Architect and planner Vincent Lacovara on firing up the imagination on London’s fringes
8 minute read / Rosanna Vitiello & Benjamin Mackay
"The most interesting places of the imagination are where you least expect to find them," says Vincent Lacovara, as we talk on a bench outside East Croydon station. He’s paraphrasing writer and suburban aficionado JG Ballard, but it’s Vincent’s ability to see epic among the everyday that characterises the work of his Placemaking team at London’s Croydon Borough Council. Leading a group of architects and planners (as well as filmmakers, conservationists and an archeologist) Vincent’s team are bringing the play back into placemaking.
Vincent’s always seen magic where others merely saw mundane. Straight out of university he co-founded the AOC, an architectural design and research agency renowned for their experimental eye. And yet alongside, he kept one foot in his native borough working with Croydon’s local authority, finding creativity where those with less imagination saw a ‘concrete jungle.’
If Vincent had a superpower it would be to find inspiration in the places other people have written off. And with a genuine belief in Croydon and its community he’s dedicated much of his working life to the place. This fascination is now making brilliant things happen on London’s fringes, and firing the imagination of the design teams and developers he guides. So we meet Vincent out among these re-imagined public spaces to find out how Croydon is learning to love itself—
Vincent, tell us about your attachment to Croydon – how did it all begin?
I was born in Bromley, but I grew up in suburban Croydon. I've spent most of my life living here, and a big chunk of it working here as well.
I remember looking out the window of my mum and dad’s bedroom when I was small, seeing the skyline of central Croydon in the distance, and thinking, “Wow, that’s amazing.” It looked like a cartoon metropolis.
Later on, when I was at secondary school in the ‘90s, the Architecture Foundation did one of its first projects here, called Croydon Future. They worked with Croydon Council and twelve or so leading architects to come up with ideas to invigorate the Town Centre. The exhibition was full of models of Croydon – a place that I knew really well, but with layers of other ideas by people like Nigel Coates and Richard Rogers. I remember thinking, “This is what I want to do. It's a place that I know, but twisted to fit through the mangle of the imagination, and it’s really exciting.”
Imagine all the stuff that you can make out of the creative potential of working with the thing that you know the best. A little light bulb lit up, and it’s why I studied architecture.
And what’s compelled you to stay here?
Croydon has so much opportunity. There’s lots of energy, lots of different people interested in doing things. I'm still as excited about it as the day that I started working here.
How did you move from architectural practice into the public sector?
I was actually doing both right from the beginning. A year after I left the RCA, I started working with Croydon Council literally the same day that we set up AOC Architecture.
When we originally established AOC, the idea was that it wouldn’t be a conventional architectural practice. It would be a loose group where you could give individuals the freedom to do other things – but also a framework for us to come together, to do projects together and collaborate.
Tell us about your role at Croydon Council.
I lead a team of people from design backgrounds: filmmakers, conservationists and archaeologists, landscape architects, and architects. They’re deployed around the council across different projects.
We sit within the planning department, so we’re mainly involved with planning policy and putting together planning frameworks. We also take the teams through the process to get planning permission. And we literally do planning in the sense of thinking ahead, strategising – which is the bit of planning that people always forget! I think many people associate 'planning' and planners only with the process and people that say yes or no to whether you can build an extension in your back garden.
What draws you to working in the public sector, over private practice?
I find more meaning in what I do here. I felt there was always a big emphasis in private practice on selling yourself and getting the next job.
My experience working for a local authority is less time spent selling, more time working on things that have meaning.
There’s also a sense that you're serving the people of Croydon. There's something hugely satisfying and empowering about knowing that the test is always, “Is this going to result in something that benefits the people who live and work in this borough?”
Tell us about your working process, which may be slightly different to other councils. How do you use stories?
I look for stories when I'm working on the early stages of the project. It’s something that my team do as well: look beyond the ‘obvious’ elements that might inform a brief. We cast the net wide to gather inspiration, ideas and references. We’re happy to be surprised by things that might not immediately look like they have a direct relevance. It could be in the art world, or music, film, history, archaeology. It could be anything. The starting point is openness, and over time, you gather material.
