We seem to have lost our patience with places like Croydon. It matured drastically in the sixties, and now it’s not old enough to venerate, but too familiar and dated to give us a thrill.
However, through the agency of Will Alsop and his Third City proposals, Croydon may yet get another crack at a renaissance. There is plenty to admire in the vigour of the plans for a high-rise greenhouse and town centre parkland, but the unadulterated, anti-brutalistic glee with which the media jumped on the news was just tiresome. Plan to turn 'concrete hell' into a new Barcelona, reported the Guardian, setting the tone for much of the day’s coverage.
If all goes to plan, the underground River Wandle will be exhumed, car parks will disappear beneath water features, glass and greenery, and Croydonians will apparently be delivered from their current misery. Those wheezing Corbusian ideas of modern living have had their chance and blown it, the thinking runs. Yet in all the national and local debate, despite some scepticism about whether the plans will be realised, no-one has spoken up for the current Croydon.
Well, hold that
wrecking ball for a moment. I admit to some ambivalence about aspects of the town’s concrete heritage, but the drastic plans for its razing and rebirth should at least give us a moment’s pause. How did we sink so deeply into denial about our recently built past that we keep choosing to obliterate it before it settles into a historical context? World Architecture News has reported the recent demise of several 1960s and 70s blocks, and many of us would have few aesthetic qualms about whole towns of that vintage disappearing in the same way. Why? Has any generation been keener to rub out what was built within its lifetime?
The excitement accompanying the rise of concrete Croydon in the late 50s and 60s had long dispersed by my time there, but I can confirm that it was working just fine twenty years on. As a 1980s teenager I was happy enough in the brightly lit, bustling pedestrian precincts of St George’s Walk - now almost derelict. I actually liked the idea that I was passing beneath hundreds of office workers in the blocks overhead as I shopped, before heading over to the Fairfield Halls (1962). I even liked the moving walkway and defiantly abstract public sculpture, pond and fountain of the Whitgift Centre (opened 1970, already remodelled out of all recognition).
The truth is that concrete Croydon consistently passed the test as a functioning centre for shoppers and office workers. It has been a decent backdrop to normal working lives for some decades now, and it may just be that this is all most people desire from a big town. They can visit the surrounding parks and countryside whenever they like, and they can also cope – commune, even - with the concrete, if only it’s structurally maintained and kept clean by enlightened authorities, landlords and commercial tenants. The place might be experiencing a crisis of confidence, or even of maintenance, but
is it really any more than that?
It’s quite possible that Croydon is not full of iconic buildings, of course. Then again, maybe we’re just not ready to recognise them. At this early stage, who knows? Public fondness for Art Deco and Thirties Modern structures was a long time coming, and is still fragile. Some are still being saved from decrepitude in the 21st century, almost seventy years on. At least they’re still there to rescue, but in a few more years, what of the era of optimistic concrete? What will be left of Brutalism and the less controversial formats of the later 20th century, except for a token Goldfinger and an iconic Lasdun here and there?
Croydon does not have to be bulldozed just because it isn’t new any more, and it is no disrespect to Will Alsop to say so. Indeed, we should be thankful that provocative architects are giving us the chance to ponder our attitudes while there is still time.
Perhaps we should find time to listen to Owen Luder. From the demolition of Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre in 2004 to the current threats hanging over his car park and 29-storey Derwent Tower in Gateshead, he has witnessed the gradual erasure of his 1960s and 1970s career in architecture. In a recent interview with Newcastle’s Evening Chronicle, he observed succinctly: “There has to be a good reason to knock it down.”
Editorial , London
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