A Metropolitan Heart

By - Monday 22nd July, 2013

Tom Winter studies the detachment between central London and Croydon, in both a physical and metaphorical sense

When viewed from the relaxing distance of a passing plane heading towards its end at Gatwick, you could almost re-imagine Croydon’s grey roof-scape as a version of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. A bold comparison it could be said, but when the blood between Croydon and London is compared both physically and socially, this bustling south London town could easily be seen as a metaphorical outstretched arm of its London father, desperately trying to cling to a style of community that reminds it so much of its former self.

Croydon at dusk

Photo by Chris Guy. Image used under Creative Commons License

As I try to unravel the conversations and experiences I have had in south London it seems to me that, while most people regard Croydon as being one and the same as London, there actually exists a real difference in social thinking and potential between them, an aspect I believe is reflected very clearly through recent urban change.

The distance may be a single bus ride between Croydon town centre and somewhere like Elephant and Castle, but as a passenger if you look closely enough you can observe the layers of housing slowly changing to fields of shops, offices, and restaurants with apartment blocks proudly rising through them, further segregating work and play. It is this appreciation in change between where people work and live, London coming to be regarded as a centre for work and a place to ‘go to’ and Croydon more a place where people are ‘from’, is what I believe is generating the interesting effect on the directions regarding aesthetic and functional values of our built environment.

Central London, where influential and colourful spaces such as Soho and Camden are to be found, is a place where fresh, adventurous ideas are allowed to be grown and harvested, and as a guest in the city you see it all around you when walking the streets from the boutique pet shops to the cafés and bars of Hoxton, each is an individual piece of the urban puzzle that generates the metropolitan characteristic of London. Each dusty market and each modern glass-coated, cheese grater-shaped new kid on the block in this vast city centre appears to integrate so smoothly into its surroundings, and it is this effortlessness that comes from being within central London that is so intriguing on a social scale.

London black and white selection

The ‘Cheese Grater’, or 122 Leadenhall Street (centre) under construction in the city, effortlessly blending into its surroundings. Photo by Frédéric de Villamil. Image used under Creative Commons License.

Metropolitan at heart, London is where people generally have less time to waste but more money to spend in clique art cafés and temporary venues for music and film. These spaces are usually well-funded and draw a healthy attendance of a critical and alcohol-fuelled audience, a sociable and profitable atmosphere for most communities.

My theory is, however, that a large influence leading to these ventures to be so successful in London is that its audience thoroughly expects them to be a success, rarely questioning the long-term benefits or negatives, subconsciously forcing these spaces to homogenise into the façades and interiors of the local environment. There is no natural progression or right of passage for many of these new additions, they simply function at full power from day one and when the next obsession comes along it is left to disappear into the further expanding brick canvas of London for the next one to try its arm.

It could be said that this process of development is ruthless, but the fruit is so temptingly sweet. Is this just the way of a modern metropolitan position with no realistic alternative, or just maybe there is a priceless architectural and social lesson hidden in the beautifully subtle way a Croydon Urbanity handles the same process?

Tom Winter

Tom Winter

Practicing Architectural Assistant and fabricator of Dirty Croydon Love architecture and urban-design blog, having worked for Fantastic Norway Architekten in Oslo over the summer of 2011 and now recently graduated with a postgraduate in Architecture at London South Bank University. Stimulated in and intoxicated with South London with a keen interest in the potential of Resourceful Design and Urban Social Spaces that can be created through provocative yet sensitive contemporary urban architecture, with a strong belief that architecture can further enhance Croydon’s complex urban community. Also a passionate cricket player, dedicated book reader and enthusiastic CD music collector.

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  • Anne Giles

    I love this one!

  • nmakwana

    An interesting article, but the question is on how to make Croydon attractive for thise who people , both young and young at heart to bring their intellectual and entrepreneurial energies to the borough.

    One way is to have a University in the town, this has the effect of students and academics coming into the area and a proportion staying on (York, Bath and Sheffield are all examples of places I can think that have done this successfully). Alas a University is not built overnight, but something to consider.

    Otherwise I do think the easier answer make the town a vibrant and cost-effective place to do business for individuals who want to have a go. Make start-up costs as low as possible, interest-free rents/special loans to fill all those empty office blocks around East Croydon, don’t try and champion a particular type of industry but rather just get them in and see how it develops. Having those offices filled up will spur sales in local businesses even if direct monies into the council coffers are limited. A very interesting article here on the difference between small business startups and entrepreunership – and crucailly how Policymakers can foster the latter.

    • Wesley Jordan Anthony Baker

      Is it possible to make Croydon college a university, am I correct in thinking you can obtain a degree there through its links with London Met. I agree with your thoughts on being a university town. I know our town isn’t quite like Kingston but I will compare it to Coventry where I went to uni and despite it being a very uninspiring city on the whole in term time students did bring the diversity and life that could be great here.

      I know we already have a lot of these people but I guess a university is more likely to attract people from further affield than our own borough and its neighbours.