Halfway there, or just living on a prayer? The Fairfield Halls building site tour

By - Thursday 12th October, 2017

What happening behind the Fairfield Halls’ scaffolding?

Photo author’s own.

On Saturday 16th September on Park Lane, central Croydon, I put on a hard hat and hi-vis jacket and went on an emotional journey.

The occasion was the ‘stakeholders’ tour’ of the Fairfield Halls’ ongoing refurbishment. It was hosted by Paula Murray, the council’s Creative Director, Magnus Wills of Rick Mather Architects, and Colin Murphy from Brick by Brick, the council’s property development vehicle. (These are the project’s three collaborating organisations.) Work is approaching what should be its half way point and despite reports of over-runs, the site team is confident of delivery next year. “Christmas 2018!” is the date the Fairfield re-opens, its members told us.

Its absence matters. Fairfield is Croydon’s Stonehenge: our energy flows right through it. That’s why its closure caused such a row. Opponents spoke of lost jobs and expertise, revenue missing from the local economy, reduction in community resource and diminishment of life in our town, since events above a certain size cannot take place here during its years of darkness. And all this was true, but the essence of it all was that leaving a big black hole where our cultural heart used to beat felt painful and wrong.

But was the cheaper option – so decision made, thank you and goodnight. That’s just how it works. 

This beautiful, neglected thing of ours

Many Croydonians felt awful sorrow at the point we had reached. From an arts centre of groundbreaking excitement in 1962, bringing its jolt of high-visibility modernism and a famously wonderful acoustic, Fairfield was allowed to decline until it was tired, shabby and embarrassing. (Or, in the words of the project’s brochure: ‘planned maintenance had struggled to stem accelerating deterioration’). Clad in its tawdry external signage, the halls looked like an elegant friend in a very cheap dress. It was hard not to grow impatient with Croydon: just look at this beautiful, neglected thing of ours. We should be ashamed.

So, if you care for Fairfield, it’s moving to listen to others who care too, architects and project managers making right those years of abandonment. And, if the refurb completes on schedule, we’re a year away from something more significant than previously: a focal point and flagship for the new Croydon Cultural Quarter.

Fairfield foyer.
Photo author’s own.

Though I’d found out a little already, I learned a lot more as we toured the building. Who knew that the cluttered and unappealing Park Lane entrance had been greatly altered down the years, ending up not at all as originally conceived? That area will now return to openness and light, using an extended canopy to bring more outdoor space into use. Original chandeliers will be restored, though we were not told why they were ever removed. The opening up of the northern side of the building, facing College Green, will allow the halls to interact with that space at last. Food, drink, entertainment and a new art gallery will bring this whole aspect to life, and hopefully the green into use – a lovely idea, as anyone who’s sipped a drink on the terrace at London’s South Bank before a show will understand.

There will be new rehearsal rooms and better backstage space. An expanded stage in the main auditorium will allow events which didn’t previously fit to come to Croydon. There will be improvements to lighting and new acoustic ‘banners’. The seating capacity of the Ashcroft Theatre will be increased. Another, subterranean art gallery will be created from that dark and scary underground carpark. The parking space that remains will be made more accessible. Alterations to the interior will improve the conference and events offer (a major source of revenue). The entire Fairfield zone of central Croydon, for too long marooned by traffic and accessed by dingy subways, is to be integrated into the town centre.

Above all, I liked the respect being shown for the halls’ original concept. Croydon has finally found the confidence to celebrate its pioneering modernity. This was and is a remarkable building whose creators’ vision had been blurred and lost. It had been let down. From now on, we can do better.

And who will profit?

Fairfield is also a big money scheme in a prime development location. The site extends east along Barclay Road and north to George Street, and 200 new homes are to be built in this central area of town. There’ll be little space for residents’ cars (because people who live near a station won’t drive at any time, we were assured) and not much for the actual residents. And they may be intending to use the trains, but will they be able to fit?

Construction on this scale will generate a lot of traffic in what’s already a congested area (and that’s before you consider that Westfield’s development will – perhaps – also be underway just along Wellesley Road). It’s unlikely these homes will be affordable for many local people who need them, even by the through-the-looking-glass modern definition of that word. And five years from now, no matter how single and professional the original occupants may be, Fairfield will be home to many young families. Are green breathing spaces and other local amenities adequate for their needs?

Fairfield auditorium stage.
Photo author’s own.

If I have correctly understood the information I have seen, Croydon College is also to be re-located to the south east corner of the Fairfield site, in a considerably smaller building. When this is ready, the old building will come down – this despite almost £60 million having been spent on its refit in 2012 at the time the new rotunda, which cost £35 million, was built. The suggestion I have heard is that the ratio of office space to teaching space in the current building is too high and downsizing may therefore not affect students. There’s been no official objection, and to judge from social media, public awareness is limited. No-one on the tour asked about any of this.

And neither did I. Thinking only of the halls, I felt moved and excited. In the silent, stripped-out auditoria, where unlit stages stare on the space where audiences once sat and will sit again, you can feel this place’s latent power. I want it to be a triumph for Croydon. I want a cultural quarter that puts us on the map. I want to see the Fairfield’s rebirth.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Andrew Dickinson

    ‘latent power’ ooh I like that