John Grindrod speaks to ELL about ‘Concretopia’, his latest book on ‘Space Age’ post-war architecture, 1945 – 1979.
“I love how Space Age Croydon is,” says Grindrod. “When I was a kid I wanted to be a robot, I was completely obsessed with the Sci-fi programmes of the seventies and loads of those were filmed in places like Croydon. When I think of Croydon, I think of it as futuristic – even though it’s a vision of the future from the past. It’s like ‘The Jetsons’.”
Not many people would compare Croydon town centre to the cartoon metropolis of Orbit City. But Grindrod’s debut book, ‘Concretopia’, shows the borough’s post-war architecture to be exciting and extraordinary.
“I wanted to find out more about where I grew up, and why it looks how it looks,” Grindrod explains. “The only way I could do that was to visit other places in the country where there was more information about the style of architecture.”
“That’s how the book began to form – It is really for people like me who want to know more about how Britain was rebuilt after the war, and how this shaped what we see today.”
Eleven years of working for publishing house Faber and Faber also helped the debut author:
“Working on lots of different books over the years has definitely helped with Concretopia” he explained. “It could have been a big morphus blob, but I have tried to turn it into a story – reading other books and talking with other authors has definitely helped me to become a more confident storyteller.”
Grindrod’s interest in Croydon architecture began at a very young age, sparked during a lesson at Addington High School:
“When I was at school we were shown a video about bad town planning in New Addington. It was a very strange experience, because people were saying: ‘That’s where my Nan lives!’ And then there was this guy who just kept saying: ‘This building is a disaster’.”
He continues: “As I got older I began to realise that whenever you heard people talking about Croydon’s buildings, it was always really negative. It felt like none of these people had any idea, because they’d never lived in those places, they just went through them on the train, and thought: ‘oh, how dreadful’.”
Grindrod identifies three main reasons why Croydon’s post-war architecture is so special.
“Firstly, people across the country had these big Utopian ideas of re-planning and re-building towns. Even before Coventry was completely destroyed by the Blitz, the town planner said: ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just knock down the town centre and start again, and do it in more rational lines.’ ”
Second, he cites the influence of continental design on post-war architecture in Croydon: “There was the heavy, almost industrial, brutalism of buildings like the Barbican, which look like they’d been there forever, like Stonehenge.”
“That pretty much came from Le Corbusier, the French Swiss architect, who built a block of flats in Marseilles, ‘The Unité d’Habitation’ – this gargantuan ocean liner of a building made out of concrete. At that point it was the coolest thing in the world.”
He adds: “These buildings were highly functional too. They were made to work for people. You didn’t have a load of wasted space and the proportions were all designed very scientifically.”
The final element influencing this period’s architecture was new industrial technology. Grindrod explains: “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.”
It’s easy to forget that Croydon’s concrete blocks were once considered ground-breaking innovative designs. But what makes them so ‘Space Age’?
Grindrod says: “Between east and west Croydon there is a massive bank of post-war high rises. Harry Hyams, the developer behind them, had a bit of a fetish for space. His two buildings in Croydon are called Lunar House and Apollo House. He also had Telstar House, Space House, Astronaut House – these just really encapsulate that Space Age optimism of the era.”
He adds: “Amp House – which is next to East Croydon station – has got the most amazing Space Age mural on it. It’s still there, this wonderful silver mural of a futuristic family above the door.”
Grindrod’s favorites are the NLA Tower in Addiscombe and Corinthian House in Fairfield, both designed by British architect Richard Seifert.
“I have always liked the NLA tower, which is the big threepenny bit building by Croydon station,” explains Grindrod. “It’s such an unusual shape, with octagon floors alternating, so you get this weird staggered Jenga effect – it doesn’t look like any other building.”
“Corinthian House is just a little glass office block, seemingly quite standard, but the details of it are just so lovely”, he adds. “It’s got really crazily angled jaunty jazzy legs that it doesn’t need to have, and this enormous entrance canopy that goes out for metres and metres up in the sky.”
Yet Grindrod fears these Space Age marvels might disappear. He hopes that ‘Concretopia’ will help to raise awareness of the post war legacy: “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.”
“I think people don’t realise how interesting their street is.” He adds: “there are disasters to be sad about, but there are also triumphs that should be celebrated and appreciated for what they are.”
It might not be as high-tech as ‘The Jetsons’ ’ Orbit City, but it is a joy to look through Grindrod’s gaze, and see Croydon’s urban sprawl turn into inspiring space oddity.
Concretopia was published by Old Street Publishing.