Back to the future to find lessons from Croydon’s past

Croydon The Future

Architecture author JOHN GRINDROD re-views an old television documentary and sees some interesting warnings for the town’s regeneration

Back in 1993, it’s fair to say that I had never given much thought to the architecture of my home town, Croydon. It was easy to dismiss, ignore and make jokes about, because that’s what everyone else did.

But then a thoroughly unexpected BBC documentary changed all that. The Late Show was BBC2’s late night arts programme in the 1980s and into the ’90s, famous for Mark Lawson’s bickering Late Review, the Stone Roses’ speakers blowing up live on air, and Sarah Dunant’s massive specs. It covered the official, serious, credible global arts scene, from opera to installation art. So I was, like many viewers, startled to see one entire episode given over to a new exhibition called “Croydon: the Future”.

Essentially a PR exercise rather than a serious attempt to rebuild the town, “Croydon: The Future” was a council-led competition encouraging architects to re-imagine the town for the late 20th century. The Late Show decided to cover the competition, but also tell the story of how Croydon had become Croydon.

The documentary is all framed through the lens of Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 futuristic film noir, a kind of French New Wave Blade Runner. Alphaville itself is a futuristic dystopia, a cold, logical, heavily computerised city. Clips of Alphaville are used liberally throughout the documentary, so we’re in no doubt of what the documentary maker thinks of Croydon. It’s essentially a pseudo-intellectual’s version of a stand-up comedian’s punchline about the town.

Look familiar? How Godard saw Alphaville

Look familiar? How the French film director Godard saw a dystopian future in Alphaville

The main part of the documentary tells the story of the mid-20th century rebuilding of the town through the problems perceived by different architects who have entered the competition, and a couple of critics.

And that’s essentially where the documentary falls down. The competition means that all the architects picture themselves as visionary saviours, and Croydon as some kind of hell hole that needs their superhero intervention. The critics pick apart the faults of the town and the architects. But there isn’t anyone there to present a positive version of Croydon as it was.

Well, no one apart from one magnetic figure. The elderly former Borough Engineer, Allan Holt, who oversaw the rebuilding of the town centre from the 1950s to the 1970s. Croydon has more than 40 crammed together but unrelated office towers in the centre, and a flyover that leads to an unfinished urban ring road, part of which divides east from west along Wellesley Road.

This is Holt’s legacy: the town’s wardrobes-in-a-junkyard muddle of office blocks, and the go-for-broke urban motorway. But when he talks about those days when he was in charge, an innocent naivety pours forth. The Nestlé Tower became 23 storeys high simply because that was more than double the height of previous tallest building, Norfolk House.

Nestle Tower: 23 storeys, simply to make it twice the height of what was then Croydon's tallest building

Nestle Tower: 23 storeys, simply to make it twice the height of what was then Croydon’s tallest building

“I heard it said to me once at a public meeting,” says Holt, “had I been to New York? Is that the reason for this? Well, I’ve never been to New York, and it wasn’t the reason for it. I think that Croydon had either got to deteriorate or go forward. We went forward.” Holt’s final remark in the documentary is, “I didn’t realise what the end was going to be, but I had a faith that it would work out alright, not in myself but a faith in God. And I think he guided me in the decisions I suggested should be done for Croydon.” Holt is represented as the Alphaville computer, the bad guy of the piece.

Then there was American critic Charles Jencks, who thought Croydon was “… like Oakland – when you’re there, there’s no there there”.

Jencks’ main criticism of Croydon was the obsession with the car. “In the ’60s people typically thought efficiency first, and efficiency meant get in your car and get somewhere fast and get out of your car and get into your office. As a result the city was turned into a series of empty spaces which destroys the centre. What would have been nice has been blown apart by the car, by these roadway planners.”

The architects themselves all have their plans for the future. Richard Rogers wants to build a massive propeller. There was a boomerang-shaped bridge across Wellesley Road in that 1990s cat’s cradle style. An underground art gallery running the length of Wellesley Road replacing the underpass. Travelators in the sky. Colourful inflatable of Tokyo-style “dromes” (or inverted bouncy castles) set on top of the multi-storey car parks. And a plan to demolish Lunar House, bury the offices underground and replace it with a boating lake.

Croydromia: one of the architects' futuristic drawings for the exhibition, with inflatable buildings on top of the multi-storey car parks

Croydromia: one of the architects’ futuristic drawings for the exhibition, with inflatable buildings on top of the multi-storey car parks

At the time I was bowled over by the ambition and unexpected strangeness of these ideas, partly because no one ever said anything about Croydon, certainly not on The Late Show.

Watching the documentary again now it is immediately clear that all of these ideas are terrible. Vain and self-serving, they say nothing about Croydon and everything about lazy statement architecture solutions to the wrong problems.

