FAT Saturday: Thornton Heath Library & The Museum of Croydon

Thornton Heath Library

Facing a weekend with nothing to do for the first time in ages, yesterday I set off to see the newly refurbished Thornton Heath Library by FAT Architects (or, more formally: Fashion Architecture Taste). It was also a good excuse to venture south of the Thames, something I don’t often do. Thornton Heath is close to Croydon’s town centre, accessible by rail after a long Tube journey from where I live in Northwest London.

Thornton Heath Library

Like many parts of outer London, Thornton Heath has a scrubby (yet bustling) high street that tapers off into nondescript semi-detached housing as one walks away from the station. The library is located in the fringe area where commercial has tapered to residential, yet is positioned so that FAT’s cast-concrete supergraphics are visible through the forest of shop fronts on the high street (see photo above).

Thornton Heath Library

The original building was constructed as a Carnegie Library in 1914. Like most of these libraries, it was built with a formal front entrance and raised off the ground by a flight of stairs. FAT’s design reorients the building around a new glass-enclosed entrance pavilion with a highly visible public reading room inside. The accessibility of the entrance is made into a design statement, as the new wheelchair ramp intentionally cuts off the original entrance which now sits behind it and is stranded above ground level (cue up a Colin Rowe-inspired discussion of phenomenal versus literal transparency here). If I had one criticism of this part of the building, the glass balustrade combined with white concrete makes all of the leaves and rubbish trapped between them incredibly visible from the street.

Thornton Heath Library

The extension of the reading room allows the interior of the building to feel much more spacious that it must have in its previous incarnation. People were actively using this area, taking advantage of the comfortable and well-selected furniture to enjoy a newspaper and watch the world go by. The windows themselves are huge and divided by wood mullions that are sympathetic to the oak furniture and hardwood flooring. They are much nicer than what it typically installed on public design-build projects.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

While the original entrance has been permanently sealed, the interior finishes and skylight have been restored to their original glory over what was originally the entrance lobby and is now a reading and browsing area. The incorporation of the original detail within the context of a vastly improved plan and circulation strategy shows the value of a carefully-considered renovation over a new-built library.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

Aside from the well-chosen stand alone furniture, the furniture integrated into the shelves in the library stacks was a fantastic touch and very much in-tune with the way people look for books. I’m surprised this sort of arrangement is not more common, because it is ideal for browsing.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

The children’s library and public meeting room are both located on the lower level, accessible by a delightful light-filled stair that hugs the original exterior wall. The children’s reading room opens on to a deck with a grassy yard beyond. Rather than simply denoting the space for children with primary colours and a ‘fun’ carpet, the room is well-proportioned and the access to the outdoors makes it a special space separate from the rest of the library. It was incredibly well-used on the day of my visit. I did not photograph the children’s library because, being an adult man with no child in tow I was certain it would raise some sort of alarm.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

The one strange thing about the rear of the building was an American suburban-style picket fence that I can only guess was a Health & Safety inspired addition to keep kids from climbing the lush and inviting hill beyond:

Thornton Heath Library

Many older public buildings do not meet modern needs, but the sort of careful (yet not timid) approach shown by FAT both reinforces both the importance of building re-use and of the necessity for the involvement of talented architects in making great public buildings. Education Secretary Michael Gove’s attacks on architects for creaming off ‘huge’ fees on school design and refurbishment projects seems particularly off-target when one encounters a public building such as this that has benefited immensely from good design.

The Museum of Croydon

The Museum of Croydon is tucked away inside the Croydon Clocktower, a Grade I listed building built in the 1890s and designed by Charles Henman Jun. It holds a variety of cultural amenities and is adjacent to the Croydon Town Hall.

The Museum of Croydon

The museum tells the story of Croydon as told through objects. It doesn’t have many timelines, pictures or detailed maps (aside from one introductory display on land ownership and key roads) but instead is organised into rooms by era with corresponding items from the collection. FAT humorously labelled the entrance ‘then’ and ‘now’ which implies (unlike many museum displays) that there is no correct order in which you should view the displays.

The Museum of Croydon

The interior of the museum is very dark, which is accentuated by the grey matte plastic surfaces that mimic a variety of other materials like gilded picture frames or fabric. The objects are typically displayed in single item clear enclosures with a small and very difficult to read tag on each item. The descriptions border on cryptic in many cases. There is also a touch-screen display that accompanies each small group of objects, but the information on the computer mimics the minimal content of the wall tags.

The Museum of Croydon

The displays are well-designed, and as an ensemble the interior of the museum is gorgeous to look at. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I learned much about Croydon from my visit. While there was some information about the Blitz, it was very general and didn’t go beyond the information you could learn about many other British cities during World War II. Similarly, the Commodore computer from the Croydon library looks remarkably like every other Commodore computer sold around the world during the same era. While I conceptually get the point about telling the story of a place through objects, I think its unfortunate that so little of the story of the place is really told here. Croydon’s high-rise skyline makes it a peculiar place and I’d like to know more about why it turned out that way.

