Open House: South Norwood Library and St Bernards, Croydon.

South Norwood Library

My understanding of London’s Open House began with a vision of queues: hoardes at the gates of the Foreign Office or some other shining city on the hill grudgingly opening up for the hoi polloi for one weekend a year; to reveal where all those tax dollars go.

The social media moans about the wait outside City Hall would seem to confirm those prejudices, but Open House is HUGE. If you want to go see the starchitect erections, by all means go. But there are as many treats further out as further in.

You don’t have to wait til Open House to go to South Norwood library. It’s open, as a library, though for how much longer is uncertain. Croydon council went bust, and even before then, a decade of austerity had stretched non-essential services [1] to the limit.


Our guide, part of the Brutalist Library campaign, wasn’t even a fan of postwar architecture to begin with. The building grew on him, as these tend to, while he spent time campaigning to save services.

The council plan is for the library to be demolished, and to be sold to developers. Campaigners plan to make this as difficult for them as possible, through raising awareness, and hopefully acquiring Grade II listing status.

The view from the top.

Our next visit was a bit of a gamble. We hadn’t booked St Barnards Estate, a private, Swiss-influenced modernist housing project, but assumed not many people go to Croydon for this kind of thing.

This was a good guess. And the humans who lived there were extremely welcoming, as we were given a comprehensive history of the place[2] and the chance to tour three of the houses.

There is something a bit weird about exploring such beautiful and well designed homes when you’re housing insecure yourself. It feels like visiting a reservoir in a drought; but at least we were out of towners. The Croydonites on the tour had a wistful aspect, knowing they could look but never realistically own. I shared it.

At the other end of the class spectrum, I was mistaken for an architecture student by one wealthy, older local, who couldn’t understand why we’d come so far to see these buildings, and why we didn’t simply live in modernist homes ourselves.

St Bernard’s

Still, this was at least another good reminder that modernism, if maintained, can provide gorgeous and still oddly futuristic living spaces. I would happy have lived in any of the places I saw today; even the library.

An architect lives here.

[1] Aka statutory. Any society that doesn’t consider libraries to be essential have gone very wrong, and we have gone very wrong…

[2] It was initially supposed to be much bigger but the developers panicked! The estate it’s based on has spectacular views of the Alps, here you can see the Surrey Hills!


  1. So glad you made it to Croydon and enjoyed St Bernards. Thanks for featuring our home (the architect’s house) – it’s still very much work in progress; the builders are back next week for phase 2!

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