They are, however, fascinating as a snapshot of 1990s swagger and arrogance. And it’s clear that the documentary-maker has been duped. The baddie here isn’t Allan Holt, who was determined to make his town the Docklands of the 1960s. Clumsy and naïve he might have been, but his ambitions for the town were at least coming from the right place.

Another of the "silly ideas from the 1990s": this appears to be a indoor ski run from a car park and across the Croydon Flyover in Waddon

Another of the “silly ideas from the 1990s”: this appears to be a indoor ski run from a car park and across the Croydon Flyover in Waddon

The silly ideas from the 1990s were contemptuous of Croydon’s history and people, but dressed up, as so much ’90s culture was, as just that bit more touchy-feely than what had come before. Looking back, these architects are no more than giggling behind the hands, or just sending in swaggering bits of statement architecture that could be erected anywhere.

So, watching it now, I find myself cross at all of those experts, smugly dismissing my home town and then trotting out a load of half-baked rubbish as potential solutions.

And to my surprise I feel more sympathetic towards Allan Holt, a man who clearly made some very silly mistakes, but who at least wasn’t out to take the piss.

Having said all of that, you might think I now hate this documentary, with its sneering and glib solutions. But no, I am a true product of Croydon: I love any attention on my home town, no matter how misguided. And it kick-started something in me, and made me think. Two decades later my book on the post-war rebuilding of Britain, Concretopia, was inspired by thoughts I began having as a reaction to seeing this documentary. And now I can see it as every bit as a product of its time as those very strange 1970s public information films I grew up watching.

“Croydon: The Future” is now the distant past, and enjoyable in a way that the council’s current clumsy remodeling of the town centre – from the demolition of Taberner House to the closure of the David Lean Cinema – isn’t.

  • Click here to view the 1993 edition of The Late Show
  • John Grindrod is the author of Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain published by Old Street in 2013, described by the Independent on Sunday as “a new way of looking at modern Britain”. He grew up in Croydon in the 1970s, runs the website and can be contacted on Twitter @Grindrod

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3 Responses to Back to the future to find lessons from Croydon’s past

  1. Rod Davies says:

    It seems to me that despite the outward appearance that Croydon, as a community, has welcomed and valued the high-density development environment, that in fact it rejects it.

    For most of the town, anything beyond low density development is resisted and rejected by the majority of residents.

    What they want is an environment where there are individual two-storey dwellings that face on to quiet leafy streets; where they can freely park their cars and enjoy a quality of life that residents of central Croydon cannot enjoy. Equally they want access to employment opportunities, extensive public services, highly developed transport infrastructure and a major retail centre.

    Croydon’s planning organisation reflects this desire. There is central Croydon as a distinct entity and 12 “Places”, each place having a centre placed in the heart of suburban Croydon. The majority view in each of the 12 “Places” determines the environment, and Croydon’s planning dept has a seemingly instinctive desire to preserve the status quo.

    However, around the boundary of central Croydon are adjacent communities that are not protected from high density development. Thus, while in part of Addiscombe east of Tunstall Road, no new development can exceed three floors, in the extreme western area close to East Croydon Station there are no such constraints (eg. Menta has planning permission to construct a 55-floor skyscraper).

    Although the acute housing shortage affects all of Croydon, the planning constraints in the leafy suburbs have effectively prevented any space in those areas being used to provide the desperately needed social housing. Were these constraints nto to be in place, then the burden could be shared equally. As it is, in order to provide adequate volume of affordable housing units the resultant high density developments have to be compressed into a handful of sites primarily in or adjacent to central Croydon.

    Had the Council defined the boundaries of Croydon centre to encompass all adjacent areas where high density development is permitted, it could have created a coherent whole bringing all these communities together. However this would have then created a distinct inner Croydon community with its own voice, and a voice that could and probably would have challenge some public funds allocations. For instance what justifies using public money to significantly enhance the suburban retail areas, while those retail areas adjacent to the centre are largely starved of investment and left to decline? Not only have these inner areas not received public monies in the same way, they are the source of considerable extra revenues for the Council and bear the environmental impact of the life style choices of the outer area residents.

    This all reflects that the majority of Croydon’s electorate reside outside of the areas of high density development. While the majority enjoy the facilities provided by Croydon centre, they self evidently feel no compunction to ameliorate the impact of high density development and their own behaviours upon the residents of inner Croydon. The Council, regardless of party, reflects this.

    In my opinion the fundamental rejection of the idea of spreading the burden of development across all communities, thus having medium density developments in all areas, the Council and the communities it represents are laying the foundations for a profoundly divided community where inner & central Croydon communities are disadvantaged, marginalised and effectively subsidise the outer areas.

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