I suppose that's more of an intuitive way of designing. I was really influenced by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and the whole ‘learning from…’ approach.
There's a J G Ballard quote: "The most interesting places of the imagination are where you least expect to find them."
How do you bring the local community into that discovery process?
It depends on the project. It's one area where I wish that we could involve more people, because to a certain extent, we're hamstrung by the statutory processes, or the budget and the timeframe.
The culture of our approach is to engage as much as possible, to be as open as possible, and to look for influences that include the people who live and work here in Croydon – what matters to them, and their own personal stories. There is so much out there, interesting, profound stuff. Usually the best projects are when that happens; it makes it so much richer if you allow that process.
Is there any other aspect of your process that’s unique or unusual?
I've been told that some of the things we do are unique, but to be honest, we've always tried to do the things the best way that we think we can do them!
For instance, we've used design summits. At any one time, there'll be many different teams working on projects. There's a tendency to let those teams just go off and do their own thing, and you miss all the opportunities for cross-referencing and learning from each other. Wherever possible, we bring the teams together, and share with each other, critique each other, map each other's projects and see if there are things that we're missing. It's a design culture, with design thinking, which I suppose it is relatively unusual in local authorities.
Once you’ve developed an idea, how do you communicate it back to the people of Croydon? And how do you hand it over to them, to run with the story themselves?
We try to develop projects that have some things that are fixed and some things that are flexible.
It’s acknowledging that other people are going to use and reinterpret the space, or the building, or the policy that you've written, in their own way.
As part of the design process, we do scenario-testing: "If we did this and that happened, how might people use it or interpret it?" We often use the Elvis Costello quote about how, when he records an album, he plays it back on a really crap tape recorder. If it still sounds good on that, then he knows it must be a good album. It's that process of imagining the worst that can happen! And the best as well, and everything in between.
It’s also allowing that process to actually inform the design – testing things in real time and at one-to-one scale. The culture of it hasn’t always been there, but there’s a growing appetite for it now, and we’re being given more opportunities to do it. For example, on the work we did with Assemble in New Addington, we asked Assemble to do a residency and tested emerging ideas with the people who were going to use that space, which informed the design of that project.
We’ve also been given more opportunities to devolve projects for other people to deliver: community groups, local artists, and local producers, and makers and companies. Equally, it’s about enabling them to do things that aren’t even part of our plans – putting the mechanisms in place, communicating the freedoms that already exist, letting them know that they already have permission. It’s about us being confident to stand back and allow things to happen.
With new developments happening around Croydon, the land here is going to become more valuable over next few years. How are you going to negotiate with developers to protect local communities and their stories?
Our current administration are very strongly in favour of us maximising the amount of affordable housing that we can get out of developments. As a council, we’re very ambitious in actually building council housing as well, on quite a big scale. The Council's intention is to have around a thousand new homes on site by next May, and for approximately 50% of those to be affordable homes.
It's a massive challenge when the whole system is based around land values.
There’s always going to be a challenge to counterbalance the negative impact that can have on existing communities. So the council's doing as much as it can to make sure that Croydon is still affordable for people who already live here, and businesses that already operate from here – whilst also recognising that Croydon does need to grow. It's positive that Croydon is growing.
The other thing that we're doing by investing so much in the public realm, in connectivity, is making sure that the basic framework of the city is as conducive to everyday life as possible. If you have developments that increase land value but sit within enclaves, where the city is disconnected and difficult to get around and aggressive, it’s not the sort of place you want to spend your time in. I think these developments have increased the pressure on community space. It means that those communal spaces, whether in developments or in the public realm, have to work even harder to be like ‘outdoor living rooms’.
Is there a narrative that's being designed – or planned – for the future of Croydon?
