What’s brutal about Croydon?

By - Friday 17th July, 2015

Tom Winter on why Croydon’s a gentler suburb than its reputation suggests

Rear facade of Croydon Magistrates’ Court, Altyre Road.
Photo author’s own.

What is brutalism? It’s a style of building associated with pioneers such as the French architect Le Corbusier, in which ‘béton brut (concrete), [is] treated… uncompromisingly, with the formwork patterns not only visible but deliberately emphasised [and in which] aspects of mechanical engineering become overtly displayed’. (That’s according to James Stevens Curl in his Architectural Dictionary, which I purchased as a first year architecture undergraduate at the University of Plymouth).

Adjectives such as uncompromising, crude and rough provide an accurate foundation for most people’s thoughts on brutalist architecture, or to be more specific, what they believe brutalist architecture to represent. For the most part this is true, and to visit a worthy example of pure brutalism such as Trellick Tower by Erno Goldfinger in Notting Hill will undoubtedly reinforce the idea that the style is unforgiving and confrontational. Harshly segregated into circulation and living, with a uniform structure presented proudly on the exterior, Trellick Tower represents a period of time within architecture that produced an ideology of no nonsense, and no prisoners. Yet there is honesty, totally unadulterated architectural honesty that is still apparent, and that is a characteristic worth reinforcing today.

There’s a crucial difference between brutalism and a building which is brutal

Croydon’s architectural stock is for the most part a hangover from a delirium of development that occurred in the 1960s, and monoliths of this time are well littered throughout the town. This particular building stock is often described as brutal and ugly, a grey wash of cement and tireless horizontal belts of glazing rising upwards. However, although not great in number, there were honorable pieces of architecture constructed in Croydon during this same era. They have sadly fallen into the same fighting pit as their exhausted and uninspiring office block companions.

For there is a crucial difference between brutalist architecture and a building that is brutal and oppressive through its very presence, and it is clear that in Croydon this difference is grossly misunderstood.

Saffron Square development, Wellesley Road, during early stage construction.
Photo author’s own.

To drive down Wellesley Road and look out of the window will provide you with all the ammunition you require to understand a brutal building. What you see will not be subtle, and shows little care for its local context. Aside from Corinthian House, which stands like a blooming flower amongst the remnants of a car crash, almost all the surrounding building stock is of a hideously inhumane scale and egotistical character. Most of these buildings are for office use and with so much of the same typology in close proximity, each building tries to muscle up its own aesthetic and stand more proud than the last, creating an unwelcoming front.

What none of these buildings actually has is the architectural honesty that defines brutalism. Look closely and they reveal a stockpile of fake columns, grandiose cladding and voluptuous atriums. Such building elements are fine in moderation, but the current building stock in Croydon consists largely of this kind of finish – and judging by what’s happening recently, our newest buildings have not learnt from their elderly neighbours.

Currently there are numerous active construction sites rising up throughout central Croydon, awoken from their lengthy development slumber by the whispers of a new shopping centre. What can be seen, especially in the area immediately around East Croydon station, is a collection of hoardings, pile foundations and stair-cores all creating their first permanent mark on the landscape. A brutal act in itself. What is more interesting, however, is to deconstruct the few contemporary pieces of architecture that have already been completed in the town. They paint a clear canvas of things to come.

We are once again heading for a disconnected urban landscape

Bulky forms touching the ground in a clumsy fashion, often clad with a system designed to distract your eyes more than to emphasize a corner or dissect sunlight, is a fair description of these contemporary buildings. Their function is true, but so often their form is stubborn and their appearance vain. We are once again heading towards a disconnected urban landscape. Standing on platform one at East Croydon station, you can witness one of these buildings being constructed, with its naked concrete lift shafts and sturdy steel trusses displaying their true form, only to be concealed not long after by a mask of self-importance.

Both Croydon Magistrates’ Court and No. 1 Croydon (the NLA Tower) reveal a different way of approaching the production of an architecture that is brutal, but understood. When you first look at these buildings, you perceive their large form and jagged finish and notice little else, but this is all part of the act. For me, the beauty of brutalist architecture is how humble it really is – the thorough honesty of the form and its materiality allows it to calmly exist amidst the busy modern world. There is almost nothing more beautiful than witnessing a building that by way of introduction appears monstrous and then surprises by the delicate way it caresses the sunlight and embraces the human form.

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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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