Sunday 2 November 2014


The idea of modular design in both architecture and furniture has been around for a great deal of time, influencing the way we interact with space and the efficiency to which we use it. As a child there is an early opportunity of being introduced to modular design in the form of toys such as Lego or Jenga. These tactile toys provide modification and repetition that helps establish in a child's development that the constants of a smaller modular element can be augmented together to form a larger and perhaps more complicated form of related proportions. Then as time passes the toy blocks we played with as a child scale up alongside us to be the very bricks that build the houses we find ourselves living in as adults.

Architecture has arguably held a fascination with modular design since the first primitive shelter was ever erected, when the thought naturally accord as to how to make the process more efficient. Less leaves, more sticks, a rigid frame. Centuries on and the effects that global warming is evidently creating has in recent years generated a surge of efficient, and more importantly economic, modular design for disaster relief situations around the world, providing a new international revival in the search for the ideal modular structure.

However, although disaster relief is clearly where modular design could be most usefully implemented the idea is notoriously being fostered and bastardised in such places as China and India, where the need to build humongous and with haste is everywhere to be witnessed through social media or otherwise. So it was with excitement that I finally took the time to analysis a modular clad building that I have passed for many years, that is found living in the shadow of its close neighbour, no.1 Croydon.

To gaze at this building briefly from one of the windows of the many trams, busses or cars that pass around the East Croydon area, you would not be alone in arriving at the quick decision that 22 Addiscombe Road is just another poor architectural example from possibly the 1970's. The ASBO concrete jacket and rigid form could easily excuse 22 Addiscombe Road for camouflaging beautifully into the many other examples of such offices that exist within Croydon. However, to stand underneath the mass of this building and perhaps even feel the reptile like cladding is to gain an enlightened understanding of the aesthetic trying to be encouraged here.

The modular cladding component takes on the form of what is essentially a giant arrow, stacked together like a fraternity, pointing this way and that in a subconscious attempt to direct nearby vehicular movement. The facade is not limited to a singular plane though, and the modular cladding carries with it both a tactile and physical plane. The arrows grind in and out of the building facade, playing with shadow and the transfer of the buildings silhouette onto the horizon. The tough finish of the concrete offering the building a sculptural solidarity that is scarcely seen in most modern architecture.

Many new developments in Croydon such as the recent Saffron Square, have fantastic aspirations for social spaces and urban massing, but still lack a certain presence regardless of their heaviness. This idea of presence could be learnt from reticent existing examples such as 22 Addiscombe Road, where the cladding quite literally reaches out to you and provokes the surrounding space. Hopefully in the future modern developments will be seen that create external skins that connect with their local context, almost as if offering an architectural handshake.


Saturday 11 October 2014

There once was an ugly duckling

Walking down Borough Road towards London Bridge station on my now weekly journey back home from university, I noticed yet again the heaving behemoth that is the 'Walkie Talkie' building otherwise known as 20 Fenchurch Street. A new resident to the London horizon and a bullish one at that, the building certainly forces it's presence towards its context but is it for the right reasons?

Assessing my opinion that the Walkie Talkie building is now obviously the most disappointing building in the city, it got me wondering what the equal example of a building might be in Croydon. There are the obvious first choices such as sad looking pubs and forgotten bingo halls, but these are far too obvious and although they may appear ugly by modern standards they are in reality rich in local history and the birth place of many friendships and conversations.

Equally, some of Croydon's contemporary building stock could easily be called ugly and oppressive against the historic mix of existing buildings, but the truth is that these are simply poorly considered and a victim of rushed design and construction. Instead I found the answer to my question within Exchange Square, coming from a building that is less of a building and more of a monster. Sitting uncomfortably beside the historic Pump House, a wonderfully considered Victorian brick building designed to celebrate the internal machinery, is what can only be described as a GRP (glass reinforced plastic) clad tumor. 

The story behind the birth of this monster goes that the machinery once housed in the original Pump House become oversized and outdated and that the same job could be done by smaller and more reliable equipment. Being that the original Pump House was an historic building, the decision was then taken to construct a smaller housing outside the building for the new equipment, leading to the green menace that we are confronted with today.

It can be safely argued that there was no inspiration, no consideration and certainly no aesthetics when this hut was designed, one can tell this just by taking a quick walk around it. Even the very placement of this hut is disrespectful, orientated at a completely different angle to the two adjacent buildings the hut disects the space unsympathetically, creating an unwanted spectacle of itself, the Quasimodo of Exchange Square.

