Croydon, the unique city?

By - Thursday 6th June, 2013

Stephen Black explains how Croydon’s brutalist architectural collage could make it the next Stoke Newington

Too little of this?

Too little of this?

I’ve lived in London for more than thirty years, twenty-five of them in Croydon, and it’s long been a parlour game of mine to speculate (even ‘pontificate’) on why some parts of London are considered desirable, fashionable, chic, hip, cool, or simply ‘nice’, while others are not.

Before moving to Croydon I lived in various places in north London. One was Stoke Newington, which at the time was extraordinarily rundown. Yet as I walked along Stoke Newington Church Street every morning to catch the 73 bus to work, I was struck by the quality of the housing I passed. Despite being rundown – most houses were either derelict or inexpertly carved into Withnailian multiple occupancy – this was clearly housing of distinction, and it was equally clear that no one in their right mind would allow its rundown state to continue for very long. And they didn’t.

So when the question of why Croydon is not up there in the desirability stakes with Hampstead, Shoreditch, or even Stoke Newington, I argue that we do not have the housing stock to bring together the kind of mixed community which would benefit the borough culturally, economically, and politically.

In my experience the parts of Greater London which are fashionable, ‘successful’, chic, and so on, tend to have high streets with a strong identity and roads of high quality housing stock off them, providing huge and varied footfall for the shops, theatres, independent cinemas, cafés, and restaurants.

So what does ‘high quality housing stock’ mean? The Georgian terraced town house is widely regarded as the apotheosis of urban design. Danish architect and planner Stein Eiler Rasmussen argues the case for this in his 1930s book, London: the unique city. Georgian terraced housing is relatively high-density, it ‘benefits from’ such features as high ceilings, large windows allowing in daylight, and often has three floors (plus a usable basement). It is the apotheosis of aspiration: its neo-classical proportions have appealed to ideas of good taste and solidity for generations, and will always do.

He also argues for the compact quality of the small Victorian terrace, much like those in Old Town. But overall, how much ‘good housing stock’ is there in Croydon? Well, there is certainly some up to Rasmussen’s standard, though very little compared to Hampstead, Shoreditch, or Stoke Newington.

Croydon’s atypicality should be seen as a strength, not a weakness

Let me say now in the strongest possible terms that I’m not proposing the construction of streets of neo-Georgian or Victorian housing in Croydon. If you want some idea of what that might be like, take the train to Richmond and enjoy/endure Quinlan Terry’s Richmond Riverside Development (1984–87). What I propose instead is that we make the best use of what we already have.

If we look beyond Rasmussen’s terraced-prescription for urban bliss to his remarks on the nature of London (‘the unique city’) I think there are grounds for optimism in Croydon.

For Rasmussen, London is a ‘scattered city’. It is, unlike other cities, ‘a group of townships’. He praises the fact that London has never had overly restrictive planning laws and its architectural and cultural diversity is a function of that. There is no typical London and Croydon’s atypicality should be seen as a strength, a manifestation of its essential ‘London-ness’, not a weakness.

Croydon has an architectural legacy. It may not be Georgian, nor is it one that is valued very highly at the moment; but it is a legacy nonetheless. And like all legacies, it has been trusted to us for the future.

The cluster of 1960s office blocks around Wellesley Road could house an influx of the diverse residents who would make Croydon something approaching desirable, chic, and so on. If we can rediscover the idealism of the 1960s, the thinking behind the ‘building up’ mentality, then I feel Croydon will be on the map for all the right reasons.

I’d say the conversion of the Nestlé building into flats (or ‘homes’) is a first step towards bringing a community back to the very centre of Croydon. It’s people who make a place what it is, not buildings. When I walk round German cities (like Croydon, heavily re-built post-WW2) I see a mixed population living centrally – age, social class, occupation, income (I also often see trams). It’s not in the first instance about money, it’s about a healthy, diverse mix. You are not going to get people to live anywhere unless you have the right buildings for them to make their lives in.

Croydon has the resources to transform itself from ‘edge city’ or ‘un-chic city’ – and to take its place as a valued part of The Unique City.

Stephen Black

Stephen Black

Stephen arrived in Croydon from Nottingham, via Portsmouth, Leeds and north London. He’s taught English in secondary schools since 1990, after enjoying five years in the central London book trade during which he glimpsed the last throes of a Golden Age and shared a very small lift with Michael Foot (having joined the Labour Party under his predecessor) where they discussed Maynard Mack’s biography of Alexander Pope.

More Posts

  • Alessandro Zambelli

    Hi Stephen, Rasmussen was quite promiscuous in his architectural tastes and not always faithful to London – he preferred Venetian facades to Georgian ones (Experiencing Architecture, 1959) for example.

    I’m not certain that comparisons with Shoreditch or Stoke Newington etc are helpful – or that ‘chicness’ or even ‘niceness’ are sufficient aims for somewhere as complex or, quite simply, as *big* as Croydon is. The axes of ‘warehouse living – design agency’ of Shoreditch or ‘Georgian terrace – fusion bistro’ of Stoke Newington (these terms are of course interchangeable) are small aims for Croydon. I think we can have it all.
    One thing that does characterise those places however is, or was, the imaginative reuse of existing building stock. Croydon has a staggering variety of buildings. Some should be knocked down to make way for new, some extended and some re-inhabited. How we decide which is which is complex but those of us that appreciate the currently unpopular, or the potential in the unloved, must sometimes get a bit shouty about it:
    I do like the sound of Croydon as ‘edge city’ but I will be sorry for the loss of the Nestlé building which I like.

    • Stephen Black

      Hello Alessandro. Thanks so much for your thoughts.

      I completely agree with you: the key is ‘the imaginative reuse of existing building stock’; or as I say in my article, ‘Croydon has the resources to transform itself’.

      It’s not about making Croydon chic, but about providing an environment which will nurture a mixed community; which – in my view – is desirable culturally, economically and just about every other way.

      And we’re not losing the Nestlé Building – it’s being re-shaped into 288 flats. Seems like a step in the right direction to me!

  • Wesley Jordan Anthony Baker

    Hi Stephen would you use whats happened/happening at the IYLO end of Wellesley rd as a good example of what you mentioned in terms of grand terraces being restored. West Croydon has some really nice big old family homes as well but not in the Georgian style I guess.

    • michael badu

      I’m glad you raised this Alessandro but I disagree that ‘Croydon can have it all’. Croydon must find it’s own soul as these other places have (or haven’t depending on who you are). As for old houses being restored. Yes this is happening (I used to live opposite the debacle that is Iylo) but only for people who are moving into Croydon (which is where the new ‘Stokie’ thing is applicable i guess), but is that a good thing? Young-ish ‘hip’ couples that can afford comfortable town centre living on one knowledge-pro salary, while the other writes novels and pushes expensive buggies down the street during the week? I for one i’m tired of this tired model. I’d love Croydon to be successful in a different way. As someone born in Mayday hospital, schooled here and still live here, I’m not so embarrassed by Croydon that all it is to me is ‘potential’ to be something else. I don’t see the need to be always ‘selling’ it (which just plays to the same old tune). Let’s just do our thing, but first we need to find our thing and stop trying to be ‘someone’ else.