I suppose there's a bigger narrative — a stereotype — which the currently Council's narrative is in part responding to - to do with a suburban part of London that was comprehensively redeveloped in the post-war period, with lots of ‘60s and ‘70s infrastructure and buildings. It's thought of as a concrete jungle and a place with no culture and all kinds of issues. "It was a boom town for 10 years in the 60s and 70s, and then it all started to decline, and turned into a bit of a joke town. If you ask most people about Croydon, they'll refer to things like the Terry and June opening credits.
Anyway, that's the stereotype...and there's some truth in that story. But also, like any story, there are complexities and other sub-narratives going on.
If you take that story as being true, what do we do to respond to it. 10 or 15 years ago, there were attempts to reinvent Croydon and rebrand it from the top down.
Now it's much more to do with accepting what Croydon is, and seeing the value in the place. Croydon is learning to love itself.
You'll find in Croydon an immense amount of civic pride amongst people that live here and grew up here – more than in other suburban parts of London. It might be a generational thing. People who have grown up with post-war Croydon, my generation, are much more excited about how you can work with it and evolve it than the previous generation, who see more of the negatives.
That's reflected all the way through to politicians. The chief executive at the moment, Jo Negrini, completely gets the place and loves the ‘60s architecture – well, some of it!
So do you think the reputation of Croydon, or the narrative, is already changing?
It depends on which community you belong to. Croydon's got a reputation for different things among different people. The skateboarder community across the world know Croydon as a great place to skateboard in, because of the '60s and '70s modernist infrastructure.
There's also a big music scene in Croydon; it has engendered new music movements. Most of the Mobo Awards winners last year came from Croydon! There's all the punk stuff that happened around the Croydon Art College; Malcolm McLaren was there, and dubstep came from Surrey Street Market. Sometimes these things actually feed off the stereotype of Croydon as a modernist urban jungle.
The approach now is to stand back a bit more – seeing what’s happening naturally, allowing those things to speak for themselves and enjoying them, and supporting what’s positive for Croydon.
We’re putting more emphasis on the cultural aspect of Croydon, its music and art, to recognise that those things are happening here and celebrate them.
Another example is the Croydon ‘tech city’, which has grown over the last four or five years. A lot of it is moving from East London, as they can't afford to be around Old Street anymore; lots of indigenous tech companies have also located around Croydon, because it's close to Gatwick and London. Once the tech city had established itself, the council has been very supportive of it and helped promote it. There’s a competition called istreet, led by our Chief Executive Jo Negrini, capitalising on the tech scene to physically improve Croydon as a place. We've also got something called Legible London, a wayfinding system we implemented to humanise how people find their way around Croydon. There's been dialogue about how we could use tech to help people know where to go in Croydon – not only in terms of reaching spaces but also a cultural programme, a combination of wayfinding and event-based ideas.
So what can the world learn from Croydon? What inspiration can we take from it?
It’s this sense of not giving up: ambition and tenacity and pride in place. Croydon has been lambasted and joked about relentlessly. Despite that, Croydon does all these fantastic things. I find that remarkably inspiring.
Vincent takes us on a walk around Croydon to look for inspiration ourselves, with our first stop a site next to East Croydon Station...
What’s the story of this site?
This site was empty from the ‘70s. There have been many, many different plans for this site — The site extends for what is now Boxpark down there, to the multi-storey car park there. It’s a big chunk of the town centre next to the main railway station.
Before the global financial crash, we had a vision for Croydon. That was – and still is – the last big visioning piece that was done for the place. It already looked dated by the time the crash had happened. It was a big challenge. We still believed in the fundamentals of this vision of thousands of new residents and a public realm with interesting things going on. But how was it realistically going to happen given those circumstances?
East Croydon was the first place we did a masterplanning process. We ended up doing five masterplans for different areas of the town centre. We wanted them to be different to the kinds of plans that had been gone before. Masterplans are basically frameworks that describe the things that should or could happen in a place and define which things are fixed and which things are flexible - which things should happen in a specific way, and where people are free to come along and do things in their own way. They focus decision-making for the people who own the land and run the big bits of infrastructure.