I understand that the presence and impact of such a small aspect of the urban environment could easily be ignored, no matter how insulting it is to the eyes, but then this attitude would only allow for a worsening of the situation. Whether designing the latest shopping development or a simple housing for industrial machinery it is important to consider the local influence and presence created by the building. The act of dumping a building, like that of the Pump House tumor, into reality like a child disregarding a toy is a dangerous game, and in the modern world we live in this can happen all too easily. It must be understood that the damage made in this situation is immediate and rectifying the situation is more than difficult.


Wednesday 1 October 2014

Let's Pallet

We have all been there at the front, surrounded by other curious ears, beer in hand, plastic cup, warm content and a friend of a friends band taking the stage. The genre may differ and so too may the colour of the overly enthusiastic girls hair but one thing always remains the same, and that is the vacant semi-circle in front of the performing act. Those invisible protecting arms.

I was part of a punk-rock band back in my years at college and before that I had been attempting to make music with close friends. Gigs we went to on a grander scale at the Astoria or Brixton Academy had no problem with filling every space the crowd could fit into, and that sweaty close quarters feeling was something to be weirdly cherished. However, the smaller scale local gigs always carried with them that recognisable void at the front of the crowd, that reassuring cautious barrier between the unknown source of noise and oneself.

Architecturally, this void is a fascinating space, and a rare example of a visually and physically empty space that is somehow full of anticipation. I imagine a preacher standing on a podium in a public square back in the sixteenth century would have created a similar feeling as a brave speech about opinions of the state and crown was delivered, a crowd gathering before him cautious of his speculations.

In the context of my life I somewhat recently found myself in just this kind of situation, well in what would have been the aforementioned kind of situation if it were not for a group of rogue timber pallets. It was the launch of a Kickstarter campaign for Turf Projects, an arts collective in South London, and I found myself in the large black painted stage space at the rear of Matthews Yard in Croydon. Now what would normally have been the void space in this scenario, comfortably situated somewhere between the growing crowd and the projection wall was a layered plinth constructed of timber pallets.

The pallets, covered in artificial turf created a very inviting seating platform and without encouragement sections of the crowd introduced themselves to this setup and in some instances merged half standing and half seated to create a transition between two spaces. So from the simple idea of a glorified projector table came the birth of a social bridge. By quite honestly placing a disordered and playful object in between a regimented crowd and a wall, the function of a fountain in a town square found almost anywhere in Europe had been created in the back room of a cafe in Croydon.

A mixture of spacial awareness and order seems to be the catalyst that create these small instances of 'non-physical architecture' such as the gig scenario or any queue you may find yourself in, but what is quite clearly as interesting is the next dimension of rebel architecture to this invisible governor such as that of the pallets.


Thursday 22 May 2014

Textures as Maps

Having never been to the Parfitt Gallery at Croydon College before I walked through the front entrance just off of Wellesley Road and proceeded straight into a student hair salon, a harsh architectural reminder that no matter how grand and symmetrically centred a front entrance appears it cannot be trusted to be so. Luckily for myself I was quickly redirected in the right direction without any loss of hair through further stress or eager hairdresser. 

My newly acquired visitors badge trustingly stuck to my coat, I proceeded towards the Parfitt Gallery; a white coated, glass fronted single room with two columns set asymmetrically giving the space a certain unavoidable definition. Getting closer to the room one could make out the distorted prints hinting at Croydon’s historic and more recent skyline along with variously aged photographs of the town all set to a 1960’s concrete grey background. Therefore as one of the more recent self-proclaimed urban explorers of Croydon’s curiously shadowed corners and desaturated surfaces I needed no invite to enter this luring yet empty room.

Curated by Croydon School of Art and London College of Communication Lecturer Rob Mowbray with contributions from Graphic designers / artists Craig Burston and Martin Saull, Ghost Town: The Hauntology of Croydon aspires to motivate a different approach towards our understanding of the majority of the built environment that dictates Croydon. Using the many high-rise offices that were built in the 1960’s as fuel and inspiration, the exhibition explores the effect the towering built forms and their often uniform concrete skins have on us through photographic, artistic and psychogeographic mediums.

The gallery door left open by myself I realised once again that I was within the stomach of an active college as the assault of noise arose from the end of a teaching period, paused conversations revived once more safely away from the ears of teachers, spies. Noise successfully buffered I turned around and proceeded towards what appeared to be delicate prints of maps uniformly hung on the back wall. However, as I drew close my eyes slowly deciphered these prints and they were in fact beautifully selected detail photographs of Croydon’s built environment of its varying concrete surfaces. How interesting it is that concrete, a material that for the most part is used to generate some of the largest forms known to man can have such mysteriousness and illusion at a micro scale, and hence why I found myself happily staring at these photographs for quite some time.

