Ernö Goldfinger ,1963Alexander Fleming House
|AKA||Metro Central Heights|
Alexander Fleming House is the outstanding architectural achievement of the Elephant and Castle. Grouped around an internal courtyard, its massing is broken up into four well finished and complimentary buildings appropriate in scale to the vast open space of the Elephant and Castle and demonstrating its architects’ signature use of projecting and recessed facades. Since 1997, its flexible design has been successfully adapted to provide 400 flats.
Alexander Fleming House formed part of various redrawn proposals to create a landmark piece of central planning and architecture following the devastation of the Second World War. Around one third of the Elephant and Castle’s building stock was lost and there emerged several plans to rebuild in a comprehensive manner and re-create the famous, ‘Piccadilly Circus of the South.’ The first scheme appeared in Abercrombies’s County of London Plan of 1943. He envisaged the Elephant as a gateway to London from the south. An early sketch shows a vast traffic roundabout framed by rather Stalinist structures creating a new and mixed commercial district around a new road system.
Following the war, the recommendations of the Abercrombie plan were taken up by the London County Council in 1947, with the Ministry of Transport, and in 1951 an updated plan around two roundabouts emerged. In this plan the Alexander Fleming site, or ‘Site 2’ as it became known, is dominated by the retention of the largely undamaged Trocadero Cinema (once Europe’s largest) and flanked by a large street-hugging office block of 5-storeys. A revision of 1956, overseen by Leslie Martin, maintained this arrangement as the LCC did not own the site. It was only after the eventual sale of the cinema, by Rank to developer Arnold Lee, did an alternative arrangement for the site emerge. In 1958, a loser development plan by the LCC’s Hubert Bennett emerged characterised by towers and buildings at right angles to one another that rejected the street line. At the same time Lee’s architect, Ernö Goldfinger, produced designs for a large-scale office complex that freed the site from the road and complemented the LCC’s overall architectural effect.
Erno Goldfinger took much interest in the Elephant and Castle. He produced a scheme for the shopping centre and in 1960, while working on Alexander Fleming House, he produced his own masterplan for architectural treatment at the Elephant, which was to be influential on later additions. In it he proposed a greater series of isolated blocks in a geometric whole and emphasised the necessity of the tower at the northern end. Goldfinger’s abstraction of space was based on establishing “measured and well balanced” sculptural components, which could be seen as complementary compositions. “Architecture,” he wrote, “is the Art of defining space. The space thus defined is used for being in, and the user stationary or moving, is subjected to its impact.”
When Alexander Fleming House was completed in 1963 it received a great amount of critical praise. The Architectural Review described it in February of that year: “The triple block of offices sets a standard of clarity and vigour and it is hoped the buildings that are to fill the still empty sites nearby will live up to it.” Architectural Design added in 1967 that it was “determinedly architecture” and the only part of the Elephant & Castle “in which an order, having human scale, is established.” In 1964 it gained a Civic Trust Award for its design. The buildings are set at right angles to one another around an originally public courtyard and provided occasional open spaces between. This was conceived as welcome relief for office workers and provided a great sense of openness at its base. The blocks themselves are built each with an exposed bush-hammered reinforced concrete frame with panel infillings and connected by glazed corridors lifted at ground level on piers. The facades of the blocks are characterised by projecting and recessed areas. This is a distinctive feature of many Goldfinger buildings and at Alexander Fleming House they are placed at regular intervals to provide an almost classical sense of proportion on the vast blocks. This acknowledgement of the classical tradition is apparent throughout the complex. The whole site is an example of ‘elementarism,’ where the various elements are conceived as a whole. The buildings first tenants were the Ministry of Health, which established the building as its headquarters.
In 1967, the buildings were joined by the Odeon Cinema. Also by Goldfinger, this small yet distinctive concrete structure, made much of expressing the enclosed elements on its outside. It was widely regarded as the most important post-war building of its type, coming at a time when cinema audiences were in decline. Its addition to the Alexander Fleming site along with a public house block, finally provided something of the mixed commercial district that the planners had desired.
In 1988, following a period of decline in the area, the innovative, but long empty, Odeon cinema was wilfully demolished at speed by site owners Imry. This action was widely condemned in the architectural press and described as a ‘tragedy.’[ref] This crude act put to an end any discussion on listing the structure and was done in order to facilitate the future redevelopment of the Alexander Fleming House site. In 1991, extensive plans were launched by Imry developers with architects Fairhurst. Having already cleared away the cinema, they proposed greatly expanding the building with a series of “vulgar and inadequate” Caesar’s Palace style gimmicks and architectural cladding. Its construction was thankfully prevented by economic recession.
In 1997, at the advent of a new property boom, the buildings were converted into residential accommodation by new owners St George Plc. Painted a creamy white with bright blue panels, it was relaunched as Metro Central Heights. With conversion, the site lost many of its orginal qualities. The public spaces were fenced off and the paint job destroyed the original aesthetic. However, the buildings flexible and predominantly open plan construction meant it was easily adaptable and its successful reuse has ultimately saved it from demolition.
In 2004, permission was granted for a new addition on the long vacant site of the destroyed Odeon. Vantage Metro Central, as it will be known, is due for completion in 2008 and will be a 15-storey tower providing 1-3 bedroom apartments. St George Plc promises that it has been ‘designed for sophisticated urban living,’ also pointing out that, ‘At Vantage, you are well located for all that London and Europe has to offer.’ The assertive marketing cannot disguise that it will be an incredibly straightforward building, however it does manage to show some consideration to the Goldfinger site by continuing the established geometric alignment. The block is one of many developments, most of which are much more interesting, now under construction in and around the Elephant and Castle and is part of a much wider plan for regeneration headed by Southwark Council with a masterplan by Ken Shuttleworth and MAKE Architects. This plan will see the reorganization of the traffic system and eventual demolition of the shopping centre opposite to be replaced with a set of pedestrian friendly spaces. One hopes that the better components of the 1960s scheme may be granted an opportunity to see this transformation and provide some post-war diversity to the new emerging architectural landscape