The collection of the museum is not a shortcoming on the part of the architects, I think the Museum staff should have considered more effective ways to tell the story of the city through these objects. The abundance of computer technology within the exhibition spaces could allow for a much richer experience if more information was provided.

Additional photos for both the library and museum can be found on my Flickr stream.

An Invitation to a New Way of Living: The Modern Motel

Author Alain de Botton is on a mission to convince people that they could live in modern houses. I read his book The Architecture of Happiness last year and wasn’t particularly impressed. After reading Will Wiles’ article in the November 2010 issue of Icon magazine about de Botton’s new company, Living Architecture, I became more interested in his mission. Would people really want to live in a modern house if they were educated to appreciate it? In de Botton’s own words:

Each is designged to challenge preconceptions about modern architecture and, with luck, win over sceptical Brits in the course of a weekend break.

Living Architecture didn’t go for half-measures: known as  “The Balancing Barn,” one of the first buildings available for rental is a shiny-metal clad house cantilevered over a hillside by the world-famous Dutch firm MVRDV.  At £725 for a 4-night break (the Living Architecture website cheerily points out it only costs £23 per person per night), the house offers people the chance to try out a comfortable yet strikingly modern lifestyle. I’m not so sure that de Botton’s goal of luring the British public to live in modern homes will be very well-served by this tactic: it seems only those already enthusiastic about staying in a modern home designed by a famous architect will rent this house. At present, the company has four properties and  they are planning to build more, but it seems like a drop in the bucket if there is any hope for a mass conversion to modern tastes.

You would think that if only de Botton’s company could roll out the program on a larger scale, the cottage-loving public would change their minds about domestic architecture, but I don’t think it is that simple. While in graduate school I examined a very similar phenomenon that took place in post-WW2 America in a paper titled “Modern Motel Architecture: Your Night in the Future.”

While the motor inn had existed in a variety of formats since as early as the 1920s, it took its clearly defined form as the motel after World War II. With the expansion of the U.S. interstate network, staying at these roadside establishments became very commonplace: 59% of Americans stayed at motels while on vacation in 1955 versus only 36% in traditional hotels. How were these new motels marketed? With modern architecture.

Googie sign, Tod Motor Motel - Las Vegas
The Tod Motor Motel in Las Vegas (2006)

While the signs announcing these businesses are often the most dominant feature, the motel buildings themselves were a drastic departure from the tourist cabins and traditional hotels that preceded them. Owners of these businesses needed to shake the “no-tell motel” image of the pre-war era that had been reinforced through popular culture. Hitchcock’s Psycho plays off of the public’s associations with run-down motels as a set up for the film’s plot with Norman Bates’s character living in a creepy old Victorian house that looms over its surroundings. Proprietors would use garish colours, large sheets of glass and modern methods of construction to set the modern motel apart from all forms of accommodation previously known to most Americans. Subsequently, the modern motel would be the first time most ordinary Americans would be invited to spend the night in an Architecturally findviagra modern building.

Reno, NV
Motel in Reno, Nevada (2003)

Venturi, Brown and Izenour discuss motels in Learning from Las Vegas and categorize them as “Pleasure Zone Architecture,” a category with qualities that include “lightness, the quality of being an oasis in a perhaps hostile context, heightened symbolism, and the ability to engulf the visitor in a new role.” (1) LFLV also points out the role that this type of architecture plays in allowing people to imagine the future, claiming that “for three days one may imagine oneself a Centurion at Caesars Palace, a ranger at the Frontier, or a jetsetter at the Riviera.” (2)

Outside of Las Vegas, the buildings were smaller and a little less grand, but still communicated the idea of a better life through modernism as motels spread across the United States, following the new interstates. Steven Izenour wrote about this phenomenon in short workbook in 2001 titled “Learning from Wildwood” about blue-collar resort motels in Wildwood, New Jersey. Families unable to afford a trip to the Carribean could instead spend a few nights at a beach-themed modern motel on the side of a New Jersey highway with a flat roof and large picture windows.

