Croydon’s concrete – it’s in the mix: The Hauntology of Croydon exhibition at the Parfitt Gallery

By - Wednesday 7th May, 2014

Tom Winter takes a fresh and surprising look at Croydon’s notorious urban fabric but finds himself sadly unable to stroke the exhibits

Croydon Craterform

‘In this moment we are being encouraged to come to terms with the reality that is the ensemble of empty spaces that exist within these sleepy concrete shells’. Photo author’s own.

Having never been to the Parfitt Gallery at Croydon College before, I walked through the front entrance on Park Lane and found myself in a student hairdressing salon – a harsh architectural reminder that no matter how grand and symmetrically-centred a front entrance appears, what lies beyond it cannot be trusted to be so. Luckily I was quickly re-directed without any loss of hair, either through further stress or the attentions of an eager hairdresser.

My newly-acquired visitor’s badge stuck to my coat, I proceeded towards the Parfitt Gallery: a white, glass-fronted single room with two columns set asymmetrically giving the space a certain unavoidable definition. Getting closer to the room I could make out the distorted prints of Croydon’s historic and more recent skyline along with variously-aged photographs of the town, all set against a 1960s concrete grey background.

As one of the more recent self-proclaimed urban explorers of Croydon’s curiously-shadowed corners and desaturated surfaces, I needed no further invitation to enter this alluring yet seemingly empty room.

The exhibition uses 60s high-rise offices as inspiration

Curated by Croydon School of Art and London College of Communication lecturer Rob Mowbray with contributions from graphic designers and artists Craig Burston and Martin Saull, Ghost Town: The Hauntology of Croydon offers a different approach to our understanding of the built environment of Croydon. Using the many high-rise offices that were built in the 1960s as inspiration, the exhibition explores the effect their toweringly-built forms and their often uniform concrete skins have on us through the varying mediums of photography, art and psycho-geography – that is, by the sheer scale of the things.

Having left the gallery door open, noise alerted me that I was in the heart of an active college as the sounds of the end of a teaching period arose: paused conversations revived once more safely away from the ears of teacher-spies. Sounds successfully buffered, I turned around and proceeded towards what appeared to be delicate prints of maps on the back wall. Then as I drew closer, my eyes slowly deciphered these prints. They were beautifully-selected and detailed photographs of the varying concrete surfaces that make up so much of Croydon’s built environment.

Concrete can have such mysteriousness

The mystery of concrete. Photo author’s own.

How interesting it is that concrete, a material used for the most part to generate some of the largest forms known to man, can have such mysteriousness and illusion on a micro scale. I found myself happily staring at these photographs for quite some time.

Despite such a choice of material to browse through and respond to, one piece screamed for my attention from the moment I laid eyes on it. A newspaper hung on a wall with a deliberate tear through its middle like the layering of an onion’s skin. The image had been constructed by printing a number of Croydon’s most recognisable high-rise towers within its pages then tearing a rough hole through the middle to reveal the back page – a sky-blue wash.

In this moment Rob Mowbray, creator of the piece, is encouraging us to come to terms with the reality represented by the ensemble of empty spaces that exist within these concrete shells. All have been created from commercial greed some decades ago. So although this newspaper may have an honest appearance, its grim reminder of the possible effects of development and progress is one that ought to be taken seriously.

The desire to touch and experience grew in me as I looked

Rather than overcrowd the Parfitt Gallery with images of menacing high-rise blocks, Ghost Town: The Hauntology of Croydon chooses a very concise and effective way of communicating its message regarding our built environment. The only minor shame was the lack of tactile interaction within the exhibition. Concrete being the main material point of focus throughout the exhibition, a desire to touch and experience this grey matter both at a human and micro scale grew in me the longer I looked. Perhaps this feeling was a result of the exhibition’s success. It certainly left a lasting impression.

This effect, deliberate or not, can open a new era for Croydon – one of self-reflection and evaluation of the process of expansion and regeneration. Should we set in place yet again heavy-looking and independently-acting towers? Or should we begin to encourage an urban field of community and integration? Either way – this exhibition has begun to ask some fascinating questions.

Ghost Town: The Hauntology of Croydon was on at the Parfitt Gallery, Croydon College, College Road, CR9 1DX from 7th April to 2nd May 2014.

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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