Despite having a healthy choice of artistically critical material to browse through and respond to there was one particular piece that seemed to effortlessly scream for my attention from the moment I lay eyes on it. A newspaper, a common item in this day and age seen on trains and in prisons alike hung on a wall, a deliberate tear through its middle like the layering of an onion's skin. The newspaper had been constructed by printing a number of Croydon's most recognisable high-rise towers within its pages and by tearing a rough but inspired hole through the middle to reveal the back page, a sky blue wash. In this moment we are being encouraged by Josh Mowbray the creator of this particular piece to come to terms with the reality that is the ensemble of empty spaces that exist within these sleepy concrete shells created from a commercial greed some decades previous. Although this newspaper may have an honest appearance, its grim reminder of the effects of development and progress is one ought to be taken seriously.

Ghost Town: The Hauntology of Croydon though a small exhibition, faced with the opportunity to over populate the room with images of menacing high-rise blocks and ominous memorandums choose a very concise and effective way of portraying its message regarding our built environment. The only minor shame was the lack of tactile interaction with the exhibition. Concrete being the main material point of focus creates throughout the exhibition a desire to touch and experience this grey matter both at a human and micro scale. The many prints and photographs of rough and polished concrete left me wanting to remind myself of this material experience once more, but perhaps this feeling was a result of the exhibitions success in being able to leave a lasting impression. This effect, deliberate or not, sets a new precedent for Croydon to begin an era of self reflection and evaluation towards its expansion, to set in place yet again heavy looking and independently acting towers or to begin encouraging an urban field of community and integration, either way this exhibition has begun to ask those questions.


Sunday 24 November 2013

Hoarding the boredom

Imagine this scenario, you are finishing catching up on the mornings posts on Dezeen and enjoying a cup of green tea when your boss puts a virgin sketch pad on your desk and says it is now company policy for every employee to have one on their desk. Ok you think, but then your boss explains that you can't use the sketch pad. No reason is given as to why you cannot use the sketch pad but it has to stay on your desk and consume precious space, but more importantly look and be painfully dull. Its pages empty, its potential lost.

This is exactly what is happening to Croydon right now if you exchange the sketch pad for some site hoarding and the boss figure for the local council and / or landowners. An unsightly urban plague, these temporary hoardings turned long-term residents isolate spaces all over the expanse of the town from burnt out London Road buildings to the many unoccupied sites around the tired East Croydon redevelopment areas. The fact that these hoardings remain a completely unexploited artistic and graphic outlet is beyond belief, and you do not have to be the next Francis Bacon to understand the opportunities that exist from these otherwise useless additions to the street facades.

Ahead of Croydon's youthful and experienced artistic communities alike exists a definite and logical opportunity to seize a flexible variety of large scale blank canvases from what is currently a collection of over-scaled oppresive timber boundaries. As well as these boring hoardings that hoard further boredom there exists a bounty of other elements in our urban landscape that all have the real potential to become fantastic graphic surfaces by simply adding some imagination and medium, and there are without question a unique collection of people out there who would fulfill this dream for free. A plentiful amount of these characterless boundaries, alleyways and train bridges already exist around Croydon ready for these artists, but are presently all guilty of offering nothing towards the current direction in establishing the thought provoking aesthetic that Croydon is desperately trying to brew. 

This depressed element of the urban environment can be forced to re-evaluate itself, and just like in the 1970's when Jamie Reid and Malcom McLaren helped imagine the revelation that was the punk aesthetic, now is the time to use these canvases to express a fresh regionalist graphic for our small pocket of South London.


Thursday 14 November 2013

...and so, we apologise for nothing (part 2)

There was a time when I was younger and many unique and genuine at heart places existed within Croydon, you could browse the catacombs of beano's record shop, enjoy a cold Belgium cherry beer at the Beer Circus or be inspired by a dictionary of colours and textures at Turtles haberdashery. Despite what would appear to be a collection of amazing spaces destined to be a part of the local scene for generations to come they no longer exist today and neither does a part of my childhood. The same can also be said for the late Astoria venue on Tottenham Court Road where I attended my first ever punk gig at the naive age of 14, where we had to in turn convince some boozy students in front of us to pose as our brothers to get us in. Drunken cooperative meant I got to see Millencolin that night and they still remain a big musical influence to myslef.

