeit with a veneer of deep-reveal brickwork.
Meanwhile the industry is experiencing other interesting advancements. Digital technology continues to develop at pace and is increasingly proving its worth in terms of efficient design processes, sustainability and cost planning. Our recent designs for Southern Housing Group at Free Wharf, Shoreham, were developed using the latest digital design tools, which proved invaluable during negotiations with planners and local authorities.
It would be good to think that such technology at the manufacturing end could obviate repetition and allow easy variation. Amin Taha’s ‘imperfect restoration’ on Upper Street used digital fabrication to brilliantly superimpose the complex combination of coloured concrete repro façades with sliced-out windows onto a CLT interior. Continuous inventiveness at scale within the current conditions is always evident in the work of architects with wit and ingenuity, such as Studio Egret West and at least two firms whose initials end in ‘MM’.
In the 1980s our schemes were accused of relying on a kind of vulgar wit which would quickly lose its appeal. Thirty years later, these critics have been proved wrong. In Historic England’s view, what made the architecture important in its recent listings was the combination of ‘pioneering fast-track construction methods’, ‘innovative detailing’ and ‘quality of craftsmanship’ with ‘imagination, ‘ambition’, ‘ingenuity’ and a ‘relationship to setting’ and ‘engagement with urban context’ – the CZWG manifesto we continue to follow today.
It’s tricky; but to have lasting impact we should probably beware the Snakes of convention, shin up the Ladders of invention and throw away the dice.
Adam West, Partner at CZWG Architects.
*The jacuzzi can be found within Charles Jenck’s Grade I-listed house in Kensington.
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