Traces of Croydon

By - Tuesday 17th February, 2015

Rossella Scalia reflects on Croydon’s evolution and sets the scene for what’s yet to come

Traces of Croydon. Photo by John Gass, used with permission

“People who do not know better would describe Croydon as a suburb of London; indeed within the last few years it has been officially incorporated in the Greater London area. But it is in essence a Surrey town with something of a provincial character: it is only about ten miles from Central London, and because of this has been greatly influenced by the capital, mainly in the last 100 years”. So wrote John B. Gent in Croydon: the story of a hundred years, published in 1970 by Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society.

Describing Croydon means strolling on a weak bridge that binds this solid conurbation to a constant dualism of thought; a dualism that tries harshly to meld two different fringes into one by pushing both sides towards a conflicting jumble of forms. Imagine a container of water into which from time to time some oil drops are poured in the vain attempt to make appear identical what is different.

The compact swarm of streets and buildings that from the middle ages gave rise to the rapid urban development of Croydon, and which had seen its greatest splendour and magnificence find expression in the Victorian era, suddenly stopped and, in the years following World War II, turned into something that has abruptly reversed the course of events: an air raid of oil drops that has filled the whole territory with alien creatures and shapes never seen before.

A series of critical phases transformed Croydon from what had been into what is

A triple conflict has characterised Croydon since the very birth of its urban system; a series of critical phases that have repeatedly transformed what had been into what is.

The first critical moment outlined the transition of the city from an extended countryside to an active marketplace. At this stage, which might be dated to 1276 – the year in which, according to some historical sources, the first Croydon market was established – the urban element coexists with nature; its dependence on it determines the strength of a relationship built on the true act of offering and receiving in a balanced way.

Croydon was no longer tied to nature but rather to the city

The second critical stage takes place in 1883, when Croydon proudly donned the role of borough of London. The suburb was swallowed by the metropolis and its dependence was no longer tied to nature but rather to the city. The small market-town was transformed into a luxurious and healthy residence for lavish landowners who worked in London and sought retreat in a fast accessible place. The same role had previously been the reason why the archbishop of Canterbury chose Croydon as his personal place of meditation. John Whitgift, archbishop from 1583, had a major role in the 16th and 17th century urban development; signs of his possessions and gifts to the town are still pleasantly visible today.

The third critical period arrived in 1956, the year in which the Croydon Corporation Act was passed, giving the local authority the freedom to buy land without having to justify its actions to the Ministry of Housing nor to the local government, therefore with no need to present any comprehensive development area plan. The consequent property boom influenced Croydon for about twenty years and reorganised the city into a built utopia. The director of this hazardous dream was Sir James Marshall, chairman of the planning committee and finance committee since 1936. As Peter Robert Saunders, Professor of Sociology at Sussex University wrote in Urban politics:

“…this hard-headed autocrat was in a sense comparable to an American-style town boss. What Marshall said, went. Extremely commercially minded and an orthodox conservative, he was, as it were, the managing director of Croydon. He got things done quickly and they worked. […] A property developer who had operated in Croydon recalled that: ‘one didn’t get anywhere if Sir James disapproved of one’”.

Croydon has become a satellite revolving around the blazing sun of London

At that time the government had begun a program of decentralisation of business out of London city centre. Croydon was the perfect place to implement such a move; its proximity to the city has always made the area exploitable in times of need, that is to say when the congested metropolis explodes and part of the immense power accumulated inside its insatiable belly is reversed towards spaces yet reachable by its engulfing tentacles. This paradoxical process, that French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefevbre has termed ‘implosion-explosion’, has been triggered by the presence of the historical and efficient transport system that from the 19th century has made Croydon a close satellite with a dense network of rings that revolve around the blazing sun of London.

If the changing process that has perpetually involved Croydon seems to have found a point of stability in the years following the 1980s – during which another small economic boom may be registered and other office buildings bloomed in the increasingly dense valley of skyscrapers – a new critical phase suddenly appears in 2015. The aim of this investigation is to record the events and novelty that once again shuffle the cards of Croydon in the latest unexpected play.

To be continued…

Rossella Scalia

Rossella Scalia

Rossella is a London-based architecture critic and researcher. Her interests focus mainly on architectural education, photography, cinema and communication. She has been studying the potential of forgotten spaces and unfinished buildings within the concept of participatory design. Rossella has been shortlisted for the Architects Journal Writing Prize in 2012.

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