Architecture: Dull? Suburban? Not the brave new Croydon: Other Tory councils might wince at a pounds 30m project for a civic and cultural centre. Jonathan Glancey reports on a borough with big ideas

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THERE are five Croydons in Australia, three in the United States and two in Canada; quite enough of Croydon for anyone, you might think. But the real article (no, not the village of Croydon in Cambridgeshire) - the Croydon seven minutes south of central London by Network Express and the butt of so many jokes - is set on making even more of a mark on the map than it does today. If it gets its way, in the not-so- distant future it will become a city.

Croydon has long refused to consider itself a mere south London suburb. It looks distinctive from the moment you walk out of its brand new hi-tech station into its brave new centre, and it is. It is Britain's 10th biggest town (population 320,000) looks like a scale model of Manhattan and has attracted over 1,000 new businesses to its towering centre since 1985. And it is growing every day.

Croydon was the home of London's first airport, in 1915, and remains the heart of a complex transport network. The town is ideally located to benefit from future trade with Europe. It has traditional red buses, Gatwick airport is on its doorstep, main-line trains connect directly with the Midlands and the North, and the M25 and the national motorway network are close by. Construction of its very own tramway should start later this year: by 1995 18 miles of modern tramlines will radiate from its centre. It has particularly good local authority schools and hospitals and is justifiably proud of its provision of public services. And soon it will also boast one of the finest arts and library complexes in south-east England. Croydon has a long-term plan to become an economic powerhouse and cultural centre as Britain creeps into Europe.

What is most remarkable is that this Conservative bastion has been spending money on civic projects - including public transport and, astonishingly, public architecture - of a scale, cost and quality that would have most Tory councillors and MPs wincing. While other Conservative local authorities leave it to the vagaries of private enterprise to shape their towns, Croydon is insisting on investing in its own infrastructure.

The local council has even defied the Government in its quest for the best possible civic planning and design. When it commissioned its sophisticated new pounds 30m library and cultural centre from the architects Tibbalds Colbourne Karski Williams Munro in 1988, it broke government-imposed limits on local authority spending. But how can the Government argue? Croydon is the heartland of the Thatcherite-Majorite Tory voter (84 per cent of homes in the borough are privately owned) and no Conservative government in its right mind would either seek or want to be seen to be curbing Croydon's ambitions.

Above all, and despite an inevitable rise in unemployment over the past three years, Croydon is an economic success story and always has been. The Saxon market town of Crogedene (valley of saffron) became a powerful medieval trading post, a home of the Archbishops of Canterbury, a London borough (in 1883) and, from the Sixties, the centre of south-east England's insurance and financial services industry.

In the Sixties, under Alan Holt, the legendary borough engineer who dreamt of turning Croydon into an ideal modern city, it was transformed into an American-style town centre complete with its own equivalent of New York's Park Avenue, a gaggle of skyscrapers (most of them rather ugly, it must be said), underpasses, flyovers and all the cliches of Modernist, car- driven planning. Today, more people commute into Croydon to work every day than leave the town for the City and West End.

The town that has so often been put down for being ugly, too modern and deeply suburban, has become a latter- day old-style London. It is as the capital was in the high days of the former London County Council, when public service, public transport and public architecture were virtues, rather than the vices they are considered today.

And now Croydon is fighting to becoming a cultural centre. It knows it can attract shoppers - this is the land of the glitzy shopping mall, the pedestrianised shopping street and the edge- of-town DIY store - but now it wants to be known for its contributions to the arts and to civic culture. And that is why pounds 30m has been pumped into the design and building of a new arts and library complex.

The building - a fusion of spirited Victorian civic design and imaginatively planned and sensitively executed contemporary architecture - is more than just a new centre for art and learning. It is a symbol of Croydon's determination to become a city, and a remarkable affirmation that public architecture, design and civic values have not yet been cast into some privatised rubbish bin.

