In the heart of south London, just beyond the famous south bank of the Thames, sits Elephant & Castle, a neighborhood many North Americans will recognize as the name of an English-style pub chain. The Elephant & Castle name is thought to derive from an old coaching inn, although no one seems to know for certain. However, there is an elephant, and it bears a castle. A rather small-ish, sun-bleached monument, it sits as proudly as it can afront of the Elephant & Castle mall.
At the turn of the last century, Elephant & Castle was a bustling area, known as the the Piccadilly (Circus) of South London. But the area suffered heavy bombing during the Blitz, and much of the fabric of the area destroyed. Vestiges remain, including the old tile-faced, stairs-only Tube entrance, and the circa-1861 portico of the Metropolitan Baptist church which was in the 1950s rebuilt behind the facade. But the area itself was a shambles, and a major program of rebuilding was needed.
Queue the well-meaning urban development gurus.
What unfolded in the 1960s was a community that never quite got its traction back. Most of the new builds were designed according to the Modernist, then Brutalist, approaches favoured by architects of the day. A new community was supposed to take root, and at the heart was the mall, situated as it was amidst two major, pedestrian-unfriendly, six-lane roundabouts. For those unfamiliar with such street designs, let’s just say it courts death for anyone crossing on foot. There were subways, where people could cross under the road to access the mall. But these, too, were eventually closed in 2010, presumably for the unsavoury element they attracted, and derided by a local counselor as “unpopular and intimidating.”
When the mall opened in March 1965 it was hailed as the largest covered mall in Europe, the first of its kind on the continent; a wonder of wonders to think on today. Its 1963 sales brochure touted it as “largest and most ambitious shopping venture ever to be embarked upon in London,” representing “an entirely new approach to retailing, setting standards for the sixties that will revolutionise shopping concepts throughout Britain.” But the mall was troubled from the start. It had been designed by architects with no experience of building this type of structure. Budgetary constraints stayed some of the building finishes and on opening, out of a potential 120 shops, it housed a formidable 29 which were trading.
It was a disaster, by all traditional accounts, from the word go: it failed to attract a ‘destination’ tenant, an anchor, and as some commentator said, Elephant & Castle isn’t a place you go to, it’s a place you pass through. And yet, this plucky mall has evolved into an ineffable part of the social and neighborhood fabric. You can’t manufacture what this place has got: spunk, local colour, an historic physical structure, and a surprisingly vibrant market around two sides of the building. Would that someone loved it enough to capitalize on what’s already going for it.
The Elephant & Castle neighborhood is currently undergoing a massive, £1.5-billion regeneration. It’s an area whose potential surely lies unrealized, and whose modernist elements and relatively central location are an obvious boon for design-sensitive developers, not least of all in today’s real estate-mad climate. It’s a wonder, given its proximity to central London, and it’s rare connection, for a south London location, to the Underground, that it has lain fallow thus far. Land values being what they are, it’s astounding that the mall still exists. In the eyes of the local council and the developers, it seems to have run its course.
Today the mall’s website touts 63 trading shops and 115 parking spaces; this is surely an improvement from its first days. The roundabout design has been mercifully reconfigured, so that one of the two is now a peninsula jutting out from the mall’s Underground entrance, calming the traffic and allowing pedestrians to cross streets in greater safety. The western roundabout is considerably smaller in size, and although they have removed the lovely greenery from the roundabout itself, one hopes that more ‘nature’ is re-installed in the largely concrete area.
The massive Heygate Estate, a Brutalist eyesore which had acquired the not-so-endearing handle of “mugger’s paradise” and which flanked the back of the mall, has been pulled down. New construction, and – for the time being – a colourful shipping container mall, whose waiting list for shop vacancies is apparently lengthy, arises in its wake. Other neighbouring buildings have been replaced or transformed, retaining the original Modernist sensibility, but infusing it with colour, vibrancy, and overall creating a fascinating visual texture, a delight to behold from so many vantage points. Still, that mall is the centrepiece, the lynchpin. Slated for demolition in 2010, it has managed a stay of execution all this time.
I was excited to discover Elephant & Castle, knowing nothing of it at the time, but having grown up aware of the name because of the North American restaurant. My first visit to the area was in the winter of 2015, for an open day at the College of Communication: the evening was dark and road realignment works seemed at their height. Crossing anywhere was madness, completely confounding, and from all appearances, the place was a sh*t-hole. In hindsight I wish I’d had more time there as it had been, to absorb the feeling and the vibe, which would surely give it a fairer assessment.
On a recent visit, expressly for the purpose of documenting this architectural (and indeed, social) wonder while it remains, I enjoyed a languid roam around. I approached the mall from the front, taking in the feeling, the sounds, the layout. The inputs were rich beyond what image can convey. Rather than going up the flight of stairs to enter the mall at the first floor, I was courted by the graffiti that led me downward. I took in a great vantage point of the elephant, besides the great view of the graffiti tags and the market alive and bustling on the other side of the stairwell. I was greeted, promptly on arriving at the lower ground, but the undeniable smell of urine. Nice.
I entered the mall (which, thankfully, that smell didn’t waft into). I noted the randomness of the shops: the large Tesco grocer surely keeps the place – and the community – alive. Further down, furniture for sale in the middle of the aisles. This should not be confused with the pay-for-service massaging chairs strewn liberally about the building. I have never seen these used for purpose, and, somehow, have never been tempted myself. The shops are decidedly B-grade and often ramshackle, yet charming and humble and honest.
The main level, though semi-vacant, attracted a number of people to the bistro tables outside a cafe, again in the aisle of the mall. Much of the shop space was reserved, so the signs said, for the College of Communication, who will come to make their new home on this spot once local development is complete. A small drycleaner’s warns that “items not collected within two months will be sold.” And on the top floor: a casino.
The whole experience is like stepping into a time warp, or perhaps a space ship.
On returning home I sat down to eagerly research on the mall. I cannot overstate my joy at finding that someone has already published an Ode to the beleaguered mall / lumbering behemoth, in a 2015 piece in the Londonist, and I cannot claim to write a better, richer, more affectionate effigy. As the author tells it, though, this “affront to architecture was earmarked for demolition three years ago but somehow shambled on.”
I disagree with its being an affront, however. To be sure, I understand the economic case, the developer’s argument, and the council’s hope for greater commercial activity in the centre. But this place is like no other. I find it oddly wondrous, like stepping through to an alternate dimension, or into another era. Sure, the space is disastrous, poorly designed for its function, and is barely inhabited by anyone at all considering the density of London (a sort of urban oasis, then?) Yet it is one of the most unique spaces I can recall, unencumbered by (often rather boring) whims of designers today. It lends so much texture to a rich, modernist tapestry around it, and frankly, when I look at the new development plans, I think they’re frankly kind of boring and bland and gross, and I want to weep in mourning. This thing – well, there is only well and truly one, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.
In this age of glitzy too-big, samey-samey mega-malls, something this humble, this local, this modest, this character infused, is a thing to behold.