Croydon has long been a byword for concrete, bland and boring for some. As David Bowie said in an interview with Q magazine in 1999: “I hated Croydon with a real vengeance. I think it’s the most derogatory thing I can say about somebody or something: ‘God it’s so f****** Croydon.’ It was going to be the big second city to London. Bits of it they put up, these awful faceless office blocks, complete concrete hell.”
And when newly elected Croydon MP Gavin Barwell addressed Parliament in his maiden speech in 2010 he told the House that his borough has “an image problem – a reputation for rather unwelcoming 1960s architecture”.
But if the city’s town planners and politicians have their way, this could be about to change. Change is afoot, in the form of a huge shopping centre – Westfield Croydon – and yet another overhaul of the city centre.
The infamous shopping centre, the Whitgift, which opened in 1968 is to be razed in 2018. And for residents, this will hopefully mark the beginning of the end of Croydon’s image as a concrete landscape.
When the Whitgift went up, it was very of its time. Though critics were quick to point out that its design lacked coherency and it was almost entirely rebuilt in the 1990s, it was the largest centre of its kind in Europe in 1968 and considered innovative.
John Grindrod, author of Concretopia which looks at Britain’s architecture in the post-war consensus period, told EastLondonLines: “People across the country had these big utopian ideas of re-planning and re-building towns. Up until the early twentieth century you would build a house using bricks, but then people started to develop bigger pre-made panels that you could bolt together – you could build a block of flats out of them like giant Lego.” Redevelopment during the 60s in Croydon was overwhelming.
Along with the Whitgift Centre, a flyover was constructed and streets were flattened as a result. During this time, high-rise developments were restricted in central London when Croydon stepped in, erecting 49 tower blocks and creating five million square feet of office space by 1971.
However, the town went on to lose out to Central London and Canary Wharf as a business centre. This failure led to the creation of the word ‘Croydonisation’ a term used to epitomize architectural mar. As part of a huge £5bn redevelopment scheme a Westfields will replace the 47-year-old Whitgift Centre.
Grindrod fears these historical structures may disappear for good and thinks more people need to be conscious of the post-war legacy they hold. “Croydon has got a bad history of not protecting its local character, and it probably won’t make a huge effort to preserve its post-war heritage, in the same way it didn’t make much of an effort to preserve its Victorian heritage.”
Jo Negrini, the council’s executive director of redevelopment, hopes that this will not be the case, telling the Croydon Advertiser, “There are some great examples of 60s architecture – and there’s some crap stuff. There are treasures we want to maintain, like Lunar House and Apollo House.”
The council has plans for refurbishing Fairfield Halls, another 60s structure. “We don’t want to bulldoze everything like we did in the 60s – we want to embrace the legacy of this place. We’ve already done that with the conservation area of the old town, but the 60s stuff is just important,” she added.
The demolition of the Whitgift Centre may be hard for some to accept, given it has been synonymous with Croydon for almost 50 years and the history that comes along with that may be lost. But the new Westfields will not only put Croydon back on the map of London, it will challenge the perception that it’s a culturally void concrete jungle where the energy and vigour of London dies at its doorstep.