Elephant and Castle

Elephant and Castle
London borough of Southwark
12 February 2007

The Elephant and Castle probably didn’t take its name from the young Queen Eleanor — the Infanta de Castile, travelling through here on her way to marry Edward I — but, rather more boringly, from a local public house. The Elephant and Castle pub was itself likely to have been named after the symbol of the smithy, from which the building had been converted.1

The distinctive emblem of an elephant holding up a castle-like howdah was first used in the ivory trade but later by silversmiths, such as the Cutlers’ Company, as they used ivory for the handles of their knives. Incidentally, it also became the logo for the Royal African Company who traded slaves in London in the 17th century.2

There is another pub, still standing on nearby Vauxhall Cross, with elephant-and-castles sculpted into its roof; it has recently been renovated and converted into a Starbucks coffee house.

Before the war, the Elephant and Castle was known as the “Piccadilly of south London”: a vibrant quarter with markets, trams, public squares and a sense of community.3 After a heavy battering by the Luftwaffe, postwar planners, led by Ernö Goldfinger, set about remodelling the district with a new road layout designed around two large roundabouts.

These provided islands of open landscaped space in the middle of the gyratory. On one of them, Rodney Graham fashioned an electricity substation for the tube with dished-aluminium panels, into an intriguing memorial for Michael Faraday. A warren of subways under the roads directed pedestrians away from the traffic and into an indoor shopping centre, one of the first in Britain. Behind this, modern, high-density social housing — the Heygate and Aylesbury estates — was built to elevate the south London working class from their prewar slums.

Now however, the Elephant and Castle is to be comprehensively redeveloped once again. The 1960s scheme, which after years of neglect is looking less than utopian, has come to typify the failings of Britain’s postwar rebuilding.

Alain de Botton featured the area in his Channel 4 series The Perfect Home, in which he argued that poor architecture can negatively affect your wellbeing. The smartly suited popular philosopher is filmed strolling through the subways and shopping centre and visits an “aesthete” who lives nearby but never goes to the area, “because its ugliness distresses him too much”.4

Ken Shuttleworth’s Make has put together a masterplan for Southwark council, rerouting the roads and providing generous public space. Although some locals are said to have their reservations, the council promise the revamped Elephant and Castle will be unlike other recent, large-scale London regeneration schemes, such as the Docklands, where the community has been supplanted by big business and a better-heeled demographic.

Flashy high-rise buildings, among them the Hamiltons-designed Strata tower, will inevitably lead to an influx of new people and a certain level of gentrification. But the Elephant’s existing council-flat residents will also be offered contemporary-looking homes in the area, designed for local housing associations by smaller practices such as SpaceCraft, AOC and de Rijke Marsh Morgan.

After the removal of the subways, roundabouts, shopping centre and housing estates, Southwark council aims to emulate how the Elephant once was, reintroducing the markets, trams, public squares and (on paper at least) a sense of community. With some housing already built and the southern roundabout soon to disappear, the 1960s vision should be all but forgotten by 2014. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

Update 20 May 2008:

In July 2007, Southwark council chose a consortium of Lend Lease, First Base and Oakmayne to develop its scheme. Both roundabouts remain and the shopping centre is not expected to be demolished until 2010. But colourful new apartment blocks have been completed on Crampton Street, Steedman Street and Wansey Street.

Castle House and the former London Park Hotel have both been demolished, making way for the Strata development and a 44-storey tower designed by Richard Rogers, which will provide flats and a new home for the Southwark playhouse.

London South Bank University has restored the once dilapidated Georgian terraces off St George’s Circus and work has started on the university’s new building on Keyworth Street by Grimshaw Architects.

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