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.
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.
“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.
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.
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 dirtymodernscoundrel.com and can be contacted on Twitter @Grindrod
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Coming to Croydon
- Stop the Incinerator Public Meeting, Green Dragon, Jan 10
- Bromley charity 10km road race, Jan 11
- David Lean Cinema, Leviathan, Jan 13
- Eagle Improv, Spread Eagle Theatre, Jan 14
- Norwood Society talk: Penge, the making of a suburb, Jan 15
- David Lean Cinema, The 78 Project Movie, Jan 15
- Child Aid Lanka foreign aid debate, Thornton Heath, Jan 15
- David Lean Cinema, Hannah Arendt, Jan 20
- David Lean Cinema, The Imitation Game, Jan 22
- South Croydon business breakfast, Jan 24
- David Lean Cinema, Night Will Fall, Jan 27 (Holocaust Memorial Day)
- David Lean Cinema, Kon-Tiki, Jan 29
- Soul Symphony Community Choir taster session, Feb 3
- Eagle Improv, Spread Eagle Theatre, Feb 4
- Tales of Love, Lost and Found, Spread Eagle Theatre, Feb 7
- Uninvited Guests, Spread Eagle Theatre, Feb 11-13
- Norwood Society talk: Crystal Palace and Dulwich, Feb 19
- Rosie Wilby, Spread Eagle Theatre, Feb 27
- Amy Wadge and Luke Jackson, Stanley Halls, Feb 28
- Holmes Alone, Spread Eagle Theatre, Mar 6
- Eagle Improv, Spread Eagle Theatre, Mar 11
- Iain Lee, Spread Eagle Theatre, Mar 14
- Norwood Society talk: Charlies Dickens in Norwood, Mar 19
- Eagle Improv, Spread Eagle Theatre, Apr 8
- Anatomy of the Piano, Spread Eagle Theatre, Apr 15
- Patrick Monahan, Spread Eagle Theatre, Apr 16-17
- Norwood Society: Balloons and airships at Crystal Palace, Apr 16
- South Norwood Community Festival, July 5
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