Boissevain & Osmond ,1965Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre
The Elephant and Castle Shopping centre is one of London’s great architectural blunders. It was conceived, amid much enthusiasm, as the centrepiece to the comprehensive redevelopment plan of the area and was one of the most anticipated schemes of the post-war era. Its many failures, both commercially and architecturally, marked a watershed in the fortunes of the area and it is only now being fully addressed.
The Elephant and Castle was devastated by wartime bombing. Around one third of its buildings were 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. This plan made provision for a pedestrianised shopping precinct linked by subways. A further revision of 1956, overseen by Leslie Martin, saw this ‘high street’ idea replaced by a series of large buildings facing a piazza opening onto the schemes axial roadway. Two years later in 1958, a looser development plan by Hubert Bennett emerged characterised by towers. This plan cemented the idea of the shopping centre as one complex and a high-profile architectural competition was launched.
The LCC received 36 entries, including one from Ernö Goldfinger. The competition was won by architects Boissenvain & Osmond for the Willets Group; the LCC apparently were impressed most by the architectural conception for the site. They proposed a giant new type of building, a fully enclosed American style mall over three levels surmounted by an office block. It would be the first of its kind in Europe. The mall would be surrounded by generous landscaped piazzas for public use and include the provision of a new tube station entrance, public house and access from the existing railway station Willets claimed it to be the “largest and most ambitious shopping venture ever to be embarked upon in London. In design planning and vision it represents an entirely new approach to retailing, setting standards for the sixties that will revolutionise shopping concepts throughout Britain.”
Signs that the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre might not be as successful as was first thought were confirmed early. With just nine months left till completion only half of the shops had been let or had attracted interest. When it opened in 1965, just 29 out of a possible 120 shops were trading. Delays and budget problems on the project meant that the proportions of the building and the finishes had to be re-thought. The result was a much cheaper and meaner building than promised. The centre is essentially a windowless box topped by a steel-framed meccano-like office block called Hannibal House.
The LCC had told developers that the new centre ought to contain 290,000 square feet of space with a minimum of 100,000 for retail and the rest given over to offices. These huge figures were completely exaggerated and revealed the ‘fatal amateurism of the project.’ The volume of the original 36 entries to the competition appeared to confirm to the LCC that the location was right. The LCC trusted the market and the market trusted the LCC’s figures. The winners of the competition, Willets, had never built shops before. In their sales brochure of 1963 they made ludicrous claims about the adjacent catchment area, which revealed no viability study or basic market research. Within a three-mile radius of the centre, they claimed there were a million people who would use the centre. This ignored local alternatives and staggeringly assumed people in Westminster would choose the Elephant over the West End. It also envisaged a growing working population at the Elephant itself of over 15,000. These figures ignore the fact that the Elephant tends to lie on the route of people whose destination is elsewhere. Abercrombie deemed the area a gateway: it may be something at which you are forced to stop, but it is primarily something you pass through.
The shopping centre site bounded by fast moving traffic and a tortuous network of subways as the only means of access also contributed to its failure. People could not conveniently get to it and its inward facing layout did not advertise itself to passers by; the architects themselves admitted ‘the site is really saying no with a big NO to almost any poor pedestrian who wants to creep into the building.’ This remains the case.
Despite numerous refurbishment projects and several owners, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre suffers from a sustained image problem. Throughout the 1990s a series of commercial quick fixes and garish additions, all designed to squeeze the centre, contributed to its overriding misery. This has included several paint jobs, most famously bright pink, and cheap refurbishments that clad the deteriorating bulk in advertising hoardings or plastic panels. One of the more enlightened decisions was to place a market in the piazza areas around its edge. In recent years this has brought a certain amount of Latin/Caribbean vibrancy to the area. The odd combination of people, languages, noise, smells, bustle, subways, traffic and 1960s architecture is almost Blade Runner-esque. This is not entirely inappropriate. The Elephant and Castle is dystopian. It is an alternative future.
In 1999, Southwark Council launched proposals inviting developers to submit plans on a 69-hectare area, including the shopping centre and the adjacent Heygate Estate. It told developers it was a ‘blank canvas,’ on which to work. Following a competition, plans for the complete redevelopment of the area to reorganise the road system and create a new commercial and residential quarter have been advancing since 2000. An initial scheme headed up by Fosters and Partners with Ken Yeang, for a company calling itself Southwark Land Regeneration collapsed, but have since been replaced with the firmest commitment yet for rebuilding the Elephant and Castle.
The current 2004 masterplan by Ken Shuttleworth and MAKE architects will see the shopping centre demolished by 2010 and replaced by a new network of pedestrianised streets and spaces providing accommodation for a vast array of commercial and residential users. It marks a return to a more conventional style of place making; some of the proposals bare striking similarity to the 1951 scheme.
The 1965 Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre has a certain melancholy about it. It may have been the focal point of the post-war scheme, but it was a let down all along. It is soon to be put out of its misery at last and this is perhaps the greatest act kindness we can offer it. One hopes, however, that the new plans can accommodate the recently established diverse public arena.
- The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, Sales Brochure, , (1963) , p. 1
- The Property Boom, , (1967) , p. 216
- The Property Boom, , (1967) , p. 220
- ``Pigs might fly over London's white Elephant.'', , The Architects' Journal, March, (1999) , p.8