Croydon’s concrete ghosts: failed vision of the future?

MA Graphic Design alumnus: Rob Mowbray. Pics: Qianru Wu & Laerke Nielsen

MA Graphic Design alumnus: Rob Mowbray. Pics: Qianru Wu & Laerke Nielsen

A 1960’s plan to create a utopia of concrete buildings never quite took hold of Croydon, a plan that according to one designer continues to haunt the area.

Rob Mowbray, Graphic Design Lecturer at the  Croydon School of Art, introduced East London Lines to his ‘The Sir James Marshall Psychogeographic Memorial: The Hauntological Convergence of Private Enterprise, Urban Planning and Ghosts’  exhibition at Croydon College.

We spoke with him about how he uses the dramatic rise of commercial industry in Croydon in the 1960s as a case study to visualise the philosophical concept of hauntology.

According to Mr Mowbray, hauntology deals with the past, present and future. It acts like a ghost leaving a trail of unfulfilled predictions that haunt the present and influence what is still to come.

In this case the ghost manifests itself in the architecture of the post-war building boom that occurred in Croydon from 1952 -1972.

On his website Mr Mowbray describes it as an ‘articulation of a time that is out of joint’.

So what did happen to Croydon during this period?

According to Mr Mowbray, an almost science-fiction-like redevelopment took place.

In those days Croydon property was cheap – and some had profound power when it came to deciding who, where and how anyone could build in Croydon.

Mr Mowbray describes how the Croydon Corporation Act of 1956 resulted in the concrete jungle Croydon people live in today:

Mr Mowbray explains that the Act allowed entrepreneurs to acquire land through compulsory purchase without having to submit a Comprehensive Development Area Plan.

With Croydon being close to the centre of London and offering low rent, this was an opportune place for commercial industry to expand.

That meant that property was sold off to satisfy an imagined utopia of industry, producing a vibrant economical environment without having to take into account the harmony of the towns internal structure or, more importantly, its residents.

The combination of complete ‘creative’ freedom, a fast and low cost building programme and a vibrant commercial industry should have generated a flourishing and dynamic town.

The first of many new offices were built in the late 1950s to replace Victorian houses and schools.

Buildings such as Taberner House, The Whitgift Centre and Fairfield Halls were erected during the sixties along with a new underpass, flyover, and several multi-storey car parks helping the town to gain economical thrive.

Descriptions of the concrete Croydon we know today:

Croydon has continued to flourish over the years as the largest office and retail centre in south-east England, although it has often been described as an ‘inhuman concrete jungle’, it is a town under constant redevelopment.

Even today a new redevelopment is under way.

Following the riots of 2011 Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, announced he would invest £23 million to regenerate Croydon back to its previous success as a major commercial centre.

An exhibition in 2012 showed some of the  architectural plans for a ‘New Croydon’, which was open to the public in the Sun Lounge of the Fairfield Halls. Tarsem Flora is a Purley-based architect, and wrote an article on it, entitled ‘Time to cast off Croydon’s Concrete Jungle image’ :

“I am convinced that the public perception of Croydon as a concrete jungle will no longer hold good as the schemes that are either under construction or proposed and approved by the council will in the very near future change this perception and bring back the civic pride the town deserves.”

Again in 2013 John Grindrod, the writer of the then just published novel ‘Concretopia’, on the ‘Space Age’ post-war architecture, 1945 – 1979  told  East London Lines that when he thinks of Croydon, he thinks of it as futuristic – even though it is a vision of the future from the past.

According to Rob, the concrete utopia was a future that never arrived. He  states on his website that ‘modern’ Croydon is saddled with a legacy of out of date concrete office blocks which function poorly and embody a kind of office culture that is increasingly out of date.’

Rob Mowbray has attempted to highlight these issues and how the past functions as a back curtain that still influences and sheds light on the Croydon of 2014:

Photos of the concrete wall of the Croydon skyline, post cards from the time relating to the reality of Croydon residents and a fictional newspaper illustrate how shopping malls, offices and low cost minimum space flats were established during the period:

Rob Mowbray’s exhibition seems to cast a reflection over Croydon today, displaying it as a town struggling between a capitalistic vision awaiting to be fulfilled in the future and an architectural body from the past that dominates its destiny.

He sheds doubt on Croydon succeeding with its latest visionary redevelopment, set to finish in 2018, unless the Borough acknowledge its failures of the modernization of the 1960s.

Until then, he says it will continue to be haunted by the ghost of Sir James Marshall  that stalks the concrete battlements of modern Croydon.’

For more information about Rob Mowbray and his project follow these links:

Sir James Marshalls Psychogeographical Memorial.

London College of Communication

Art Thread – The Home for New Creatives

Croydon Crater Form by Rob Mowbray

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