FAT chance of there being any inspired designs for Fair Field

The flower-strewn ‘vision’ offered for the Fair Field open space. The finished reality is liable to be less pastoral, but very pink

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.

‘A jokey, frivolous post-modern pastel pink kitsch’

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.

Previous work by some of those involved in the Fair Field design was Grayson Perry’s ‘Gingerbread House’

“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?

Designs ‘lack substance… they are a patronising piss-take at the expense of Croydon’s reputation’

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?

A supposed rule from the Fairfield Halls forecourt: ‘the proposals looked tired even as conceptual designs’

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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This entry was posted in Art, College Green, College Tower/Enclave, Croydon Council, Croydon parks, Environment, Fairfield Halls, Fairfield Homes, Jo Negrini, Paul Scott, Place Review Panel, Planning and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to FAT chance of there being any inspired designs for Fair Field

  1. Helen Benjamins says:

    Going by all of the new build social housing that Brick by Brick are supposed to be building in close proximity to this site, how far is it to the nearest playground?

    • You mean the Fairfield Homes scheme with its 16 per cent of unaffordable “affordable” flats, Helen?
      They might get a footbridge over the railway lines to go over to Park Hill… Still no real solution to the promised (ie. part of its original planning permission) “step-free access” in the other direction to East Croydon Station.

  2. Lewis White says:

    Thank you Sebastian, and Inside Croydon, and a huge thank you also to the Design Panel who I think should be applauded for identifying key important issues that are wrong with the current proposals, and which need to be addressed and resolved. I am particularly reassured by the panels’ advice that the project needs to be much Greener, and that proven expertise is needed for the water feature.

    I was very surprised that this has been considered by the Planning Committee during lockdown, as the Public Consultation did not not appear on the Council Website until just days before UK “Lockdown”.

    There were two “meet the design team” meetings on the 27th Feb and 7th March 2020….. the first of which I attended, along with a handful of others, just before Covid 19 struck the world and we in the UK went into lockdown.

    The Consultation was not actually posted on the Croydon Councuil Website, under the appropriate “Consultations-Have your say, until after the first meeting had gone by. So it was difficult for the public to know about the consultation. I have to say that this was quickly rectified when I drew the attention of the council to that ommission.

    I expect that the public have been focusing on more important things, during this Lockdown time. . But, and thanks again to IC for drawing attention to this project–this project is nevertheless VERY IMPORTANT for Croydon, and could create REAL BENEFITS for residents — including providing much needed green space for the residents of the high rise super blocks rearing into the nearby skies.

    The Consultation is, apparently, still open. I really hope it is. The dates shown on the page “from Feb 2020 to 30 July 2021 seem to relate to the Consultation, but surely cannot be right? How can a consultation end on 30 July 2021 and the scheme be opened in 2022?

    I would therefore urge all Inside Croydon readers to get on line http://croydon.gov.uk/thefairfield without any further delay to look at the designs and information, make up their own minds, and send in their comments.

    My own feelings on the current proposals are that there are many aspects of the design which are very good – if handled well– which could create a place where Croydon families could come to enjoy a range of really useful things, such as a fantastic “water splash zone”– in which children could play happily for hours enjoying playing in the fountain jets. The inclusion of skateboarding, basketball goal, and space for performances is also, potentially, going to make the new open space a destination for young people– which is really welcome. A social honeypot.

    But a reality check is very necessary in many areas of the site and design.

    I don’t think pee is a problem, but I would be very concerned for children’s expsoure not to water in the Fountains, but to risk of Weil’s Disease from contact with areas of still water seemingly proposed as part of the “natural water filltration system” seeming proposed for the Water feature. If the designers come up with reed-bed filtration, I would doubt if the fountains would work after the first week. Water features have to be simple, and very robust, or they fail. A water feature not working is a 100% failure. Total attention to design and maintainability is the recipe for success.

    There is a lot of good content, but there is a danger that the design elements based on Fairground concepts could look very dated, after a few years. Would the extendable “giant umbrella” over the performance pit area in the Sports Field zone, really work, year after year, or was that a joke idea?

    Pink and white concrete paving slabs on display at the public consultation looked like something straight from a 1960’s holiday camp, featured in the ironic “Boring Postcards” books of a few years back. Possibly a tongue in cheek designer joke, but they would not be fit for purpose for a “world class open space” that must be responsible in its environmental impact, and provide a design that will look great and wear well, for decades.

    I hope that Councillors and the Urban designers and Planning Officers take real note of the Croydon Design Panel advice. This is a multi-million pound project, and must give lasting, trouble-free results . Architects, Councillors and Officers all move on–but a Park needs to live on, and function properly with minimal funding budgets, in a real world where funding for councils and for parks maintenance have been cut to the bone over recent decades, and are going to go even deeper now.

    • sebastian tillinger says:

      Reading your comments I’m convinced this site is too important to have a mediocre design further worked over with the aim of just getting it over the line.

      The design should have been fantastic from the beginning. It wasn’t and this should be acted upon now.

      There are twenty or so world class designers who could produce a a brilliant new green civic space for Croydon. At least 10 of these are based in London. We are missing a huge opportunity here.

      I suggest the only way to deliver a design that is truly befitting of Croydon and this town’s potential is to scrap the current proposals and hold an invited competition to select a world-class designer.

      Jo Negrini and Paul Scott should be kept well away from the selection process.

  3. jackgriffin1933 says:

    Gosh: I remember FAT. They were great fun to work with – but I wouldn’t have them anywhere near my house.

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