The world is ready for the National Trust’s tours of Croydon

By - Wednesday 20th July, 2016

Taylan Tahir reveals why the National Trust is swapping cream teas for concrete

Image author’s own.

Cruising along in a pristine green 1960s Routemaster bus over a futuristic, sweeping flyover also imagined in the 60s gave a small insight into the optimistic vision of Croydon’s post-war Utopia. Speeding over the high street, past the midriff of gleaming towers, we see the fluid, glimmering reflection of sky and urban life: quite a dramatic entrance to an outer London suburb.

Years of public slander and pessimistic professional interpretation have dominated the way the borough is viewed by both residents and outsiders. We are regularly reminded that Croydon’s ‘Mini Manhattan’ skyline is soulless and drab: a ‘concrete jungle’. But is it possible that this orthodoxy has made us subconsciously blind to our surroundings, drifting daily past tower block after tower block, just assuming an inherent hostility towards each lofty ugly duckling without even an empathetic upward glance?

Understandably, for some there is negativity embodied in the empty office shells that line Croydon’s streets. An older generation of residents not so long ago saw the centre of their suburban market town torn up before their eyes. A slate of Victorian houses, schools and playing fields was wiped clean to be rebuilt for a profit as towering ‘castles of commerce’. It is important to note that for some people the perception of negativity stems from these emotions and first hand experiences.

People who grew up in modern Croydon value it as older generations can’t

However, others hold different associations. It is actually this obscure and ‘accidental uniqueness’ that makes the town an inspiring place to so many, and has done so for several decades. A younger generation, including me, has never known anything different. We grew up gazing towards Croydon’s town centre from our parents’ bedroom window, attaching a value and familiarity to this distinctive built environment that someone in their 60s or 70s doesn’t. It could be the image of the aspirational city viewed from the leafy suburbs or even just the enjoyment of living somewhere so distinct from its counterparts and readily recognisable to so many.

Swapping cream teas for concrete, the National Trust has recently collaborated with Croydon Council to construct ‘Edge City: Croydon’, a series of tours that help to tell some of the rich history of the borough. As Croydon undergoes another major phase of redevelopment and reinvention, the tours are a timely interjection. The programme hopes to enliven a bit of debate about which buildings may be considered an important part of the architectural narrative of the town and in a wider context, important examples of post-war development around the country.

Photo author’s own.

A meeting with Joe Watson, Creative Director of National Trust London, highlighted this desire to revisit associations. The aim of the tours is, he explains, is really to uncover the spirit of a place and to expose those things that are “unique, distinctive and cherished”.

One aspiration is to help to see things in a new light: to confront Croydon’s carbuncles. Joe suggests that when we look at a piece of architecture, we need to try to understand “why it looks the way it does; what its history is; how it came to be; what architectural era it has come out of and to focus on the important details”. With this information we can really begin to contextualise the built environment of Croydon in a way that allows people to engage physically and socially with locations that would otherwise go unnoticed, helping to unravel years of negative perception.

With that attention, he tell me, we will find space for a new set of associations and affections, uninfluenced by the biases of past generations. Multistorey car parks are no longer visual reminders of a failed urbanism designed solely for the car but rooftop cinemas and games of table tennis. Empty and forgotten shopping arcades have been superseded as colourful canvases and champions of art. Concrete and glass brutalist high-rise offices become Instagram friendly snapshots. What could an optimistic culture of transforming previously unloved places into points of creativity and opportunity mean for the future perceptions of Croydon?

Citizens of Croydon, look up!

The reality is that over time, things change. Our personal ideals of beauty oscillate and the reputations of materials such as concrete change with fashion. I for one hope that some of these post war visions can remain, sandwiched between the new and the historic, each reflecting a valuable moment in Croydon’s history to be celebrated in its own way.

The Edge City tours ask visitors to look again, to challenge and ask questions about the surroundings they drive or walk past everyday often without a second thought. Then, and only then, we will be able to see potential merit where it is due.

Citizens of Croydon, it is time to put aside your architectural differences and, quite literally: look up.

The Edge City: Croydon tours run from Friday 16th – Sunday 24th July. Tickets cost £9/(£7 students). Visit the National Trust website to find out more and to book.

Taylan Tahir

Taylan Tahir

Taylan Tahir is a director at MATA Architects. He studied at the Royal College of Art, where he had the opportunity to question negative attitudes towards his hometown in his dissertation titled, ‘We Need to Talk About Croydon’. Follow him on Twitter @taylantahir Instagram @taytahir.

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  • Maria_HG

    This is fantastic Taylan!