This article was originally published in BD:Online, 5 March 2018.
Croydon is being talked about a lot in design and development circles at the moment. Something is afoot in this old market town at the extremities of south London.
BD seems to report successful planning applications for bright new towers and shopping centres on a monthly basis. Recently completed projects have already made an impact, including London’s second completed Boxpark, the emerging Ruskin Square and Saffron Square, which was unfairly nominated for BD’s Carbuncle Cup but is a bright addition to the skyline and seems to be regarded favourably by most of the locals I have spoken to.
And it is exciting to see Croydon council creating its own new development company, Brick by Brick, and associated architectural practice, Common Ground, which have already combined productively to put forward interesting new affordable housing proposals. This is really leading the way, and Croydon should be congratulated for this initiative.
But to call Croydon an old market town is to ignore more than 60 years of the town centre’s intriguing development history. The 1956 Croydon Corporation Act, masterminded by a clique of influential but autocratic local politicians and businessmen, provided the impetus for what was to follow.
The political zeal for a modernist town centre to support the council’s commercial idealism resulted in the demolition of large swathes of the Victorian town centre. By the mid-60s, the people of Croydon were active participants in a grand municipal urban experiment of new modernist offices, shopping centres, council buildings, theatres, concrete car parks and the notorious underpass and flyover. It might be fair to say that some of the older members of the Croydon community are still reeling from this urban upturn, but those who were young at the time have fond memories of the new Croydon.
Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, it was only a matter of decades before the modernist vision of Croydon’s long-dead aldermen had culminated in an urban centre in significant decline.
There was an intriguing documentary broadcast on the Late Show in 1993 which documented the town centre and attempts by the great and good of the British architectural scene at the time to breathe life into the place through work produced for an exhibition instigated by the Architecture Foundation. It is fun to witness Richard Rogers confidently claim that a giant communication mast powered by wind turbines would contribute to the town’s resurgence, while Ian Ritchie reimagined Croydon’s office buildings submerged beneath a giant lake. Michael Hopkins took the pragmatic approach of suggesting a nice new park. In his opinion the last thing Croydon needed was more buildings. The documentary also makes an unflattering comparison with Goddard’s dystopic film-noir Alphaville, culturally rebranding Croydon as an urban environment more akin to eastern Europe than the heady bright capitalism imagined by the 1950s elders. A disappointing turn of events, I’m sure.
But 25 years later things seem to have turned again, and so I take a walk around to get a feel for the place. As well as the new developments, there seems to be a newly found enthusiasm for the post-war stock, and this is what I have come to see.
First stop, on the High Street, one of the original Sixties shopping centres, St George’s Walk and St George’s House (1964, Ronald Ward and Partners) leads you through a run-down, but well-preserved modernist office complex that terminates at the Nestlé office tower building. The route has been made bright and engaging through its occupation by some of Croydon’s more creative businesses, including the pro-active Rise gallery who commissioned the hundreds of graffiti murals around the building. Further up the high street, the minimal brutalism of Leon House (1969, Tribich, Liefer & Starkin) is currently masked by scaffolding while it is transformed into a lifestyle apartment building with concierge and roof terrace, revealing some of the original sculpted interiors by William George Mitchell.
Some of the most diverting architecture can be found around East Croydon Station, the prominent feature of which is a strenuous high-tech canopy that straddles the main concourse (1992, Alan Brookes Associates). Close to the station are two high-quality Richard Seifert buildings. Corinthian House (1965), a neat modernist office in the international style sits on a podium of asymmetric concrete columns, openable swivel windows, and an elongated cantilevered concrete entrance canopy that projects to the pavement. Right next to the station, No1 Croydon (1972) is known locally as the fifty pence tower (or threepenny bit, depending on your age), a formal misnomer as it is actually made up of rotated square floorplates with bevelled corners. It was not that long ago that it was highlighted in a Channel 4 documentary as one of the greatest eyesores in Britain, but has since been cleaned up and refurbished, acquiring semi-iconic status in the process as an undeniably strong local landmark.
Tucked behind it is Alico House (1963, Biscoe & Stanton) a pleasing concrete office building with a sealed facade of stacked repetitive cubist blocks. It was originally built for the General Accident insurance company but is now partly occupied by easyHotel, not the only mid-century building to be taken on by one of the big hotel chains.
Norfolk House (1959, Howell and Brooks) was the first tall building to be built in Croydon. It still has a wide range of shops at street level, from a small newsagent to a Waitrose, but the upper levels and entrance foyer have been refurbished quite nicely and are now occupied by Travelodge. The angled windows in chevron plan at first floor and at roof setback levels particularly draw the eye. In fact, many of the less auspicious office buildings in the blocks adjacent have also had a recent change of use, most of them being converted to flats – some high quality, others less so – but all retaining an office-like appearance. But with a patchwork of eclectic curtains and blinds behind the windows telling tales.
Perhaps the most auspicious modernist building near here is Fairfield Halls (1962, Robert Atkinson & Partners), which served as Croydon’s primary music and concert venue until two years ago, but has since lain dormant. It is currently the subject of a £30m investment in a new cultural quarter designed by Rick Mather Architects (now re-christened Mica). The building gives the appearance of the Royal Festival Hall in miniature, and if the original interior of the building can be preserved and restored, it could be quite a special object.
To round up a whistle-stop review of Croydon’s modern architecture, it would be a shame not to mention the lovely fire station (1962, Riches & Blythin) a Sixties municipal gem with geometric training tower, undulating long-span roof and glassy red doors revealing the engines inside to drivers on the flyover.
There have been some recent losses too. Both Taberner House, the old council offices, and Essex House have been demolished in preparation for new housing developments. Meanwhile, the Nestlé Tower will be re-clad in a contemporary style, extended and converted to flats, and St George’s House has been bought by a Chinese development group for £60m with a view to demolition and replacement with a high-rise mixed-used development.
So it seems that Rogers, Hopkins, Ritchie and all those other fine architects of the high-tech era were wrong. Croydon didn’t really need anything radical or exciting to push it on. All it needed was for people to start loving these modern buildings again. And despite its chequered planning history, and after all the harsh words that have been said about it, Croydon seems to be winning at last.
With contemporary sensibilities, it is hard to justify the intrusive and destructive planning decisions of the Fifties council leaders but, ironically, their gung-ho approach might now be bearing fruit.
Croydon today provides quite a unique urban condition. The mistakes of the past, in this case, seem to have provided the fabric for something worthwhile. But there is a contradiction here. While Croydon’s planners have the bravery of their predecessors as a template, they should also step back and understand what it is that makes the town centre interesting. Croydon is a modernist experiment that went slightly wrong, but is now working fine.