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The Croydon factor

In 1992, AJ featured the new-look station at East Croydon. Since then passenger numbers have nearly doubled and the Tramlink has opened.We went back to see how the building has fared

In a book devoted to 'boring' postcards, compiled by Martin Parr, there is one particularly prosaic image: The Underpass.

Croydon. This black-and-white photograph from the early 1960s shows a brand new and virtually empty dual carriageway descending under equally new, straight-edged, high-rise offices and retail buildings.

Croydon was bombed severely during the Second World War and in the 1950s the town council embarked on a huge modernisation programme, which by 1970 had created more than 560,000m 2of office space.

The postcard was not published as an ironic statement about Croydon 'new town' but as a celebration of the new Croydon.

In London County Council's post-war drive to move service industries out of central London, Croydon was a key location.

Conveniently sited on the main railway line to Brighton, at the major junction of East Croydon, it is easily accessible from many points in south London, Surrey and Sussex.

Numerous businesses, led by the Home Office's Department of Immigration, began to colonise Croydon's new office blocks. The town also established itself as a major shopping centre with various new precincts and department stores opening, centred on the High Street.

In the post-war reconstruction of central Croydon, however, one particularly important site was missed out: East Croydon Station itself. The administrative workers who populated the burgeoning office blocks were arriving at the same station that the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway built in 1894. They would arrive at the same time as commuters were setting of to Victoria and London Bridge. At the end of the day the same congestion would occur. Old, neglected and bursting at the seams - by then the railway building was virtually falling down.

For many years British Rail's property board tried to find developers for schemes that would exploit air-rights above the platforms, as it had done at Birmingham's New Street Station and would do at London's Liverpool Street. But the schemes failed because of the need to avoid disrupting the six tracks of one of London's busiest commuter lines - an imperative for BR's operational side - compounded by the condition of the substructures spanning these tracks.

Serious remedial action was called for as usage of the station steadily increased towards 15 million passengers a year. In 1989, Network SouthEast Architecture and Design awarded Alan Brookes Associates the brief to design a new station concourse and ticket hall, which opened in 1992.

The brief demanded that any new superstructure should span the tracks, leaving the central piers of the old station almost untouched. Alan Brookes Associates' solution was a four-masted structure suspending a 55m span roof. Tubular box trusses span the space between the masts, providing support for the underslung roof.

The station walls are made from clear toughened glass and new glazed ramps provide access to the mainline platforms.

With a population of more than 330,000, Croydon is England's tenth largest town.

However, the fact that it lies within Greater London means it has suffered from the inevitable peripheral south London 'buttof-the-universe' syndrome. But that has not stopped it from becoming England's sixthlargest commercial office location. In the late twentieth century, the town centre had to struggle with the demands of being a commuter town as well as a growing business and retail centre. After years of regeneration attempts, Croydon's unlikely saviour has been a tram. The Croydon Tramlink, which opened in the summer of 1999, has had two effects. First, a town centre 'loop' breaks any demarcation between the shopping centres, business district and surrounding side streets by tying them together in an apparently continuous link in time and space.

Crossing with ease the major roads that once presented significant barriers, the tram not only links East and West Croydon stations, it brings them out of relative isolation and into a much closer relationship with the centre itself. Second, both physically and perceptually, Tramlink makes Croydon a very real centre. With the central loop as its hub, the extensive network ranges as far as Wimbledon, Beckenham, Elmers End and New Addington. Stops even serve Ikea and other 'out-of-town' superstores. Passenger levels have exceeded all expectations and with a tram every few minutes, Croydon has quickly acquired the atmosphere of the tram cities of Holland and Germany.

Croydon Tramlink's main interchange with the rest of the national transport network is East Croydon Station, where trains can be caught not only to London and Brighton but Birmingham and Manchester.

A general view of the station today reveals a busy composition of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, a complex layering of posts, paved surfaces, wires and glazed panels. The place bristles with the latest in transport and building technology set, interestingly, against the gracefully ageing 'modern' 1960s architecture. Animated by trams, buses and the bustle of people, the place boasts the confidence of a thriving, contemporary centre.