The reason I wanted to talk about it is because it describes the process of what we do almost from end-to-end. We started off with all these issues. The first thing we did was to bring all the stakeholders together for a meeting, where we said, "We know that you don't necessarily all see eye to eye, but let's all meet as a starting point to see if we can agree four opportunities for the area". They came to the meeting and did manage to agree on four opportunities. Then we invited them back for a second meeting and said, “It’s great that we have agreed on four things. Shall we flesh that out and do a masterplan that communicates those four things?” Everyone tentatively agreed to embark on what turned out to be a masterplanning process. We wrote a brief together. We commissioned Studio Egret West to be lead consultants on it.
Why was it ultimately successful?
It wasn’t the council telling a group of people and landowners what they should do. They were involved in shaping it, and that gave them all responsibility.
It was kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. They only had to worry about delivering their bit of it, but when you put the whole thing together, it all adds up to one picture.
The masterplan was finished in 2011. Following that, Stanhope Schroders secured a planning consent for their site, based on the masterplan. Network Rail used the masterplan to get funding for this bridge, which provides new entries to the station and opens up a bit of the town centre that was not easy to get to on foot before.
We also worked with the developers throughout the process. When Stanhope commissioned their design team, we worked closely with them to make sure they got the right team together and that they put an emphasis on public realm, so they commissioned Muf to do the landscaping. It's about building relationships: them respecting us, and us challenging them, and vice versa.
Those relationships seem essential to making richer and more effective public spaces.
One of the benefits of me having stayed here in Croydon is that there's a continuity of relationships. People know what the story is supposed to be, and we can ensure that there's that thread that runs through projects. Development takes so long. This, relatively speaking, has been fast; it’s come together since 2010. "My mum and dad, who still live in Croydon, think it's terribly slow...“When is it going to happen?” I say, “It's only been seven years. Come on.”
At Stanhope, it's the same guy who's been there throughout. Liza Fior from Muf has been involved all the way through. The case officer who's dealt with it from the planning side: the same thing. It makes a huge difference with these individuals being there for the whole journey.
And we’ve touched again on the importance of the public realm in this project.
It ties everything together. The great thing about having Stanhope commission Muf is that they've added another layer of narrative and storytelling to the public realm. Stanhope often create corporate environments, whereas this feels human, and has many more layers to it.
Muf wove a narrative about John Ruskin’s life and his connections with Croydon into the landscape, which is a lovely thing. The elements that you can see coming from the bridge – like the mini mountain, and the lovely forest over there, and the scotch pine at the end of this route – are about the early part of John Ruskin's life. The next phase, which hasn’t opened yet, is about the next chapter.
If you use this place as an example, what would you say is the role of narrative in placemaking?Beyond the public realm elements we’ve talked about, Stanhope – led by Muf and supported by the council – have allowed narrative to play such a big part in the design process. It’s involved a lot of co-production. Muf ran a festival, (along with Blue touch consultancy and Lives not Knives) the Festival of Toil, which was about developing the next stage of the art strategy for the space. They built a smelter to make cutlery from bits of stuff found on the site. The cutlery was used at feasts where they brought people together to discuss what the brief should be.
I can't think of any other development of this type that has that sort of narrative woven into it. That says a lot about how developers’ attitudes are changing; they’re starting to understand the value of narrative as well.
From east, we head west as Vincent takes us to Wellesley Road, towards West Croydon Station.
Vincent, tell us where we’re headed now.
This is a big urban motorway that was built in the '60s and the '70s. Bit by bit, we're working to humanise it. We've been working on similar public realm projects, trying to improve the environment with a series of masterplans. Once you have a masterplan in place, it unlocks funding opportunities and we're able to bid for funding from the GLA, Transport for London and the Heritage Lottery Fund amongst others.
Over the past five years or so, the investment in the public realm has been around £50 million. The plan is for at least an equivalent amount to be invested over the next five years. The next big chunk of funding is going to be something called the Growth Zone Funding — basically a devolution agreement with the Government, where they've agreed Croydon can keep business rates to spend on infrastructure locally.