Did Americans clamour for modern homes after experiencing the future in these motels? The short answer is no. While modern-lite ranch homes did become somewhat popular, they still retained many traits of  traditional American homes. Communities like Levittown in New York and Lakewood in Southern California were the real look of the future, rather than space age motels. Modern methods of production brought the factory to the job site, but the end product was more Cape Cod than Buck Rogers:

Levittown, 1948: the post-war American Dream
Levittown, 1948: the post-war American Dream

Modernism was a fashion of the 1960s, and it fell out of favour. In an interview I conducted in 2005, Victor Newlove (the third partner at famed Googie architecture firm Armet & Davis, later known as Armet Davis Newlove) pointed out that people tired of modernism just as they had tired of tailfins on their cars. Architectural historian Alan Hess ties the death of modern commercial architecture to the rise of  highway beautification and the environmental movement of the early 1970s. (3) In any case, the era was definitely over when McDonald’s started to build brown brick restaurants with over-scaled Mansard roofs in the latter part of the decade. (4)

I doubt the situation in Great Britain in 2010 will play out much differently, especially now that the recent modern-ish housing in most British urban centres has become associated with the bubble economy of the last decade. With the new government comes a focus on localism in planning policy, which doesn’t look good for those wanting to build modern houses not “in keeping” with their surroundings. It is hard to change what is perceived as a centuries-old tradition of housebuilding with a few nights’ stay in a modern rental property.

1 Robert Venturi, et al. Learning from Las Vegas revised ed.(Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998) 53.

2. Veturi, et al. 53.

3. Alan Hess, Googie Redux (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004) 178.

4. Philip Langdon, Orange Roofs, Golden Arches (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986) 140-141.

Disasterville in the Cotswolds

I was looking at the town of Moreton-in-Marsh on Google Maps and discovered this area of strange-looking streets that clearly looks like an airport. It turns out this was a base for Wellington Bombers during World War II, and after the war it was converted into the Fire Service College where fire brigades from around the UK can go for training. The facilities guide on their website is great- it provides a 3D view of the site with various incident-training site identified, simulating almost any disaster you can imagine. Facilities include a ship, a high-rise, a stricken Boeing 737 and the M96 motorway- a fictional motorway for “simulated large vehicle incidents.”

Fire Service Training College
Photo by Chris Juden on Flickr (Some rights reserved)

In the heart of the Cotswolds, there is a new disaster brewing every day.

Favela Chic, Gothic High-Tech or The Suburban Ideal: Bruce Sterling & Sean Griffiths on the Future

After reading Kazys Varnelis’ syllabus for the fall semester at Columbia, I was compelled to go back and read Bruce Sterling’s lecture given at Transmediale 10 in Berlin earlier this year, as published by Wired, titled Atemporality for the Creative Artist. I also read an essay by Sean Griffiths, of FAT Architecture, on the future of housing in the UK titled Back to the Future: Staying with the Suburban Ideal (link opens as a PDF) written in 2004 with revisions in 2007.

Bruce Sterling lays out atemporality- we are at the transition into a new era. At the close of postmodernism, advanced societies are slowly collapsing (Gothic High-Tech) and others are chaotically rising (Favela Chic). This passage sums it up perfectly:

The situation now is one of growing disorder. A failed state, a potentially failed globe, a collapsed WTO, a collapsed Copenhagen, financial collapses, lifeboat economics, transition to nowhere. Historical narrative, it is simply no longer mapped onto the objective facts of the decade. The maps in our hands don’t match the territory, and that’s why we are upset.

Society is treading water. People will look to a variety of pasts, which Sterling points out we can see in fashions today like steampunk, and collage them with the present and the future. Atemporality will last ten years, and then expire- as something new will come along to replace it. Sterling’s point in this essay is that we should have fun with the era while it lasts. Why not live out your own future? Why not decorate your house like it’s 1750 or pretend you are an astronaut? You’re probably going to spend time unemployed as the economy goes through a massive restructuring and the jobs never come back anyway.

Sean Griffiths’ essay looks at 2024 and the state of housing in the UK. This prediction conveniently happens after the 10 years Sterling has allocated for atemporality are up. His predictions are based on a very similar scenario of advancing network technology and the partial collapse of the systems we have grown used to: travel has become prohibitively expensive, privatisation has taken over all aspects of government, and those that can afford to flee the city have done so as they no longer http://onhealthy.net/product-category/sleeping-aids/ need to be there to work. Climate refugees have arrived from other parts of the world that have become uninhabitable.

Local communities become more tightly knit as people spend more time socialising in their neighbourhoods. The English front yard becomes a more social space, thanks to traditions borrowed from immigrant groups. The suburbs become far more diverse, and at the same time the loft developments and open plan living spaces built in inner cities in the 1990s and 2000s become filled by recent immigrants with multigenerational families who run home-based businesses: favela chic comes to the urban bachelor pad. Everyone is plugged into the network, yet technology doesn’t define peoples’ lives or surroundings. In fact, the housing of the 2020s incorporates many historical English traditions like half-timbering, shingles and bay windows while still accommodating subtle hints of immigrant cultures. Network culture is collaged with architectural ornament that references the Middle Ages.

