Completing the Circle
“Why are Eger, Camp, Alsop, Gough and Cullinan the rare exceptions that prove the rule about our national dread of colour?” complains Jonathan Meades in his essay Buildings in Pedro and Ricky Come Again (2021). Moving from colour to humour, “Apart from Piers Gough and Ricardo Bofill, these postmoderns were seldom particularly funny. Gough’s work… persists in delighting this observer with its audacious levity and sheer sprightliness. It’s tectonic proof that there’s only one school that matters, the school of talent.”
The erudite critic continues, “The importance of his and his contemporaries raiding the larder of past styles is that it amended the consensus between architecture and the public. It created a public appetite for the new. We moved from nimbyism to what might be called pimbyism: please in my back yard. Postmodernism is habitually assumed to be dead, consigned to the status of period piece along with big shoulders and big hair. I prefer to believe that postmodernism, having ransacked classicism, the Gothic, the baroque and just about every other idiom one can think of, elected to revive early modernism.”
Jonathan Meades sums up Piers’ oeuvre: “Gough described his work as ‘B movie architect’, which gets it precisely when one recalls that the second feature was frequently superior to the main attraction. He designed England’s most famous public lavatory, in Westbourne Grove, as a shrine to Joe Orton. His early masterpiece was in the then hardly ‘regenerated’ warehouse area of Bermondsey: The Circle comprises rounded apartment blocks strikingly and overwhelmingly tiled in International Klein Blue. In its centre stands a life size sculpture of a horse by Shirley Pace, which recalls the creature that wanders dreamily through La Strada. There is no school of Gough. His work is quirky to the point that it resists imitation.”
The grey tweed kilted Arts and Crafts Revivalist architect Roderick Gradidge, scribing in Country Life in 1986, had mixed views on postmodernism. He sniffed, “The postmodern style was developed in America – oddly enough by architects who had been looking at the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens. This was not the Lutyens of the Surrey ‘dream houses’, but the cynical Lutyens of the later years, when he was willing to face a façade in an inappropriate pattern if it amused him, like the flats in Page Street, Westminster, which he covered in a chequerboard pattern… This bored whimsy appealed strongly to men like Michael Graves when they were attempting to find an alternative to the Modern Movement and trying to create a new style by moulding modern with traditional.”
Roderick Gradidge had a disdain for what he quaintly called “speculative housing” and in the same article tars Piers’ Eaton Terrace in Mile End with the “bored whimsy” brush while acknowledging “his work is extremely popular with the public”. Sutton Square fares slightly better, “… younger architects are leading speculative builders towards a much more restrained, and indeed a more genuine Georgian style. One of the earliest of these schemes was CZWG’s Sutton Square in Hackney, where an entire square was designed for a speculator in a straightforward London Classical style similar to that of many squares built in the 1830s. Even here, the architects seem to be worried about following precedents too closely, and they use a number of self conscious illiteracies: stucco shapes to suggest removed balconies (a pleasant conceit) or a single, narrow Classical column perilously supporting an overlong and inaccurately profiled cornice.”
In reality Eaton Terrace is all about the G in CZWG reinventing the Victorian and Georgian terrace for modern times and having fun in the process. The townhouses share amenity space to the front (very 21st century) and 14 metre long private walled gardens to the rear (very 18th century). The kitchen has been raised to ground floor while a basement (concealed from the street frontage) has been reallocated as a man cave or family room or something equally suitable for accessing the garden. The rear ground floor drawing room, great for parties, is elevated to piano nobile level. Both upper floors contain two bedrooms and a bathroom.
A taller four storey apartment block faces Mile End Tube Station. A vast glazed and cladded swoop, as if a Pterosaur has flown through the yellowy London stock brick block, dramatically breaks the façade. A pediment pops up above the swoop and a squarish freestanding columned pagoda parading as a portico marks the entrance. The three storey over hidden basement terrace extends like a return wing to the rear of this street facing block. Piers takes neoclassical features and makes them his own, playing with scale and detail, from big ball finials to oversized lintels. Blind windows, a common conceit of yesteryear, maintain the second floor fenestration rhythm. A semicircular columned pagoda dash portico marks the middle, roughly, of the terrace. Roderick Gradidge was right on half a point: there’s plenty of whimsy but it’s never bored or, almost 40 years on, boring.
Piers Gough owns the silhouette. A decade after Philip Johnson’s swan neck pediment broke the New York skyscraper at 550 Madison Avenue, Piers employs a broken corniced pediment to define the roofline of the five storey apartment block at the entrance to Sutton Square. The development displays as many shapes of arch head as the gravestones stacked up against the stone walls in the adjacent St John of Hackney churchyard garden. Sutton Square followed Piers’ acclaimed design for the Sir Edwin Lutyens retrospective at the Hayward Gallery sponsored by the Arts Council which brought him to the public’s attention in 1981.
“We are very catholic in our designs,” says Piers Gough CBE today. “None of our buildings are the same; we are always reinventing the wheel. We don’t bring formulae but respond to both clients and the zeitgeist at the same time. We are a well grounded firm while our work appears rather exuberant and even fun!” The Glass Building in Camden is one of his all time favourites. “I am so proud of that building. Friends of mine bought an apartment in it recently. The first Wagamama in London opened on the ground floor of The Glass Building!” This branch of the Japanese restaurant is still going strong.
Piers told Ulster Architect in 1999, “The design of The Glass Building is based on qualities often found in loft conversion schemes. Qualities of light, space and materials. But here, because the building is new, with added advantages in quality, practicability and amenity. The visual effect is of a series of curved bays… these bay widths coincide with the curves of the apartments. Thus the rhythm of the façade is a direct consequence of its internal arrangement. A building that tries to be beautiful by being true to itself and its site.”
“The top two Listed Buildings of the postmodern period are by CZWG,” Piers Gough confirms. In fact, six buildings by the practice make it into the 24 postmodern buildings Listed by Historic England: Aztec West Business Park outside Bristol; Cascades apartment block on the Isle of Dogs, London; the CDT Building at Bryanston School, Blandford, Dorset; China Wharf apartments in Shad Thames, London; The Circle apartments in Bermondsey, London; and Janet Street-Porter House, 44 Britton Street, Clerkenwell, London. Bermondsey has some of the best late 20th century architecture in London from warehouse conversions to warehouse style schemes by a range of architects complementing but never competing with The Circle. The awards keep coming. CZWG’s part-restoration part-newbuild mixed use development in Angel, Islington Square, won a New London Award in 2021.