Friday, 17 June 2011

A White Elephant?

Stranded in Brixton with a Boris bike and worsening rain I finally found a docking station on the Elephant and Castle roundabout, and sought refuge and food inside the shopping centre. It was late on a Sunday afternoon, too late to be eating lunch, and I wasn't expecting much. The outside doesn't look promising in the rain, a huge concrete hulk surrounded by big roads, windowless at street level and with the entrances up concrete stairs and from a sunken plaza level approached by ramps and subways. A surprise then to find many shops and several good cafes open, people going up to the bingo on the top floor, and generally a modest cosmopolitan bustle, this being Sunday after all. I went for the biggest cafe, a thriving place full of hand-made notices and gaudy food illustrations, with orange vinyl seats and cheerful efficient service. During the week there's a street market in the sunken plaza around the perimeter which adds to the multicultural buzz. It's ugly, spectacularly ugly in places, reprehensible by modern urban design standards, but bold and dramatic, and not by any means derelict.

The Elephant and Castle shopping centre is well known from the outside, sitting as it does at the centre of a massive traffic and rail complex where you enter central London from the south. The place is notorious: in an area bombed flat in WW2 and redeveloped in 1965, this was the biggest American-style indoor shopping mall in Europe when it was completed, and began to fail almost immediately when it became clear that it was far too big. From the beginning it was impossible to let all the retail spaces and the three-storey structure, topped by the glass-and-steel Hannibal Tower office block, has been a problem area ever since. Despite which - people clearly still do use the place, pass through, shop and work there.

Another survival from the past, with something to appreciate before it goes, but also a lot that will not be missed. Southwark Council have been negotiating a 15 year redevelopment programme with architects Make appointed to design the masterplan. In May they abandoned plans to demolish the shopping centre, in favour of a more pragmatic refurbishment strategy - which is bound to antagonise those who hoped to see the big shopping mall replaced by a more permeable new development.

To find out more:
Information about Elephant and Castle regeneration at Southwark Council website
Images of a refurbished shopping centre on the AJ website

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