The architects, better known for their international work as urban planners than as designers of major civic buildings, have risen to the occasion; the new building is a fine example of how the marriage of new design with historic architecture can ennoble both. Dressed in red brick and Portland stone to match the elaborate pile designed by Charles Henman Jr ('Not a bad design,' says Nikolaus Pevsner in the London 2: South volume of 'Buildings of England'), the new library merges with the old town hall, library and law courts (1892-96), a towering confection of fairy-tale Victorian civic design.

The tall brick and stone tower remains a noteworthy landmark on Croydon's concrete skyline, while at close quarters the building is liberally decorated with stone cameos representing such enlightened Victorian totems as 'Education' and 'Science'.

The new building (which opens in two stages - the library and arts centre this summer, the museum next summer) looks quite simple but inside it is a complex design bursting with incident, ingenuity and delight. When complete, it will provide a public library, art gallery and arts cinema with a cafe and bar, while the original part will continue to serve as the town hall with the addition of a local museum.

The new library is a clever building in many ways. Its design represents the friendly face of modern architecture. It both blends in and tussles gently with the older building: its structure is not sheathed in trite Post-Modern fancy dress, so you can see how it goes together, yet it is playful in its detailing. It is elaborate, yet the architects have resisted the temptation to apply decoration: specially commissioned artwork has been incorporated into the structure, including a large weather vane on the top of its copper barrel-vaulted roof.

The interior is planned around a tall, narrow, curving internal street (not the cliched atrium of the shopping mall or hotel lobby) that gives on to a pavilion- like cafe, a tourist information shop, the library itself and the museum. The street can be looked down into from the five floors of the library, and from the arts centre and town hall on the opposite side. One side of the street is faced with the new building - all glass and steel - the other by the red brick and white stone of the Victorian town hall.

At night, it will look like a medieval street seen through the eyes of a modern architect: glass, steel, aluminium and other contemporary materials mixing with traditional brick, stone, brass and copper. From the top floors of the library (reached by silent escalators), the Victorian tower can be seen rising proudly above the new steel and glass roofs.

The library itself is a huge and imaginative gallery of learning. Its plan is entirely open (there are no doors, except those to the street, anywhere in the public spaces), underlining the idea that this is a free and accessible institution available to everyone. The children's library has been designed with a nautical theme (portholes for windows) and includes a delightful circular pavilion topped with a witch's hat roof where children will be read stories.

A very important part of the library is the exceptionally large section devoted to local history: Croydon - underpasses, flyovers, American-style corporate headquarters and all the accoutrements of Sixties planning - is genuinely proud of itself.

When the library closes in the evening, a simple security shutter will close it off from the rest of the centre; the cinema, cafe, bar and gallery will remain open late into the night. If the architects could have their way (and the council is not against this, although it would be extremely expensive), they would like to dig a pedestrian tunnel under the main road that separates the new arts complex from the Fairfield Halls, Ashcroft Theatre and Arnhem Gallery in Park Lane - Croydon's equivalent of the South Bank in

London.

There is only one sad note in this flowering of civic triumphalism. The architects were brought in to complete a civic complex that would fill an entire street block. Now that work is nearing completion, there is nasty gap at one corner, as if the architects had run out of design ideas and left a bit of building out.

The truth is that the council felt obliged - so as to be party-politically correct - to bring the private sector into the building programme. The plan was that the council would pay for 90 per cent of the project, while private developers would pay for the final 10 per cent in the form of lettable office accommodation at one corner of the site.

When it came to the crunch (and the recession), the private sector failed; it had no money left to put into the cultural kitty and so, much to the council's embarrassment, part of the building is missing. The unbuilt section of Croydon's laudable new arts and library centre will go down in local history as a lesson of how political dogma undermines noble civic ideals.

Perhaps the missing piece should be known as the Thatcher Building, in deference to the achievement of Conservative governments in undermining the very public realm that the London Borough of Croydon and its architects have done so much and so well to uphold.

(Photograph omitted)

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