It could be argued that all this change whether found in central London or the southern reaches of Croydon is just part of the unstoppable parade that is 'development' and that this gradual loss and gain is simply the blood behind the modern western world that we find ourselves surrounded by, but there exists a more probing question. The broader idea of development encourages us as human beings to try and understand why we place value on the creation and loss of spaces, such as the ones previously described, but is all this change simply inevitable and really there is nothing to question.

Despite expectation Croydon has actually lost far less of its original urban gown than say central London or west London, the latter of which especially enjoys retaining its regal appearance and then polishing over the spaces in between to hide the dirt and shame, something not often seen in a South London setting. New architectural directions in Croydon are generally dealt a rough hand, but this is not without reason. Just like the people, businesses and social spaces Croydon's architecture is tested and toughened over time until it is thoroughly rooted into the local urban harvest. You may not get the overly warm welcome or the polished mirror finish of a central London crowd, but once a presence settles into Croydon whether as a person or a structure its becomes part of an existing camaraderie of sorts. 

By camaraderie I do not mean some poorly edited 'The only way is Essex' spectacle, people playing tennis with worthless compliments, but a curiosity and respect for the space and activity around your being that is hardly ever required to be spoken of. This relationship is not just limited between people though, but between structures themselves and our relation to them. As with Croydon's people the buildings tend to give off an honestly that is rarely recognised, take for example the old Croydon Advertiser building along Surrey Street with its faded painted sign and weathered brickwork which tells of a past life and function. A building that was once the home of a proud local newspaper with its own printing press now stands empty alongside a still vibrant street market, some people would like to call this kind of thing unsightly but I personally see it as a cultural scar of sorts. The shame really is that a greater number of these cultural scars do not still exist to generate a subtle alternative map of the town, indicating the years of urban redevelopment and reconfiguration that have bequeathed our age.

This idea of being able to read a place by means of a  'map of scars' hidden within the urban cracks and shadows is one that should apply to London quite successfully. The opposite is actually the reality. London, a city that has expanded and adapted to meet fresh ideas has developed so many layers that it has actually become harder than one would imagine to decipher the cities past colours. Probably a result of the ruthlessness of said rapid development it has meant that the old is replaced by the young so frequently that an appreciation of loss and gain on an urban scale is almost impossible. Presently however Croydon still has the time to absorb and learn from the loss it suffers and the empty spaces that chill its streets, and unlike our London father who is willing to place little long-term worth on its grassroots structures, Croydon can use this given time to manifest a sound and exciting streetscape and social climate that could last for a generation.


Sunday 3 November 2013

La Tour

There is function and then there is form, with beauty and aesthetics lying somewhere comfortably between the two, this is something drilled into you within the first few page turns of the reading list at the beginning of architecture school. Yet, as a society it is more commonly the mysterious or ornate forms that catch our eye the majority of the time. Everyone romances at the organic form of an unergonomic contemporary garlic crusher but no one appreciates the functional balance of a trusty bread knife.

As with the example of the bread knife the same predicament between function and form viewed from an architectural perspective can be seen at Croydon fire station on the A236. Amusingly, as kids we all tend to be amazed by the fire trucks with their red armour and adult sized water pistols but neglect the fire station itself, the home of the much loved fire truck. Nevertheless, it is not the actual fire station or garage for those shiny fire trucks that is of special interest here but the proud radio tower within the yard.

To tower above is in itself to make a statement, like basketball players, fireworks or your father as a child, to peer upwards makes you become aware of this physical presence over yourself. Strange it is then that this situation is not the case with the radio tower at Croydon Fire Station. The lesson to be learnt here is that it is the honesty of its form that makes this tower blend into the busy suburban sea below. The radio tower, with its white sprayed concrete skin and hollow ant-hill skeleton is a monument of pure function to be set climbed and attached to and as adults this would arguably be a dream piece of jungle-gym equipment, yet we rarely question it's gentle presence.

Sadly though the reality is when this presence is discovered we have a tendency to try and dress up these monuments of function like that of a beauty in a vogue magazine. Standing open mouthed in awe as the image of function is erased slowly from our memories and all we see is mass. The materials that make the structure what it is, which mould the form it has, which creates the function it offers should all be honestly adopted or we risk only witnessing an urban crop of puzzling Stonehenge forms with no real use, and a handful urban fables to accompany. Architecturally as a society we should leave these monuments such as the radio tower alone, appreciated, but alone.


(Photograph to follow)