What does all of this mean for your life? For architecture? We are already in middle atemporality now, as the pre-crash era was the first phase (Kazys writes about this here and it includes a video of Sterling’s talk). With the “age of austerity” already upon us, we are seeing the effects of massive unemployment and underemployment. Tonight the chairman of the US Democratic Party was on Jon Stewart’s show trying to spin the idea that we we’re in an economic recovery while Stewart repeatedly pointed out that unemployment is still over 10%. California, New York (and many other US states) are on the verge of insolvency, and a large part of Europe is still facing financial crisis. Dubai is littered with abandoned construction sites and record-breaking heat caused massive forest fires that rendered Moscow uninhabitable for most of the month of August. We are in for an interesting seven years, at least.

Griffiths’ predictions are interesting because they are so contrary to what we’re used to see architects predict for the future, yet they are also incredibly plausible. I can’t help but agree that the future will be filled with far more half-timbered suburban houses than it will be with descendants of the Burj Khalifa and the Guggenheim Bilbao.

East Sussex/West Sussex Road Trip

Coming from America, I assumed there must be a huge East Sussex/West Sussex rivalry of the 2Pac vs. Notorious B.I.G. variety, but upon visiting I was proven wrong (or else I was looking in the wrong places). The trip was a brief (2 day) excursion, but we were able to see far more than I imagined in such a short amount of time.


The first stop was Arundel, located in West Sussex. A small market town, it is located on the lovely River Arun. It is famous for being the location of Arundel Castle, which is the home of the Duke of Norfolk. The castle was built by the Normans in 1068 to protect the coast from invasion from the continent, but much of what you see today has been reconstructed since the 1700s. In fact, a large portion of the accommodations were built solely for a Royal Visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1846.

Arundel Castle

The view from the keep:
Arundel Castle

The high point of the visit, for me, were the extensive gardens. Despite some rain, they looked fantastic and included greenhouses and outdoor plots where a large portion of food consumed by the Duke’s family is grown. The ornamental and water gardens were spectacular too. Most of the garden had been a car park since the 1950s, and only in the last five years has it existed in its current form.

Arundel Castle Garden

The water gardens were bordering on excessive. I loved them.

Arundel Castle Garden

One of the stranger things in the tour is the “Dancing Crown” fountain. The fountain is inside Oberon’s Palace, a building built in 2006 from a set design by Indigo Jones. The design of the “Dancing Crown” dates back to the Renaissance.

Upon leaving the castle, this family of swans passed by in the river just outside the wall:

Arundel - swan family in the river


After leaving Arundel, it was on to Littlehampton. In comparison to the picturesque quaintness of Arundel, Littlehampton looked rough around the edges (though more in a Weatherspoons way than in an inner-city Detroit way). There was a pedestrianised area in the middle of town, with ample cheap parking, and this decrepit arcade:

Littlehampton Arcade

There was also a regenerated area, of sorts, that held a number of particularly unattractive buildings that face a marina Note the requisite pun in the name of the exhibit.

Littlehampton Marina

There is also a run-down looking amusement area, with a castle that is slightly less impressive than the one down the road in Arundel:

Littlehampton Castle at the Pier

The following morning, before leaving town, we checked out the “Longest Bench in Britain” by Studio Weave. It is part of a seaside regeneration project, and apparently some people were not happy about its approximately 1 million pound cost.

Longest Bench - Littlehampton

It is incredibly uncomfortable if you actually decide to sit on it because the little blocks of wood are too far apart. The ends of it turn into small pavilions:

Longest Bench - Littlehampton

Worthing (The War Pigeon Memorial)

From there, it was on to Worthing. The only thing I knew about Worthing was that there was supposed to be a pigeon memorial to the birds that took part in World War II, many of which didn’t come back. The memorial is in the middle of Beach House Park, and it is actually a small fenced off garden for use by birds (how appropriate). The inside of it looks like this, from the other side of the fence:

Worthing War Pigeon Memorial - Beach House Park

This is the matter-of-fact sign that lets you know it’s not for you, it’s for the birds:

Worthing War Pigeon Memorial - Beach House Park

Beachy Head

From there, it was on to East Sussex and to Beachy Head. We stopped at a car boot sale on the way, where I purchased a ceramic owl-shaped planter and a coloured glass vase (perhaps a post of its own someday). The setting was gorgeous, especially if the weather had been better:

Boot Sale in Peacehaven

The cliffs of Beachy Head were spectacular, the path was moved in recent years when the old one went over the edge as the cliff face eroded.

Beachy Head cliffs


Not much to say about Eastbourne, except that there was nice brickwork everywhere and there was an airshow going on while we were walking through town. Here’s the entrance to a building that formerly housed the “Eastbourne Artizans Dwellings”:

Eastbourne - Brickwork


From there, it was back to London with a quick stop in Lewes on the way. It was also very quaint, but there was nothing particularly photogenic though I did capture the Argos next to the river in the dead centre of town:

Lewes - Bridge