The Whitgift Centre is synonymous with Croydon. Before work to demolish the landmark starts, Croydonite Jack Oughton takes a fond look round the pioneering shopping centre.
The Museum of Croydon proudly proclaims: “When The Whitgift Centre was first imagined, the idea of a shopping centre was new and unnamed!“
Now, this landmark is on the cusp of a metamorphosis that will see it altered beyond all recognition. The forthcoming Westfield shopping centre will consume the concrete shopping mecca and neighbouring Centrale. Despite being on death row, there's an atmosphere of restrained optimism. Shops are opening (and closing) all the time, and the impending redevelopment feels more ‘reincarnation’ than ‘oblivion’.
The centre has more than 140 outlets, but it’s more than a collection of retail spaces. Like any institution that’s been part of an area for decades, it’s now part of the furniture — an ever-present piece of central Croydon’s social and architectural backdrop.
Springing to life amid much fanfare in 1968, The Whitgift Centre is built right into the heart of central Croydon.
The design is not entirely coherent. You can tell that it's been added to and improved on in stages. The upstairs toilets are impressive and modern, whereas the ones by the entrance near Poundland are more of a throwback to the 1980s. They have something of Mordor about them:
Some of the darker areas on the centre’s periphery have wilted due to a lack of sunlight: upstairs especially. Off the main forecourts there are many quiet, not-quite-hidden-but-certainly-not-easy-to-find alcoves where vacant lots squat. These are good spots to retreat to if the press of humanity has become too much — they're peaceful, if a little sad.
It's a long time since The Whitgift was at capacity. Despite the empty shopfronts, many concessions have taken up residence on the forecourt itself, where they can take advantage of the footfall. And so, out on the forecourt, the likes of Subway and Prêt are as islands among a sea of grey and beige.
Mixed in with the multinational chains are cut-price concessions that change so frequently it’s almost impossible to keep up with what's there. It's the familiar purveyors of phone bling you expect people to buy only on an ironic basis, or scarves that don't look comfortable if worn for any extended period of time. Another more long-standing stand sells sweetcorn which peddles an elaborate backstory (but it’s just sweetcorn — we’ve tried).
Whitgift Square: The ‘heart of the action’
If you want more 'excitement', Whitgift Square is right in the middle of the centre. It’s got everything you need (provided you don’t need much).
Not far from a forecourt Starbucks lives Furniture4u. Here you may, if so inclined, ‘test’ the settees and recliner sofas indefinitely — the roving salespeople are super chill about it.
A short walk further is Superdry, thumping out Spotify’s latest EDM playlist — unintentionally (or intentionally) providing a soundtrack to this ‘Cronx-pastoral’ scene. On the other side of Starbucks you shall find the Visitor Information Point (AKA the ‘VIP Desk’…because: “everybody’s a VIP here!”). It consists mainly of cheery middle-aged ladies and a job board.
Heading towards M&S Court and Chapel Walk, takes you architecturally back to the 70s, and physically in the direction of West Croydon. This area is perhaps characterised by the colour green — green emergency exits that lead to nowhere (unless there's an emergency of course) and green clocks with their otherworldly chimes.
Passing Superdrug (In 1968, Croydon was the location of one of its first stores), you'll find people selling afro hair accessories and leather bags before you arrive at Tashi Sushi and its tasty Katsu curries. Savvy sushi purchasers wait until closing time when Tashi starts offloading everything at half price. It's worth the wait.
Here you'll also find some of the centre's stalwart stores. Boots first started trading here in October 1968 and Marks and Spencer, has been here for as long as most people can remember.
Near the Allders Square entrance is another culinary spot worth a stop: Uncle Lim’s Malaysian Kitchen — ‘culinary survivor’ and purveyor of large portions of pretty good Malaysian food at reasonable prices. Cheap and cheerful, you couldn’t call it a Malaysian greasy spoon, but you get the idea. Come for the curry laksa, stay for the huge portions of curry laksa.
On the other side of things, tucked away in a neglected corner of Trinity Court is Aqua Zoo, which is not a zoo, but a shop for aquarists. Low light, portholes, purple glowing fish and everything. Entry is free but you run out of stuff to look at pretty quickly.
From here it is easy to get to the stairs which take you to the lofty heights of floor three — there's not much up there, but it's worth a visit to see The Whitgift from on high, plus there's a little-visited art and photography exhibition.
One floor down, past a line of hair and beauty outlets is Shakeaway and all its incredibly gratifying, yet incredibly unhealthy milkshakes. If you have not yet been, you must. If anything just so you can try liquidised combinations of food that, by all rights, shouldn’t even exist (black forest gateau milkshake with extra mini Oreos, Milky Way stars, Smarties and maple syrup please).
What does the future hold and does anyone care?
When work on Westfield starts next year, The Whitgift won't disappear entirely. It's going to evolve. Evolve beyond recognition, although Allders’ listed facade will stay.
Which leaves us with the question of posterity. Is the Croydon we know and love, being stripped of all of its imperfect, concrete jungle charm and familiar rough edges? Or has the town finally upped its architectural game?