6 Architectural Gems In Croydon

Ellie Broughton
By Ellie Broughton Last edited 9 months ago
6 Architectural Gems In Croydon

London's largest borough is often the butt of jokes by ignorant people who think it's funny to sneer.

National Trust's creative director for London, Joseph Watson, picks six buildings from Croydon to delight your inner Jonathan Meades.

Fairfield Halls

Fairfield Halls
Fairfield Halls shared the same acoustic engineer as the Royal Festival Hall. Photo by Sophia Schorr-Kon

Croydon's answer to the Royal Festival Hall — and it's clear to see the design similarities. Although the two buildings had different architects, they share the same acoustic engineer. Fairfield Halls has been a popular venue for classical concerts and has seen all kinds of pop acts too (everyone from Kraftwerk to Coolio). It's also where Morecambe and Wise made the one and only recording of their live tours.

Watson explains that Fairfield Halls was host to a number of big names in classical music — BBC Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic and conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent — and was used repeatedly for BBC live recordings: "What they often say of it is that they ironed out all of the imperfections the RFH had, in the design of Fairfield Halls. In its early days it had a really stellar cast."

The centre has been in operation since 1962 and is now closing for a two-year refurb. This means that on the National Trust walking tours you'll get the chance to step out onto its stage — and check out its royal loo, which still boasts its original 60s textured wallpaper.

The NLA Tower

Photo by Sophia Schorr-Kon.

Designed by Richard Seifert (the architect behind Centre Point, and a pirate castle), the tower was for a long time Croydon’s tallest. Never listed, it’s known locally as the 50p tower (previously the threepenny bit) because of the interlocking octagonal shapes that make up its trunk.

It's Watson’s favourite: “It's incredibly sculptural and interesting building — it demands that you look at it.

"It's become iconic of Croydon and I really hope there's another attempt to list it."

Lunar and Apollo House

Lunar House.

Completed in 1970, these two are London’s biggest monuments to the space age. Named after the moon landing, the buildings feature wings, bronze mosaics, and strange little reception buildings.

Harry Hyams was fascinated with the space age and was also a speculative developer who launched the commission with no idea what tenants he'd get for the building when he commissioned it.

In the end, most of the offices were let to government departments including the passport and home office: an accidental icon, Watson explains: "For a lot of people, Lunar House is not only their only experience of Croydon but for many it's their gateway for the UK."

Corinthian House

Photo by Stephen Richards, used under Creative Commons.

Another, smaller, Seifert project, the building's an homage to Le Corbusier. Most interesting of its features are the little V-shaped angled pillars at the bottom (piloti), and the huge sheet of concrete making a sheltered walkway between the street and the reception.

Norfolk House

The first tower that went up in Croydon, this was originally a YMCA. It was also the building which the then-town architect (or borough engineer, if you will) said he wanted the next tower to be twice as big as.

Watson concludes: "It speaks for that totally unbridled ambition and vision, of saying: 'We want to express that through architecture.'"

Newcomers to post-war architecture will appreciate the brick cladding around its concrete construction, although the fact it's now a Travelodge takes some of the polish off.

The car parks

Photo by Andrew Smith in the Londonist Flickr pool

Although none of the borough's seven multi storeys have been listed yet (unlike the Brewer Street NCP) they're still an important monument to Croydon, Car City.

"Everyone thought the car was going to be king," Watson explains. "What's so weird about Croydon is that you've got effectively a motorway running through the middle of it. It just tells you everything you need to know about who was important here."

Why did it build seven? Because Birmingham had plans to build six, and Croydon, (as an aspiring 'futuristic city') wanted to beat its northerly rival.

In 1993 the Architecture Foundation proposed ideas to regenerate an ailing Croydon, and were the first to suggest using rooftops for cinemas. The top of the East Croydon car park now hosts one of what has fast become a ubiquitous feature of the capital.

For Watson, Edge City provides a curious contrast between the utopian monuments in central London — public arts centres and social housing — and the business-driven boom out of town: "Croydon's basically Thatcherism before Thatcherism.

"It was all about unleashing the market, selling off the land to the highest bidder, and the council trying to get out of the way."

Edge City also shows just how much the National Trust is now changing tack — although it remains to be seen whether shifting focus away from cream teas and country houses is popular (or even possible).

But as Watson points out: "What would be a tragedy is somewhere like Croydon is to say: 'We hate all these high rises. We're just going to knock it down and build a whole range of low rise stuff you could find anywhere else.'"

In any case, uncertainty around that directional change is eclipsed by the relevance of this season. In the aftermath of Brexit, the Panama Papers, and the failed leadership coup in the Labour party, seasons like Edge City help to make sense of how free market economics shaped politics today.

Whether the answers lie in Croydon car parks... you'll just have to trust them on that.

Last Updated 19 December 2016