London County Council ,1965The Draper Estate
The Draper Estate is a crucial component in the complex of 1960s’s buildings that make up the Elephant and Castle. Its dramatic tower provides a southern focal point for the road system and a bold visual statement of place. It is one of the clear triumphs of the LCC’s architects department, demonstrating great confidence and a highlight of the much-maligned post-war redevelopment plan.
The Draper estate was the result 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 Draper site or ‘Site 6’ as it became known is shown as a fairly suburban low-rise commercial parade with flats above of 3-4 storeys. A further revision of 1956, overseen by Leslie Martin, saw this set-up replaced in part by a School of Printing and small-scale industrial buildings. This was deemed desirable at the southern end of the scheme as it would free up commercial space elsewhere.
Two years later in 1958, a loser development plan by the LCC’s Hubert Bennett emerged characterised by towers. It is from this that a final design for the Draper Estate was drawn. The tower block proposal was introduced to achieve an overall architectural effect and it would have complemented another (unbuilt) tower at the northern end of the scheme. The Draper proposals were quickly converted to residential use when it became apparent commercial interest in the site was not as strong as planners had hoped. The LCC was the only body willing to commit to such a bold scheme and therefore built quickly as an incentive to other developers and also to provide local commercial premises transferred from elsewhere and housing units. The Print School was relocated to another site at the northern end of the scheme to speed up this process.
The Draper Estate is made up of a 25-storey tower with four 5-storey blocks placed at right angles to one another. The schemes tower provides an important vertical marker to the whole Elephant and Castle. Its roadside façade is left almost completely bare for its entire height and anticipates plans for its use as a wall for neon advertising; this sadly came to nothing. The estate is finished in pre-cast concrete with an articulated reinforced frame defining access decks and flats in the tower and maisonettes in the lower blocks. This distinctive and competent style was used widely at the LCC’s contemporary estate at Roehampton and it is to this school of thought that the Draper Estate belongs. At Newington Butts the geometric arrangement of the buildings along the road creates an informal and pleasant open space, which is flanked by small-scale commercial premises set back under the piers of the residential blocks. To its east the estate is joined by Castle House. This was the first building finished and was conceived as complementary to the architectural forms of the residential buildings. It provided the first commercial premises at the new Elephant and Castle. When completed it was warmly received. The Architects’ Journal in August 1962 found, “little to criticise and much to praise and until New Zealand House is completed it is possibly one of the best examples for anyone wanting to look at a good office block in London.” Despite the bold and well-executed intentions of the architecture, the Elephant and Castle was a commercial and planning failure. Blighted by a tortuous network of dark subways and a heavily used road junction the area slipped into economic and social decline.
In 2004, a masterplan for the redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle was finally agreed after several revisions. Headed by Southwark Council and Ken Shuttleworth’s MAKE architects, the massive scheme will see the re-organisation of the road system and the demolition of the 1960s shopping centre opposite and the nearby Heygate Estate. While the plans make no expressed intentions to demolish the Draper estate it is extremely vulnerable. Much of Southwark Council’s financing of the project is based on the sale of its residential sites to commercial developers; this is why the Heygate Estate is going. Understandably, council residents of the Draper Estate and those who value the buildings are worried about its long-term future.
In 2006, planning permission was granted for the erection of a 43-storey (147 metre) residential tower on the site of Castle House. Also named Castle House, this massive building by developer Multiplex with architects Hamilton Associates will have a devastating effect on the Draper Estate. At almost double its height it will establish an ambitious new scale to the Elephant and Castle, overwhelming its closest neighbours, putting them quite literally in the shade and shattering its architectural scale. The new Castle House is, by its own merits, an extremely bold and exciting building. Three huge wind turbines, 9 metres in diameter, will top it which will be capable of generating enough electricity to power its own energy efficient lighting system. It is a vast piece of sustainable design and it is upon this that the regeneration of the area is driven.
The proximity of the new Castle House should make any admirers of the Draper Estate extremely nervous. There are no plans for its demolition, but neither are there plans for its safeguarding. There have been numerous calls for it to be listed or given some certificate of merit. Erno Goldfinger’s Alexander Fleming House, at the northern end of the E&C, although narrowly missing out on listed status, was saved by a certited effort to find a sensitive commercial scheme. The Draper estate is similarly a great piece of civic design; its problem is it lacks a prolific architect around which to rally. One wonders whether it can survive when the new civic tenets are; sale, redevelopment and sustainability. Under this emerging epoch the estate is unconnected to the modern themes. However, it can be made relevant. It is a robust building. Like so many of its period it simply needs some rehabilitation; refurbishment, a good clean and some ardent admirers, perhaps a high profile article in G2? If it does not achieve any of these one could simply remove the vulgarising mobile phone masts and stick a wind turbine on its roof. It worked for the other guy.