Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre

Last year Time Out readers voted Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre London‘s ugliest structure. But does this iconic building have any saving graces? And now that it is scheduled for demolition, will we miss it when it‘s gone? Time Out meets the shop owners and locals

  • Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre

    In and around London's least favourite building

  • High above ground level, like sentinels barring the portals of a sprawling fortress, security guards stand with arms folded in front of each of the entrances of the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. Monolithic, windowless and with watermarks staining its lurid red paintwork, retail heaven it isn’t. Drawing closer and peering down into the moat at the foot of the complex you can see a ramshackle arrangement of stalls awkwardly hunched in the lee of the hulking building, doing nothing to enhance the general ambience. No wonder Time Out readers voted it the biggest eyesore in London. Prefix its title with the word ‘white’ and you have an apt description of a planning carbuncle that is arguably London’s worst postwar rebuild.

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    Inside the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre

    However time is up for the capital’s most dubious architectural icon. This September the first steps in the long-awaited £1.5 billion redevelopment of the area will be taken. This week sees the installation of a multimedia eco-pod outside the area’s Fusion Leisure Centre, which will provide information about the regeneration programme. Then in October work starts on building a mixed-use development with a 214-room hotel, five-screen arts cinema, homes, restaurants and retail units, adjoining a market square, all of which will form part of the replacement for the shopping centre itself.

    Not before time according to some pundits. ‘To be frank it is a monstrosity,’ says Chris Horn, development project director for the regeneration programme. ‘Even though it’s red now [painted for Comic Relief in 1999] it will always be a pink blot in people’s minds.’

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    All set for its £1.5 billion makeover

    In its heyday in Victorian London the department stores and fine drapers, music halls, theatre royal and tram line earned Elephant and Castle the moniker of the Piccadilly of south London. War swept that all away. In 1941 the Luftwaffe drove locals into the Elephant and Castle tube to shelter from the torrent of bombs above. Like so much of south London, the Blitz flattened the Elephant, consigning to memory the comfortable small town lifestyle centred on the local butchers, bakers and fishmongers extending along the Walworth Road. Almost all that is left of the old days is the Bakerloo Line tube entrance and the famous Elephant and Castle sculpture (see previous page) that once graced the pub of the same name that stood on the site.

    The plans for rebuilding the area finished off what the Blitz had begun. Planners in the 1960s fell headlong into a pit of shortsighted concepts largely based on the idea that the car was king and as such should always be given right of way.

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    Inside the 1965-built shopping complex

    Two huge roundabouts fed an enormous traffic gyratory system. Meanwhile pedestrians were banished to a gloomy underworld of mildewed and leaky subways, which quickly became a labyrinth of fear and crime. Shoddily built featureless blocks of flats accessed by poorly lit walkways compounded the situation.

    The most egregious initiative was the 1965 shopping centre itself. As Europe’s first covered shopping complex the designs by the architects Willett Group were supposed to be the crowning glory of the whole scheme. However, even at the time proponents of the development, including Erno Goldfinger who designed nearby Alexander Fleming House and helped mastermind the whole Elephant regeneration, had to fight criticism.The concerete slabs and block silhouette of the shopping centre was brutalist architecture in the extreme. The clean lines and geometric principles that created such dynamic buildings on smaller sites turned the uncompromisingly large shopping centre into an unwieldy mini metropolis dumped on a junction.

    ‘Malls are privately owned and geared to make money. Planning in urban areas shouldn’t be for retailers,’ says Horn, who believes it’s time to put the residents of the area first. ‘Having your town centre replaced with a shopping mall is very different to having a shopping area in your town centre and this is what happened to the Elephant postwar. It destroyed the sense of community.’

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