Nostalgia for the future: Exploring Croydon’s past and present through six buildings

No. 1 Croydon Tower. Pic: Adrian Wallett

In these virus-stricken times getting outside is, in fact, just what the doctor ordered. If you have exhausted your local parks or get a little down looking at denuded trees in winter, Croydon’s wealth of 20th-century modernist architecture offers the perfect escape into the borough’s history and, if you know where to search, a map to its present.   

The story of Croydon’s building boom began in the 1960s when a local councilor and Conservative alderman named Sir James Marshall consolidated power. Until 1978, unelected aldermen could be nominated by a council and determine policy direction without voter input. 

From his perch on the Planning Committee, Marshall transformed the borough into a tiny copy of Robert Moses’ Manhattan. Schools and brick-clad homes gave way to a multi-lane road slicing through the city centre, flanked on each side by austere office blocks and towers inspired by the American space program. 

Marshall’s successful maneuver to wrestle planning control from the council neatly coincided with central London’s ban on large office buildings in 1964. 

No.1 Croydon. Pic: Danny Robinson

No. 1 Croydon, 1970: No. 1 Croydon, home to a variety of different companies, welcomes visitors as they step off the East Croydon overground train platform onto George St. Designed by renowned architect Richard Seifert, the tower’s stack of angular segments look more like a space station module than the floors of an office building, speaking to the current of optimism running through post-war British planning. 

“Marshall and his cronies simply sat back and watched six million square feet of office space shoot up as a commercial feeding frenzy descended on the town,” said critic Phinneas Harper in the Architecture Foundation’s documentary on the period. Nearly all of Croydon’s modernist buildings, including those lauded by the National Trust in their 2016 Edge City tours, date from this construction spree. 

The ‘modern’ in Marshall’s modernist utopian scheme was the belief that car-friendly infrastructure, new modes of mass consumption – the shopping mall, and new building methods employing concrete could deliver society into the future. 

Lunar House with pod. Pic: Stephen Richards

Apollo House, 1970: Maintaining the science-fiction theme, Apollo House, named after the Apollo 11 NASA mission, sits next door to its sister site, Lunar House. At the bottom of the tower’s 22 floors is a cantilevered pod hovering above ground level as if suspended in zero-gravity. These days the building is better known for its government occupant, the Home Office’s Immigration and Naturalization service.

John Grindrod, who is from Croydon and author of Conretopia: a Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain, explained the renewed fascination with Croydon’s modernist relics: “People are connecting to a sense of optimism that doesn’t feel reflected in the present-day architecture. There’s a lot to celebrate about these designs.”

To Grindrod, the space-age quirks are owed to Croydon’s propensity to “constantly reinvent itself and follow the latest trends.” Buildings that might have otherwise been demolished were effectively “fossilized” by the mid-70s financial crisis, lending them the otherworldly quality of a time capsule, the writer said. 

Leon House. Pic: Stephen Richards

Leon House, 1966: The Leon House is undeniably handsome. When it was first erected, the structure was one of many office buildings constructed in Croydon to take advantage of central London’s “Brown Ban” on large buildings. Refashioned and remodeled as a luxury apartment highrise in 2018, the Leon House now takes advantage of the city’s housing shortage. Prices for a flat start at £335,000. 

Croydon School of Art lecturer Rob Mowbray told ELL in 2014 there is as much to learn from the failures of post-war redevelopment as there is to appreciate in its design. Mowbray believes the borough is “haunted” by Marshall’s vision. “Croydon is saddled with a legacy of out of date concrete office blocks [that] embody a kind of office culture that is increasingly out of date.”  

But offices were not the only legacy of Marshall’s reign that still ‘haunt’ the downtown.  Perhaps no other structure has come to define Croydon more than the Whitgift shopping mall, while the urban dual carriageway continues to be a forbidding asphalt moat best traversed on foot through buried pedestrian tunnels.

Whitgift Centre interior. Pic: Hzh

Whitgift Centre, 1970: Originally built as an open-air shopping plaza and later transformed by glass atriums in the 1990s, Whitgift’s one-million-plus square-feet of retail space makes it the second-largest mall of its kind in the greater London area. Tenuous plans for a £1.4 billion regeneration of Whitgift into the Westfield shopping centre are threatened by the borough’s bankruptcy and the steady transition of retail to online vendors.

Grindrod, despite his appreciation of the period’s architecture, described the sum of its parts as a “landscape of quick profit.” Instead of an integrated town plan, lots were sold off piecemeal leaving towers “marooned, surrounded by car parks… and without any sort of streetscape linking them all up.” 

Sociologist Peter Saunders observed an “inability of the council leadership to distinguish between business interest and public interest,” in a 1981 study of Croydon’s urban politics during the Marshall era. 

Corinthian House. Pic: Stephen Richards

Corinthian House, 1965: A few streets north of No.1 Croydon is another office block by Richard Seifert. The building’s chevron-shaped mass perches delicately on sculpted concrete wishbones that allow pedestrians on Dingwall Rd to gaze straight through its first floor. 

Some 40 years later, the ethos of using private development to solve social problems has become a perennial theme in the borough’s politics.

The 2011 London riots left multiple buildings torched and the Whitgift mall ransacked, but most of the damage was confined to smaller shops in North Croydon. One shop owner alleged that the police had prioritized protection of the town centre’s Business Improvement District where the largest companies pooled money for a subscription-based crime alert system. 

Then-Mayor Boris Johnson promised £23 million to rejuvenate the local economy, couching aid in terms of “making Croydon great again,” adding that the borough was “ripe for investment and the devastation is a reminder of the urgency of investing serious sums into this potential economic powerhouse.” 

Croydon Council’s descent into bankruptcy this November was acknowledged by Labour leader Hamida Ali to be partially the consequence of £545 million in public loans dispersed for property development.

Grindrod thinks that money would be better spent preserving East Croydon’s architectural heritage and transitioning from prestige projects to a greater emphasis on the pedestrian experience. 

AMP House relief. Pic: Stephen Richards

AMP House, 1968: The centerpiece of the Amp House isn’t the building itself, but a stunning “atomic-age” relief in the words of Grindrod. As a piece of civic art, it reads like a thesis on Croydon’s mid-century ambitions: the lines of a globe cradle a family atop a cornucopia.

But where the 60s spirit of optimism lives on, the writer thinks, is in the borough’s diverse youth population, pointing to community non-profit Matthew’s Yard as a grass-roots alternative to corporate revitalisation. 

Grindrod said: “There’s been a real sense that young people can do things themselves, that it isn’t all going to be provided to them by giant corporate entities in the way that Croydon relied on in the past.”

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