The Croydon Corporation Act, which was passed in 1956, paved the way for the construction of the concrete offices that now dominate the South London borough. What isn’t so obvious now is the original objective, which was for Croydon’s office space to rival that at Canary Wharf, but at a fraction of the cost. I recently joined the National Trust-organised ‘Edge City Croydon Revival’ tour, part of the Croydon Heritage Festival, to look at this period in the town’s history.
From the Ruskin Square marketing suite – located at the top of AMP House, where the tour begins – you can see the extent of the twentieth-century reconstruction of the town. Taking centre stage on one side of the building is brutalist icon No. 1 Croydon, also known as the Threepenny Bit building. The white 24-storey building, whose floors alternate with geometric precision, is in stark contrast to Ruskin Square, under construction adjacent to East Croydon station. The preference now for towering glass panes and steel beams over raw concrete is evidence of the changing tastes for commercial buildings in the twenty-first century.
Model of Ruskin Square in AMP House
On the other side of AMP House, Croydon extends into the distance. Interspersed among the 1960s office buildings are the remnants of the former town – the Victorian town hall just visible behind the more prominent Nestlé Tower; the fifteenth-century Church of St John the Baptist coming into view down the high street; alms houses, nowhere to be seen from this height, but tucked in between shops beyond the Whitgift Shopping Centre.
The tour then took to the street to see Croydon’s Brutalist buildings up close, including the highly stylised Corinthian House, with its angled walls and Le Corbusier-esque columns, and the sprawling Whitgift Centre which, alongside the Centrale Shopping Centre, dominates the town centre.
Corinthian House shows off its curves
Unquestionably, some of the decisions made as part of the Croydon Corporation Act have not stood the test of time. While planners had the foresight to see expanded roads would be needed to carry more traffic, they vastly underestimated the increase in car ownership, leaving over-full roads too close to pedestrians. Busy dual carriageways now rub shoulders with shopping precincts, walkways and tram routes. In contrast, towns that were slower to support increasing car went on to build ring roads and introduce peripheral car parks, freeing up their centres from vehicles.
Shops and hotel in Norfolk House overlook a dual carriageway
The well-known Nestlé Tower now stands empty after years as the European headquarters for the confectionary giant. The 24-storey building was built in 1964 and dominates the skyline. Its future is similar to many brutalist buildings of this era, with planning permission for conversion from office use to residential in the pipeline.
Nestlé Tower: once Croydon’s tallest building
Final stop on the tour was Croydon’s cultural and educational quarter, dominated by Fairfield Halls, which opened in 1962 and is currently undergoing a two-year restoration at a cost of £30 million. The enhancements will see the existing buildings extended, as well as the inclusion of 112 homes.
Fairfield Halls prior to its restoration
However, several parts of the cultural and educational quarter have not made the cut, including several Croydon College buildings. These brutalist stone and concrete buildings feature distinct neoclassical elements that will be lost once regeneration of the area gets underway. It’s a fine balance between building fit-for-purpose buildings and preserving the architectural personality of the town centre.
Blink and you’ll miss it: doomed Croydon College building
Contrary to the tour title, ‘Edge City Croydon Revival’, Croydon may be a town geographically on the edge of London but its determination to feature more prominently on the London map cannot be denied. This is as a town and borough which has held huge ambitions for its housing, work space and entertainment offering over the past 60 years, and which is unlikely to stay on the periphery for long.