Review: A Journey through Brutalism – the guided walk

By - Tuesday 20th March, 2018

A great opportunity to see our town through new eyes, thanks to RISE Gallery

Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission.

Organised by RISE Gallery, St George’s Walk, this fascinating tour complements the current Brutalist exhibition at the gallery.

The tour was led by the ebullient Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison, owner of RISE Gallery, who gave interesting insights into Croydon buildings which most of us are familiar with, but probably know little more about them.

Wikipedia defines Brutalism as originating from the French word for ‘raw’, as Le Corbusier described his choice of material beton brut, meaning raw concrete in French. Architects Alison and Peter Smithson are believed to have coined the term ‘Brutalism’ in the 1950s and it became more widely used after British architectural critic Reyner Banham titled his 1966 book, The New Brutalism, using the term ‘Brutalism’ to identify the style.

One unusual aspect of this building is the architect’s avoidance of right angles wherever possible

We started at Croydon’s probably most iconic building, No.1 Croydon (also familiarly known as the Threepenny Bit building or the NLA Tower) which was designed in 1970 by Richard Seifert, whose tell-tale pillars can be seen at basement level. One unusual aspect of this building is the architect’s avoidance of right angles wherever possible. Unfortunately this building did not achieve heritage listing, which is why the Sainsbury’s convenience store was allowed to be built at its base.

We moved on to the Fuller, Hall & Foulsham-designed AMP House, Dingwall Road. This is a polite version of sixties architecture. Built originally for the Australian Mutual Provident insurance company, it features what could be said to be an early example of street art – ‘Mother & Child’ which was used as the logo for AMP – this mural was recreated once AMP no longer occupied the building, with the map of Australia removed.

Another Seifert building, Corinthian House, displays the Seifert trademarks more prominently – the pillars and long canopy over the entrance – a Le Corbusier inspiration. This building somehow moulds itself into the corner of the road junction and has been tastefully refurbished – the illuminated sign is a recent addition.

In the sixties, Wellesley Road was often referred to as Croydon’s Manhattan

Kevin pointed out the many examples of former office blocks being converted into residential apartments – Carolyn House, Leon House and Impact House are examples of this. This change of use does polarise opinions, but in my view it is good to see buildings being put to use rather than remaining empty.

Round the corner from Corinthian House is the site for Croydon’s largest development, 1 Lansdowne, which will be the second tallest building in England. This will replace Marco Polo House, and the old café and hostel on the corner of Lansdowne Road and Wellesley Road.

Moving onto Wellesley Road, which in the sixties was often referred to as Croydon’s Manhattan (not such an apt description these days), we visited the two government buildings, Lunar House and Apollo House. These were designed by Harry Hyams, of Centre Point fame (and notoriety) and reflect Hyams’ fascination with the space age.

We next came to two of my favourite buildings, Electric House and Segas House

We walked through the Whitgift Centre, built in the late sixties and, at the time, one of the UK’s largest shopping centres. Mainly open to the elements back then, I vaguely remember the travolator and the (eminently missable) Forum pub. The roof was added in the nineties and while awaiting the arrival of Westfield (will it ever arrive?), several of the units have been turned into meanwhile use, with TURF Projects and the Croydon Arts Store hosting multiple events for the community.

We next came to two of my favourite buildings, Electric House and Segas House. Electric House (built 1939-42) is unusual for its Portland stone cladding, and there are a number of interesting details, including the ‘Electricity’ sign created in Benjamin Franklin’s handwriting! The basement of this building was used as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War. Both these buildings are now listed but will need delicate and careful restoration as parts of the exterior stonework have been damaged by the elements.

Opposite Segas House is Croydon College, built almost in an Eastern Bloc style, with stark pillars and minimal ornamentation. The former Croydon School of Art, behind the Fairfield Halls, is by far the purest Brutalist building in Croydon, and whose alumni included Bridget Riley. The Nestlé Building (properly St George’s House) was built in 1968 but currently stands empty since Nestlé moved to Gatwick.

We were privileged to be able to access the roof garden at Green Dragon House

We walked to the High Street, seeing a new piece by Adam Halliday on the roadway, based on Croydon’s architecture. There is also a vibrant work by Otto Schade on the corner of High Street and Katharine Street.

We were privileged to be able to access the roof garden at Green Dragon House, from which there were stunning views of Croydon and beyond. Notable was the curved frontage of St George’s Walk, the brutal structure of Ryland House, Old Town and Leon House, currently being converted into residential.

We ended this excellent tour at Rise Gallery, where there was an opportunity to browse the Brutalist exhibition, and also see a number of pieces by Otto Schade.

I thoroughly enjoyed this walk, and learned a lot about the buildings which I see every day.

The exhibition ‘A Journey through Brutalism’ runs until 31st March.

Steve Thompson

Steve Thompson

I have been a Croydon resident for over 30 years, and have recently retired from a career in banking. Whilst appreciating many aspects of the regeneration of Croydon I do have a number of concerns about its effects. My main interests are rock music, walking, travel, and last but not least, good pubs and quality beer!

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  • Taz, Wedding Photographer

    Lovely to read this Steve, I had the pleasure of attending one of these tours witha good friend of mine who used to be a journalist on the construction trade. Truly fascinating. I have found myself looking at architecture from this era a little differently since then!