Our modern heritage: why Croydon’s concrete architecture should be admired

By - Wednesday 11th June, 2014

As Croydon’s Heritage Festival approaches, Tom Lickley looks at a different kind of historic building – those made from concrete. How can our soaring modernist towers contribute to the town’s future?

Leon House, one of Croydon’s finest examples of modernist architecture. Photo by Carlo Navato used with permission.

“To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.”

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.”

“When we build, let us think that we build forever.”

- John Ruskin.

Grim, concrete carbuncles. Windy, dark alleyways. Oppressive, inaccessible monoliths. Gruesome infrastructure, defined by a shadowy underpass and a dull flyover cutting through the heart of Croydon’s town centre.

This is, perhaps, the commonly-held view of the architecture of Croydon. Seek them out, and there are plenty of buildings which many would consider conventionally attractive; the Georgian town hall and the Clocktower lead the way on that front. But few would consider the likes of St. George’s House (known to most as the Nestlé Tower), Leon House or Fairfield Halls as parts of Croydon’s heritage. Even fewer would consider the buildings as representations of architectural beauty.

The redevelopment of the town following the passing of the Croydon Corporation Act in 1956 was mostly played out against the backdrop of the 1960s – the decade of the Beatles, the moon landings and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. With memories of the Second World War fading, and the rise of counterculture and revolution against social norms, it was a time to be excited about the future.

And so congested Croydon started tearing up the town centre. No doubt many fine buildings were lost, and it is clear that greater emphasis should have been placed on retaining some of these at the core of the town. Croydon began building towers and infrastructure in modernist and brutalist form. Modernist architecture, defined by industry-produced materials, angular design and the mantra of “form follows function”, and brutalist architecture, led by the controversial Le Corbusier and defined by stripped-down concrete masses, were supposed to lead Croydon into a futuristic cityscape.

How to respond, then, if one believes beauty comes from functionality, practicability and usefulness?

And for a while, it was a success. Croydon became a booming office centre and, with the addition of the open-air Whitgift Centre in the late 1960s following the destruction of the neo-Gothic town centre spires of Trinity School, a destination of choice for businesses and shoppers alike. The slow and relentless decline since then has left us with a run-down shopping centre and a number of empty concrete blocks dominating a tired-looking town. We know – roughly – what the retail future of Croydon holds. But what to do with our unloved concrete – if anything at all?

Firstly, I ask you to challenge your view of what a ‘beautiful building’ is. Architecture, as an art form, is highly objective; an opinion of what an attractive building is can change from one person to the next. How to respond then, if one believes beauty comes from functionality, practicability and usefulness?

Look around the world at Croydon’s contemporary towns and cities which are dominated by modernism and brutalism. Brasília, the capital of Brazil built during the late 1950s and early 1960s, is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its modernist architecture, and was heavily contributed to by renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer. The city is regarded as elegant by some, and highly functional because of its thorough planning and capacity for extension.

Or alternatively, consider the sheer facade of the Pirelli Tower in Milan, designed by Gio Ponti, which was seen as a symbol of the economic development of Italy upon completion in 1958. The building is still in use today, and still admired in the heady mix of architectural styles in the financial heart of Italy. Look also at the highly developed freeway systems in cities such as Tokyo and Los Angeles; flyovers and underpasses are used frequently to create space for road networks where there should naturally be none. It is functional, and it is architecture which solves problems.

What better function of heritage than to give somebody a place to live?

Of course, Croydon does have many problems which need to be addressed, and few have short-term solutions. A problem which affects most of us, if not all, is the housing shortage and subsequent inflation in house prices stemming from the lack of supply. Croydon has a number of modernist, well-built structures ideally located and many, such as St. George’s House, stand empty. Plans for conversion of the former Nestlé headquarters into a residential building were published in 2013, although there has been no subsequent movement. Re-using our modernist heritage as housing suggests a living heritage that we can continue to admire for the foreseeable future. What better function of heritage than to use it to give somebody a place to live?

Look further afield, and all kinds of uses can be made of our modernist heritage. The Croydon Flyover is still a busy thoroughfare connecting central Croydon with Purley Way, Sutton and beyond, but who is to say that one day an alternative will not be found? Our own version of the New York High Line, an urban park built on the former New York Central Railroad, could then be brought into existence.

We should not decry our grey towers. Indeed, one may sigh when glancing at the stained concrete of our town after a commute home on a miserable, rainy winter’s day, but look at our monoliths from a different angle: they can be practical, liveable and welcoming homes for many. And this is why we should appreciate, respect and re-use our brutalist heritage – the soaring aspirations of 1960s Croydon have left a legacy of capacity for growth.

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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  • http://www.pearshapedcomedy.com Anthony Miller

    I loved working in Leon House. Particularly when the air conditioning broke and 18 floors of acid water fell over all the computers. We put in an insurance claim immediately and got much better computers. I also enjoyed opening the windows which would create a storm of protest from the building management that people on the 20th floor were suffocating because we had upset the airflow.

    I fear in reality buildings such as Leon House are not actually as functional or as economic as they were supposed to be …