The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

South Norwood’s Brutalist Library shortlisted for award

The oversized bronze LIBRARY signage in a Gothic bold condensed font.

South Norwood Library – a 1960’s ‘Mini-Mies’ in the Croydon suburbs, that’s been the focus of a high-profile community campaign to save it from closure – has been shortlisted for a prestigious Architecture Today Award, recognising ‘Buildings that Stand the Test of Time’. Nominated by C20 Society and the Brutalist Library SE25 campaign, the library is a finalist in the Cultural and Religious Buildings category and will be presented to the award judges in September 2023.

It comes after a recent application to list the library was disappointingly rejected by Historic England. The news leaves questions over the long-term protection of the building, prompting campaigners to renew their call for the Mayor of Croydon to honour recent funding commitments to the library and to secure its future.

A ‘Mini-Mies’ in the Croydon suburbs, South Norwood Library was built in 1966-68 by Croydon Architects’ Department under the lead of Hugh Lea.

Image: John East

Croydon’s 1960s Boom

The current South Norwood Library was built in 1966-68, replacing a previous Victorian branch library on the same site, built in 1897. It was designed by the Croydon Architects’ Department under the lead of Hugh Lea, who in 1972 became Director of Development.

It’s a finely detailed building, highly characteristic of the 1960s and of Croydon’s development boom. It has a simple and bold design, composed of a glass rectangular box on a Staffordshire blue engineering brick plinth with a ribbed reinforced concrete slab at first floor level. Its exterior features the original 1960s ‘LIBRARY’ sign in a Gothic bold condensed font and oversized bronze lettering.

The library is cleverly designed to have three separate functions over five levels on a compact site, with capacity to accommodate some 14,000 books. The different levels are split across the front and rear of the building, with each being offset and separated by short flights of steps. The front part of the building has the ground floor entrance level, which houses the reception area with steps down to a small computer and reference section to the rear. Steps lead up to the rear double-height main lending library lit by a glass wall to the north overlooking Lawrence Road to the side. Further steps lead to the front children’s library set within the slab with high level windows – a means of giving small children maximum light and the fewest stairs. Finally, further steps lead up to the fifth level mezzanine study area. All were connected by a book hoist.

Arranging the library like this meant Lea could insert 60% extra floor space over the old library plan without increasing the roof line above the Victorian villas in the immediate vicinity. The building’s exterior survives in excellent condition and its minimalist interiors have been little altered.

Campaigners from the ‘Brutalist Library’ group protesting outside the building. Similar protests took place every weekend for 9 months.

Image: Brutalist Library

Vital community hub

Faced with the relocation of the library services in 2021 and the threat of the site ultimately being redeveloped, the grassroots ‘Brutalist Library SE25’ campaign group staged a weekly protest over 9 months and secured the backing of local residents, the newly elected Mayor and many prominent architectural journalists to their cause, while attracting a following of brutalist fans worldwide.

In September 2022, it was announced that the library services would remain in their current purpose-built home, ending several years of uncertainty and acknowledging the strong local support for the building. The library services had previously been earmarked for a move to a new commercial unit on Station Road, which sits on the ground floor of a residential block by Croydon Council’s former development company, Brick by Brick.

While that unit has stood empty since it was completed some two years ago, the library remained extremely well used despite the challenges of Covid-19 lockdowns. A designated High Street Heritage Action Zone (one of 60 across the country), South Norwood suffers from high levels of deprivation and the library is a vital community hub, also acting as a publicly accessible Warm Space during the recent energy crisis

The library is cleverly designed to have three separate functions over five levels on a compact site, with capacity to accommodate some 14,000 books.

C20 first recognised the building in our 2014 ‘Temples of Learning’ tour of post-war libraries. Although locally listed and located within the South Norwood Conservation Area, an initial bid for national listing was rejected in 2020 due to a perceived insufficient threat. A further application was made in 2021, strongly supported by C20’s caseworkers, when plans from local authority made clear they intended to sell the site. Yet despite acknowledging its strong architectural elements and ‘clear qualities of merit’, investigators from Historic England declined to recommend the library for national listing. The DCMS report stating:

‘For libraries of this comparatively late date, the bar for listing is high. The 1960s was a period of expansion for the public library service, with the construction of a great many new buildings…Comparatively few small post-war branch libraries are on the [National] List.’*

*There are believed to be 15 post-war libraries nationally listed in England.

The externally expressed concrete box contains the children’s library, set within the slab with high level clerestory windows for a sense of safety and enclosure.

Community Campaign Continues

While library services in South Norwood continue to be provided on the site, the listing decision means the building remains unprotected and vulnerable to . The constructive rhetoric and positive tone of the community campaign to-date has won praise, and helped secure commitments from the Mayor of Croydon, Jason Perry [in Sept 2022], that all funds previously allocated to a move would instead by invested in improvements to the existing building. In 2019 the Council launched a new 10-year plan to refurbish all 13 libraries in the borough, transforming them into ‘thriving cultural hubs’, with consolidated council services and trialing new digital technology to improve access.

C20 continues to work closely with the Brutalist Library SE25 group and Croydon Council, to ensure this thriving modern heritage asset is still serving local residents well into the twenty first century.

The library pictured shortly after opening in 1968

Image: Croydon Archives

The Brutalist library SE25 campaign commented:

“We are incredibly proud of what we, SE25 residents and Brutalist Library supporters from around the world, have achieved and we continue our mission to protect the library building with excitement and positivity.

In Spring 2022, Mayor Perry made a commitment to libraries across the borough of Croydon by highlighting how they can become an important focal point for broader public services. Months later, he confirmed that more than half a million pounds in grant funds would be invested into the protection and restoration of South Norwood Library services and structure, a clear sign of support to preserve this unique gem of local architectural history.

The recent nomination as finalist for an Architecture Today Award “for buildings that have stood the test of time” is a great reminder to honour the modern, forward-thinking and community-spirited outlook of Croydon’s Borough architect Hugh Lea, who designed and built South Norwood Brutalist Library together with the Chief Librarian for Croydon in 1968. The architect’s vision to provide invaluable services in a future-proof, purpose-built space is more than important in today’s world, with England’s local libraries estimated to generate at least £3.4bn in value a year through services supporting children’s literacy, digital inclusion and health. We are excited to continue to work with the community and Croydon Council to protect this cultural and historical asset that is South Norwood Library.”

Mayor of Croydon, Jason Perry, speaking in September 2022:

“Listening to the views of the local community, and having considered the viability of moving South
Norwood Library to the Pump House, we are pleased to begin preparations to keep their library in its current brutalist home.”

“A full paper on next steps will be presented at November’s public cabinet meeting, with all funding previously set aside for a move instead invested in improvements to the much-loved existing building. We remain committed to working with the local community to provide a modern local library of which they can be proud, while preserving a unique piece of local heritage.”