Croydon’s rising skyline – an opportunity not to be missed

By - Tuesday 31st March, 2015

Tom Lickley explores what is appropriate – and what isn’t – in skyscraper design and planning

This is an iconic and memorable skyline – Chicago.
Photo author’s own.

“And you have to remember that I came to America as an immigrant. You know, on a ship, through the Statue of Liberty. And I saw that skyline, not just as a representation of steel and concrete and glass, but as really the substance of the American Dream.” – Daniel Libeskind, architect.

As we buzz around with our branded cappuccinos in high-powered, fast-paced twenty-first century cities, rarely do we have time to glance upwards towards the skyline and seek inspiration from the towers of steel and concrete and glass.

And yet the value of a city’s skyline is perhaps often under-appreciated. Were you to be given a global city and asked about the top five things which define said city, it’s more than likely a tall structure or even a complete skyline would feature. Paris? The Eiffel Tower. New York City? The Empire State Building. Many may identify The Shard as a key feature of London, despite its relative infancy.

We must embrace the era of – literally – high living

What of Croydon, for some time now a centre of skyscrapers (in the Western European definition of the term, anyway)? Many would pitch in with the stacked-coin design of No. 1 Croydon which looms over the platforms at East Croydon, a defining piece of work by Richard Seifert who also designed Centre Point in the West End and Tower 42 in the city.

As an ever greater number of residential skyscrapers are planned for London, with Croydon to be the locale for a considerable share of this construction, we must begin to embrace the era of high living – in the literal sense, of course.

But this does not mean we should embrace each and every high-rise building with open arms. Design and appropriate location are key features of both good city planning and good skyline design.

Witness the skylines of downtown Chicago or New York for instance, which began sprouting skyscrapers in the late nineteenth century in response to rocketing land values and demand – much as London is experiencing in the early twenty-first century. Both cities are architecturally outstanding, with a well-designed, mostly uniform style which respects and responds to the surrounding environment.

If we look towards cities of new wealth, such as Dubai and Shanghai, the architecture which dominates the skyline in each of these cities may not be to everyone’s taste, but is a manifestation of what both cities wish to achieve – a place at the top table of the world in economic and cultural terms. The Burj Khalifa and the Shanghai World Financial Center are undoubtedly outstanding engineering feats.

Once again , an iconic and memorable skyline – Shanghai.
Photo author’s own.

Which brings us back to our relatively humble hometown. The ‘new era’ of skyscraper construction has started with Berkeley Homes’ Saffron Square, and whilst visually speaking many are yet to be convinced by the rather dizzying colour scheme of its tower, this writer included, many of the other designs for the town centre, including the growing Ruskin Square development, adopt a subtler design with considerable aesthetic appeal. It is this path that Croydon should follow if it wants a memorable, appealing skyline, rather than veering off towards the architectural jungle that London has become for example, with some poor and most intrusive post-modernist designs leading to a distracting, inappropriate and dispiriting skyline for a city which markets itself as a global leader in culture.

It’s a phrase overused in the town, but Croydon really does have a fantastic opportunity to build an inspiring skyline, with few restrictions in place in the town centre. Whilst we might not be building an American Dream, we can certainly seek to inspire through the use of the built environment. Remember: Croydon is an entrance point for many people into the United Kingdom, and we can take a leaf out of our sometimes unfairly maligned American cousins. A nation built on the success of diversity is something to which Croydon should rightly aspire.

This, however, is a mess – London.
Photo author’s own.

One wonders, looking at the photo above, whether the city would have been better left alone. The Docklands area was built to provide an area of high rise development and provide an affordable and spacious alternative to the crowded Square Mile in the late 1980s. Perhaps the historic city should have been left at that – an intriguing squabble of alleyways, narrow lanes and a confusing, but interesting, layout. Planned cities, such as those found in the USA (with the street grid layout) and China lend themselves well to skyscrapers. The layout of the city does not.

High rise development needs to be appropriate, respectful and responsive to the surrounding area. I’ll leave you with a simple question: looking at the images and arguments above, would a sixteen storey tower be appropriate in visual, social and economic terms in a suburban area such as Purley, dominated by low rise residences, offices and retail? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

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Tom Lickley

Tom Lickley

Contributing a variety of roles to the Citizen since early 2013, Tom now focuses upon regeneration, urbanism and real estate writing. He is a strategic communications consultant specialising in the real estate sector, and counts a number of the world's largest investment and fund management companies amongst his clients.

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  • Anne Giles

    A 16 storey tower would absolutely ruin the look of Purley.

    • Croydonian

      And it could even pave the way to putting in a 40-acre Tesco! Unlikely but possible! O_O

  • Croydonian

    Do you mind not comparing the skyline of my beautiful home city of Chicago to that of Croydon or London? Please?

    Incidentally, it’s not clear to me that America is built on the ‘success of diversity’ in the sense in which modern England means it. That Chicago skyline was built on many things, including the skill and aspiration of hundreds of thousands of German, Polish and Ukrainian immigrants who brought with them the religious architecture, and thus the crafts, skills and construction techniques, of their homelands. Those skils and the market they created, together with investment and marketing based on civic price (the Chicago World’s Fair, for example) went on to make Chicago a great center of architecture, crafts and industry. This is not a phenomenon I have so far observed in Croydon.

  • NeilB

    I quite like the look of the Saffron Tower, even ILYO, now Island. Though wondering who will be buying these or living there (probably not the same as those buying)