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Sean Griffiths salutes Alsop's vision for Croydon

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Brash, bold and vulgar – we should salute Alsop’s vision for Croydon

‘Dream’ is a word that appears frequently in Will Alsop’s new vision for Croydon (AJ 15.07.07). In it, Croydon dreams of becoming London’s third city (after London and Westminster), replete with lakes on top of dual carriageways, vertical botanic gardens and iconic buildings on the horizon. Alsop encourages its residents to dream further: of surrealistic markets and business parks under fly-overs, crystalline skyscrapers and worm-shaped office buildings. Alsop’s call to dream is both a cry for our urban futures to be driven by boldness and imagination and, it seems, a desire to create a Dalí-esque dreamscape of vibrant clashing colours and weird forms.
It’s this kind of stuff that infuriates Alsop’s detractors. For them, Alsop is a self-indulgent egotist, creating irrelevant visions whereby old, decrepit mining towns are recast as Italian hill towns. For his supporters, Alsop is a visionary, whose painterly approach to architecture and urban planning has the potential to completely reinvent and reinvigorate whole places, sometimes with single buildings. Both Peckham and Toronto would willingly testify to the potent force of the Alsop effect.
FAT has designed buildings as part of the realisation of two previous Alsop visions at New Islington in Manchester and Middlehaven in Middlesbrough. In both cases the reality is very different from the myths of strident egotist and painterly visionary. For one thing, Alsop is rather good at listening. In Manchester, he listened very carefully to local people, with the result that they bought into an ambitious masterplan that could so easily have been rejected in favour of something more anodyne. In Croydon he is doing the same thing. What appear, to prejudiced eyes, to be flights of fancy are actually grounded in responses to the concerns, suggestions and ideas of real people.
Alsop is also something of a pragmatist. His Manchester scheme incorporated a new canal, which allowed for the creation of south-facing waterside bars and restaurants and east/west orientated apartments. Similar sensible ideas form part of the Croydon vision, including the replacement of vehicular underpasses with lakes and the re-introduction of the culverted river as a positive urban element in the town. However, there is still the architecture – brash, bold, vulgar and hard for the sensitive souls of architects to take. To me (no fan of the endless tasteful, polite blandness that seems to constitute ‘good design’), this is a positive attribute. For those of you who disagree, it’s worth recalling the generosity of spirit that informs Alsop’s approach.
I often hear architects complaining we no longer think about ‘The City’. These are often the same people who think the answer to our urban problems can be solved by ideas coming out of Holland, Germany and Switzerland. And yet here is an English architect working in a peculiarly English way to think about English towns and cities. Whether or not the particularities of his approach are to your taste, I think this should be cherished.
Sean Griffiths is co-founder of FAT
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