A number of conditions mitigate against a wholly integrated building and, in the circumstances, Alan Brookes Associates has done a good job. The Tramlink project was started in 1992 by a group that included Croydon council, London Transport, Tarmac, AEG and Transdev. This group was dissolved in 1995 and the concession to build and operate the system was won by Tramtrack Croydon, a consortium including First (operator), Bombardier (tram supplier) Royal Bank of Scotland/3i (financiers) and McAlpine/Amey (construction).

East Croydon Station, on the other hand, is now owned by Railtrack. Its trains are operated by more than one train company and the major one, Connex, is losing its franchise. The station has to balance competing commercial interests but its compromised position also reflects a legacy of conflict from the days of British Rail. If a comprehensive reconciliation of the service requirements and commercial considerations of transport had been found, East Croydon may have received an interchange much better suited to meet its demands.

The civic rebuilding in Britain that followed the Second World War was not just about repairing bomb damage. It was made in the belief that state mobilisation of people and resources during the war could be put to use in building a new and better world.

Somehow in the 1960s and '70s this belief was lost. Today, Croydon is dragging its physical infrastructure back into some semblance of that original civic spirit. The Tramlink is a positive example of how a public/private partnership can succeed at the local level. Let's hope that the national infrastructure upon which East Croydon interchange stands can somehow catch up.

Stepping out of a tram one almost seamlessly enters the naturally lit glass-roofed booking hall. Although it does not show any signs of physical disrepair, the hall, which is less than 10 years old, seems to have lost a lot of its 'sharpness'. One senses a building under strain.

Serving an estimated 80,000 people a day, usage well exceeds 1989 levels. Even at the weekend it shows. The station has never had a concourse, so even on a hot, sunny day there is very little room for passengers to gather except in the booking hall itself. What little outdoor waiting space there is has been pushed down the sides - not the most attractive place to be. The central floor space of the hall is not big and there can be friction between people waiting or buying tickets and those queuing to get through automated barriers - with or without baby buggies or rucksacks.

When the new station was completed, Network SouthEast operated an 'open' station policy, dispensing with manned barriers, which allowed a more relaxed flow between booking hall and platforms.

Half of the booking hall is occupied by the usual retail concessions: newsagents, coffee, filled baguette and mobile phone shops. With 20 million passengers using the station each year, Railtrack - the current owner - would surely love to get more retail in there.

A curious, some would say disturbing, thing happens when a number of separate commercial interests occupy the same tight space operated by a third party, especially when the framework of that space has been designed with the appearance of a coherent aesthetic. Large, suspended High-Tech structures such as this station and Norman Foster's Stansted Airport are particularly susceptible to the condition.

Everyone announces their presence as loudly as possible and the multitude of changing messages from the principal service provider become inchoate and tawdry. Tenants ignore the considered decisions of the architects, putting in place makeshift signs, trendy glass doors that open on to an advertising panel and desperate attempts to brighten the place up.

Railway stations were once associated with beautifully kept gardens and at East Croydon at least someone is trying to maintain the horticultural tradition. One feels circumstance is conspiring against them, but full marks for trying.While an offence to the purists, to others this idiosyncratic use of space is testament to individual will resisting the uniformity of contemporary architecture.Whether the visual clutter is subversive colonisation of space, or making the best of a bad job, is debatable.

East Croydon Station represents what can be both good and bad about a transport interchange. Trains, trams and buses all in one place; great trams; some goodish - albeit overstretched - architecture; nice coffee. Shame about the platforms and trains.Walk down the light and reasonably airy ramps - access suitable for all including the disabled, elderly and babies - and the assurance of the contemporary comes to an abrupt end. Alan Brookes' 1992 station is simply bolted on to the nineteenth century one.

Architecture of the late twentieth century, in its references to sailing ships, kites and greenhouses, evokes a feeling of delicacy. One is conscious of its impermanence. While this feeling of 'the temporary' has some positive qualities, it can have the drawback that it quickly appears dated.

Temporary is good when, like the Renault Building in Swindon, it is built on firm, solid ground. But Alan Brookes' East Croydon Station sits on crumbling railway infrastructure that is more than a century old. The reality, rather than the illusion, of impermanence is never far away.

Many of the trains that serve the mainline platforms are as old as Martin Parr's postcard. The absurdity of one's descent from state-of-theart tram at street level to a dilapidated railway network below is a perfect example of surface appearance trying to disguise a rail system that, as is becoming all too apparent, is well beyond its sell-by date.

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