So we’re developing Wellesley Road as a big public space in the town centre to break down the barrier for pedestrians. We worked with Adams and Sutherland and Jonathan Cook, the landscape architect. The planting here is inspired by the landscape character of Croydon — of bits of New Addington and Shirley Hills (outer Croydon neighbourhoods and greenspaces) drawn into the town centre, so commuters that come down on the tram here recognise part of their neighbourhood. When they were digging trial pits for the trees, Jonathan discovered seeds from what used to grow there 100 years ago, lying dormant under paving slabs, and that was inspiration for the landscape architecture too. Just shows how being open to any influence, to be prepared to be surprised.
Is the transport infrastructure itself also part of it, as people’s first impression of the place when they arrive — the start of the story so to speak?
It’s really important. There used to be a grim bus station here and it’s just been rebuilt, in line with the West Croydon Masterplan. It’s been shortlisted for a RIBA London award, and it was designed in-house by TfL’s architects. It’s got references to the Victorian heritage and history of West Croydon and other railway buildings of that era. There's a sense of memory in the object, that it's been somewhere before it's got to where it is now. People delight in that and they make their own version of why it's there, what it must be for. That's already happening with this building, I noticed in Twitter, people saying, "It's already rusted." Then someone's saying, "No. It's supposed to look like that." It's that level of conversation that things spark and people make up their own stories to explain the places they know as well
We also worked with Hawkins/Brown and Studio Egret West on the East Croydon Station Bridge. The design was influenced by NLA Tower and Lunar House nearby, mashed together with the design of the existing East Croydon station together. So the bridge has got a bit of Croydon in it. There's a sense of delight that wouldn't otherwise be there if it had just been a pure bit of infrastructure.
View from Ruskin Square towards East Croydon Bridge
And what do you see as the narrative aspects of this part of Croydon?
There are lots of things set into the project that tell a story. There is a great church building here, St Michael and All Angels. one of the lovely things about it is that the spire was never built. When they built the original church in the 19th century, they started the first part and then ran out of money! The congregation of the church tell this story, and they're really keen at some point to finish it. That's why East, who were the design team we worked with at West Croydon, dotted in the outline of the spire in an engraving of the church that has been set into the paving.
It’s little nuggets and details like that that work on a more human scale. There are layers of experience there. People make up their own stories of the place as well: they delight in it, and they make their own version of why it's there. You let people finish the story.
LEARNING FROM VINCENT
Stretching the Imagination
Is anywhere more fruitful than the city’s fringes to stretch the imagination? The suburbs are home to subcultures and unexpected passions that provide great starting points for narrative placemaking. Vincent’s viewpoint is characterised by a humility that sees potential everywhere, and an openness to involve others in shaping the story of a place - a hop, skip and jump towards the huge leap of imagination that masterplanning and urban design requires.
Fixing and Flexing
Planning sets the framework but requires ‘some things that are fixed and some things that are flexible.’ Acknowledge that other people are going to use and reimagine a space, building, or the policy that you've written in their own way, and give those groups the freedom to do so. Devolve projects for other people to deliver a dream, from community groups to local artists, and let people know that they already have permission. This takes trust but creates shared responsibility, encouraging people to delight in finishing the story to make it theirs.
Testing ideas in real time and at one-to-one scale speeds up the slow pace of development. Scenario-testing shifts the focus from purely physical into imagining the impact on our everyday lives: "If we did this and that happened, how might people use it or interpret it?"
Creating ties not just buildings
The complexity of masterplanning of this scale requires different disciplines, teams and modes of thinking. Go beyond and get teams truly sharing to work together. From creative summits that draw varied viewpoints, festivals that invite community ideas, or building trust between developers and design teams to push both creatively. So while everyone’s focused on shaping their part, the jigsaw adds up to a narrative and a place that holds together.
Or better yet, take a trip to Croydon to see the re-imagined public spaces.
As part of London Festival of Architecture, you can also join the event on June 30th The Diasporic Feast with Central St Martins