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Thornton Heath Library, Croydon, by FAT

FAT’s architecture isn’t exactly subtle, but its Thornton Heath Library is cleverly designed and impeccably detailed, says Rory Olcayto

‘Thornton Heath has a desperate kind of mid-19th-century artisan character,’ states Pevsner’s Buildings of England series, adding that there is little to enjoy in this ‘relentless suburban sprawl’.

Walking along the shambolic, piecemeal Brigstock Road, past the ‘Best Hand Car Wash in the UK’, the Cheap and Cheerful furniture store and the Braids ‘R’ Us beauty salon, you can see why Pevsner finds this Croydon suburb so hard to like. Despite a solid Victorian and 1920s townscape, which mixes terraces with commercial yards and semi-detached villas, it’s a crazy jumble: road signs, shopfronts, street lamps and cars - hundreds and hundreds of cars.

A few minutes’ walk westwards from the railway station, the road widens, and there is a clear view of something at odds with Pevsner’s observations: a striking, graphic, gleaming white pavilion, fixed to the front of a Edwardian block and set alongside a very busy bus stop. Its function is spelled out in large freestanding three-dimensional letters, in case you’re not sure what lies inside. Welcome to FAT’s £1.5 million revamp of the local Carnegie library.

London-based practice FAT makes provocative architecture that invites you to think about what you’re looking at. Its buildings have a dreamy, prosaic quality that offends or delights depending on your taste. In the 2002 book Fame and Architecture, founding director Sean Griffiths says FAT’s work ‘makes references to “high” architecture but it also has readings accessible to others’. That might explain why director and co-founder Sam Jacob described the practice’s magnificent Heerlijkheid Hoogvliet community building in the Netherlands (AJ 06.11.08) as ‘not Arcadia, but an imaginary Arcadia’, when much of it resembles the landscape of a Nintendo videogame.

Thornton Heath Library, too, has two (and perhaps more) personalities. The cast concrete letters have a cartoonish feel, as if the whole building is a blown-up board-game piece, but, explains Charles Holland, the director who led the project, they also reference the sculptural grandeur of neo-classical civic facades. FAT’s intervention here is really quite rude: it nearly swallows the Edwardian facade, including the heraldic stone frieze around an old doorway it’s supposed to be nodding and winking at. It’s odd, then, that the result is a massive improvement, although the confident proportions and materiality of FAT’s new-build are very clear to see.

Given the complexity and craft FAT invests in its projects, Croydon Council should be applauded for granting the firm, funded by a £1.37 million Big Lottery grant, its first civic project in Britain. The brief was to expand the existing facility to offer a lending library, a reading area and café, a homework space, computers, a children’s library and community meeting rooms. A three-month public consultation gathered over 1,000 local comments, and included a display in a nearby Tesco, drop-in sessions, talks and school visits. This led to further demands: better usability, a wider community role, access to the garden and a contemporary entrance pavilion of ‘outstanding architectural quality’. In October 2007, the Big Lottery grant was awarded. Construction began in June last year and the building was completed this July.

Much of the refurbished library’s success is due to how it works with the neighbourhood. The street pattern in the immediate vicinity is weak. The building is located on a section of Brigstock Road that is largely lined with low-rise residential properties, many of which, like the library, are set back from the pavement, with some behind planted lawns. FAT’s solution comes courtesy of CABE: imagine the library as the ‘living room of the city’. The entrance pavilion, with its stepped foundation, café and pushed-forward footprint, is a clear embodiment of this idea. It looks especially good when a double-decker bus pulls up alongside it, something FAT clearly thought about (its design and access statement includes a render of this very scene).

But there is considerably more to this project than the pavilion’s imaginative urbanism. The library is now fully accessible and a number of fine original architectural features, including timber mouldings around the octagon at the plan’s centre, have been rescued from burial under previous alterations. All furniture is designed by FAT and a pair of additional two-storey wings increase floor space and improve circulation.

A stair tower and lift in the north-east corner of the plan provide public access to a back garden. New doors, fitted in extended window openings, lead out to a terrace adjoining the refurbished children’s library. To the front of the lower-ground floor, uninhabitable storage space has been remodelled to create meeting and activity rooms, and staff accommodation with an IT area above occupies the south-east extension. These towers have a utilitarian aesthetic. They are clad in cement fibre panels - a surprise given the luxurious frontage of polished white concrete and its mix of dolomite fines. Nevertheless, the right choices have been made about where to spend money.

Outside, the access ramp, like all access ramps, is the one sore point. FAT was right to spend money here, making it both sculptural and integral, but the polished concrete deck and toughened glass balustrade has a commercial aesthetic that feels misplaced. This is one architectural element that is crying out for a fresh perspective.

And yet, standing beneath the octagon and looking south-west into the pavilion café, you sense that one room is part sphere, the other a cube, and you realise how well FAT has emphasised the spatial qualities inherent to the building’s upper-ground floor. The original building would not have felt this big before. Thornton Heath Library could be FAT’s most successful building in terms of interior space. I wonder, what would Pevsner have to say? Regardless, a new edition of his Surrey guide beckons.

Project data

Start on site June 2009
Contract duration 13 months
Gross external floor area 875m2
Form of contract Design and build 2005
Total cost £1.5 million
Cost per m2 £1,714
Client London Borough of Croydon
Architect FAT
Structural engineer Fluid Structures
Services engineer Edmond Shipway
Cost consultant Mace Sense
CDM coordinator Mace Sustain
Project manager Mace
Main contractor Killby & Gayford
Specialist joinery Killby & Gayford
Precast concrete Evans Concrete Products
Annual CO2 emissions Not supplied

Readers' comments (2)

  • Has this improved the library beyond if it had just been refurbished?
    It's all very well to show lots of bright new spanky interiors but these would have been the same without the rather simplistic and niave box on the front....
    "nod and a wink wink" architecture is so one dimensional. When it comes to the next refurb the Edwardian building will remain and the "trendy" stuff removed.
    fast food architecture. dull.

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  • I hesitate to comment too much before I actually visit the place (since I can quite easily, and in fact walked past it not so long ago thinking, 'that looks like a FAT building), but I'm inclined to agree with the above comment. I do think more should be said about the interior and the furniture design which I think (from the photo's) looks really great. The new furniture works really well with the refurbished 19th century interior, not the usual blanf minimalist stuff, but characterful and well judged. Perhaps FAT's work is better suited to interiors (which is something most architects are very poor at)?

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