CROYDON COMMENTARY: The council might be broke, but that hasn’t stopped them spaffing another million pounds, maybe more, on a set of architects’ designs which are certain to turn the borough into a laughing stock once more, says SEBASTIAN TILLINGER after watching last week’s planning meeting
Having watched the latest “virtual” planning meeting, I fully support the suggestion – made by a large residents’ association last week – to stop these events until there is proper public engagement and scrutiny, and full committee involvement.
It was quite embarrassing to watch.
The chair, Chris Clark, is simply not on the case. There appears to be an overriding desire to be seen as doing “the right thing”, but what’s been said is unfathomable and mostly incoherent.
Councillor Toni Letts, who was Clark’s predecessor as chair, seems to have no understanding of planning – I can’t put it any other way. When discussing the proposed public space alongside Fairfield Halls, she kept referring to people “peeing in water foundations” (my italics). I guess she meant water fountains.
It’s simply not good enough.
And on the issue of the new public space beside Fairfield Halls, which was discussed as a pre-planning submission item, for once there appeared to be consensus on the committee that what was being proposed is pretty dire.
Sadly, nobody had the strength of conviction to just say it as it is.
The site is very important for Croydon. It lies between the arts centre, Croydon College and three large housing developments.
It is probably the most important new civic public space in the town centre in 50 years. I have no idea who set the brief or who chose the design team, but the proposals really are lacklustre.
They lack substance, they lack contextual reference, they have no sense of place or the history of this site. And to be honest, with their pastel pink and yellow colours, they are a patronising piss-take at the expense of Croydon’s reputation.
The designers would not dare make these frivolous proposals in Kingston upon Thames or in Westminster. But hey-ho, it’s Croydon, we can relax a bit here. Somebody on the committee should have had the balls to say that. Where was Croydon’s so-called “Design Champion”, Paul Scott, when we needed him? Or is he too ashamed at another waste of public money, being frittered away for the benefit of some of his architect colleagues?
Clearly, the committee thought the proposals were awful but once again, like the Emperor’s New Clothes, none of the adults in the room or the sycophants had the confidence to say it.
Rarely has a critique from the council’s Place Review Panel been laid out at such length in the official report accompanying the presentation (you can read the report in full by clicking here).
The section of the report is worth reproducing here, just so that no one can ever claim that they were not warned.
“An earlier iteration of the scheme was presented to the Council’s Place Review Panel in February 2020. The Panel supported the aspirations and the bold aesthetic choices developed so far, but raised concerns around the robustness and long-term sustainability of the scheme, particularly with regards to the design of the paving, soft landscaping and central water feature.”
Ahh, the “peeing in the water foundations” problem, as Toni Letts might say.
“The Panel stressed that in order to keep hold of the overall aesthetic, the robustness of the scheme is critical to ensure that the vivid colours and landscaping are kept and robust for long term use.”
The Place Review Panel had noted:
- In particular, a greater understanding of the design of soft landscaping is required, as it is a significant aspect of the aesthetic. The panel questioned the resilience of the soft landscaping. They advised that the urban greening factor should be increased significantly and consideration of sustainable drainage systems and robustness is essential.
- The panel questioned the deliverability of the proposed fountain design and soft landscaping, and strongly recommends bringing a team member(s) on-board early on in the design process who has experience delivering large scale, permanent public landscapes with horticultural knowledge and expertise in complex (and naturally filtered) fountain systems.
- The panel had concerns over the overall durability, resilience and sustainability of the scheme with regards to materials, maintenance and use. A significant number of people will soon live in central Croydon, so the scheme must also be able to accommodate this population as well.
- The panel recommended that the team interrogate the sustainability of the scheme, on a material-by-material basis, including travel emissions, life-cycle and end of product life use.
- The scheme should have an accessibility strategy tied into the early stages of the design, to ensure it is accessible to all.
- The panel questioned the current hierarchy of elements in the design and recommends that certain elements within the scheme may need to be “curated” and given greater prominence.
- The panel considered that a greater understanding of how the pinstripe pattern evolves depending on site conditions and/or meets other thresholds and smaller areas is required.
- The panel recommended developing an overall colour strategy to ensure that the elements of the proposal work well visually with each other and the overall context.
- The panel advised developing conversations with TfL as soon as possible to discuss the Park Road frontage, including the relationship with idling buses, HVM, the signage across the road and a larger wayfinding strategy alongside other landowners.
- The panel recommended leaving room for some elements of the design to be completed by others in the future. This is not with regards to programming of the space, but considering how artists or others may be able to shape the physical design at a later date.
- The panel requests further information around the long-term seasonality and maintenance of the space. They suggested that it is critical to understand the council’s capacity to care for the space, and if this resource was to be cut at a later date, to what extent is this scheme is dependent on someone looking after it to succeed.
Extraordinarily, the official’s report then noted that what we were being presented with at the pre-application stage was what the designers had worked on after all those reservations had been aired by the Place Review Panel.
Who selected the designers?
I expect Jo Negrini was involved again, with a juicy £1million contract to dole out to her architect friends (how else do you get made an Honorary member of RIBA?), thinking she knows exactly what Croydon needs. She could not be more mistaken.
Among the architects chosen are some who were part of a disbanded practice called FAT, who 20 years ago styled themselves as the silly-boy pranksters of the architecture profession. Many serious clients would not go near them for obvious reasons. They’ve built schools like wedding cakes and made a real-life gingerbread house for Grayson Perry.
They were known in the profession for their “cookie-cutter whimsy”. They have built a Romanesque church out of sparkly blue sequins and turned the head of Hercules into a squishy seat.
What they have vomited up here is jokey, frivolous post-modern pastel pink kitsch when Croydon desperately needs strong, inspiring timeless design that will knit our town centre back together again.
The proposals looked tired even as conceptual designs. Can you imagine the built reality?
The proposals presented should be binned. Croydon town centre deserves so much better.
This is a lesson of what poor client patronage and a weak and unchallenging planning system produces.
And Croydon becomes the butt of everyone’s humour once again.
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