So, as one Utopian experiment dies before our eyes – i.e. the United States of America – following the first unedifying debate between two corrupt cadavers (and all those hoping Trump cops it are as much a part of that slow death as the man himself), another kind of Utopia gradually vanishes whilst nobody’s looking. This one is part of an ongoing process to erase a uniquely 20th century concept of Utopia from the landscape, and the latest chapter will be underway once the bulldozers belatedly move in to begin a demolition that has been on the cards for the best part of a decade – that of the perennially-controversial eyesore known as the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. Even if this particular precinct isn’t personally known to the reader, it represents a specific shopping experience familiar to anyone born and raised in any British city during the first half-century of the post-war era.
The Elephant and Castle seems to have specialised in retail outlets for a hundred years or more. Before the Second World War, it was a highly-regarded destination for shoppers, nicknamed ‘the Piccadilly of South London’; it boasted several cinemas, a branch of Burtons, and also had its very own illustrious department store, something which – much like malls in more recent times – no neighbourhood claiming to be a leading shopping epicentre could be complete without. However, as was the case with great swathes of the capital, the Blitz laid waste to the locality and Elephant and Castle was earmarked for redevelopment; along with new housing, the planners intended to provide grandiose leisure facilities which were inevitably dominated by that ubiquitous addition to the post-war urban landscape, the newfangled shopping centre complex.
London wasn’t unique when it came to these concoctions, but it being London, everything had to be on a far larger scale than anywhere else. Belonging to a generation of architects inspired by the futuristic – if impractical – cityscapes of Le Corbusier, the designers of Elephant and Castle’s contribution to the concrete jungles of the New Elizabethan Age weren’t short on ambition, even if predictable budgetary restraints somewhat diluted the drawing-board sketches. Opened for business in 1965, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre shared similar hopes for housing a dozen old streets of shops under one roof as Birmingham’s equally optimistic Bull Ring Centre around the same time. Both suffered from a scaling down of their original vision. Pre-opening hype at the Elephant and Castle may well have boasted of 120 shop units on three levels, but by the time it opened, only 29 were filled; the Bull Ring faced the same problems, with the high rentals there dissuading the old market traders from relocating indoors.
Even a Brutalist enthusiast – and they do exist – would be hard-pushed to make an aesthetic case for the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. It’s a tatty sow’s ear of a building that no amount of tinkering over the years has managed to transform into a silk purse. It has no real architectural shape or form, with the various tacked-on ‘improvements’ having enhanced its irredeemable ugliness whilst failing to improve upon what photographs show was far-from impressive even at the time of its initial opening. As with the simultaneous decline and fall of the neighbouring Heygate Estate – another product of well-meaning but poorly-executed post-war town planning – the Shopping Centre gradually acquired an unsavoury, rather grubby reputation that deterred the big chain-store names from investing in it. However, the one unintended benefit of the precinct being shunned by high-street giants was that it enabled independent traders to plug the gaps, creating something of a community ambience, especially for the area’s notable Latin American population. So, in a wholly unexpected way, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre eventually became that which it was originally intended as – a community hub for the community that live in the area.
The motivation behind so much of the 1960s housing and retail stock that is disappearing from view with remarkable rapidity was undeniably laudable; if WWII air-raids could be said to have had any positive impact on Britain’s cities, they at least forced councils and elected representatives to address urban environmental issues that had required urgent attention for decades. Not only was there a concerted attempt to improve the nation’s homes, high-streets and road network, but it was a project in which the lives of everybody were included. As with the political consensus that lingered until the arrival of Thatcherism, this hangover from the One Nation approach required to repel Hitler meant the great housing schemes of the era were built to provide homes for anybody in need of one, regardless of social demographic league tables. That so much of this ambitious and brave concept failed to deliver really is something of a tragedy.
Cut corners, cheap materials, shoddy workmanship, poor designs, diminishing budgets and behind-the-scenes corruption all played their part in the collapse of this admirable Utopian operation, as did the almost manic verve with which perfectly sound streets, houses and civic buildings were bulldozed not because they were bomb-damaged or decrepit but simply because they were old and didn’t fit the master-plan. A blend of old and new complementing each other would have been the best solution, but local councils and politicians became drunk on redevelopment and saddled any Brutalist building with the same undesirable label as those that were the worst, most unloved examples of the school – which is why so many of them have gone in the past couple of decades.
The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre closed its doors for good at the end of September; the whole area is to be redeveloped yet again, with the ominous spectre of ‘gentrification’ looming over the locals. Many of the traders that served to give the kiss of life to the Shopping Centre have not been offered units in the emporium scheduled to replace it, but I’m guessing the usual suspects will move in to make its replacement just like every other mall anywhere on the planet. Southwark Council have promised 35% of the dwellings accompanying this new retail hub will consist of social housing, but one can’t help but think non-dom Chinamen, Arabs and Oligarchs are probably already top of this particular housing list. At least the 1960s redevelopments, however much they got it wrong, were designed with ‘ordinary people’ in mind. Today, the plebs have to be content with whatever scraps are leftover from the rich pickings overseas investors at the head of the queue get their hands on.
Many similar heroic failures have bitten the dust this century – the old Bull Ring met the wrecking-ball almost 20 years ago whilst Portsmouth’s equally-ambitious Tricorn Centre (described by Prince Charles as ‘a mildewed lump of elephant droppings’) was demolished in 2004. Love them or loathe them, such buildings embodied a vision sorely lacking today. They may have become – like the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre – distinctly shabby within a very short space of time; but they had character, something that 21st century redevelopment does its damndest to smoothly iron out.
© The Editor