Article written for the August 2007 issue of Painted, Spoken
"Fashioned in the image of the devil": the Elephant and Castle and regeneration
In an 1895 article on "Unknown London" the Windsor Magazine introduces the reader to an "English Hades":
"The first few minutes of Saturday night spent in the Walworth Road are filled for the visitor with confused impressions of crowded pavements, of people fighting to secure bargains at the butchers’ shops, and of the evil odours of flaring paraffin lamps and innumerable fried fish bars, from which there comes a constant stream of people bearing pennyworths of fish in bits of newspaper."
The author then reassures the reader that, despite all appearances, the inhabitants of the part of London around the Elephant and Castle could "hardly be more respectable". This mixture of seediness and honest authenticity has often coloured accounts of the area, which has recently drawn much attention due to a large regeneration project. To this day, the Elephant is represented as, on the one hand, seething and sordid, and, on the other, as a prime locus of echt London working class experience.
The Elephant and Castle shopping centre, completed in 1965, is one of the most reviled buildings in London. It is certainly ugly. There are good (and bad) reasons for reviling both it and the last-gasp International Modernism of the Heygate estate, which sprouted at its rear in 1974. The two large roundabouts to the north and south of the retail complex, which squat on a network of dark, dangerous, urine-slimed subways, are also usually held to be a damning example of the failures of urban planning. The Elephant, in short, exemplifies the shortcomings of the postwar architectural imagination: run-down retail space, underground tunnels, elevated walkways, system-built housing, poverty and endless bullish road traffic.
However, behind this modern Hades is an essentially progressive vision. Even if the end result was the bullying of the helplessly poor by idealistic housing professionals, those ideals are worth taking into account. They indicate the persistence of a desire to remake the world that is now rarely seen either in contemporary architecture or politics.
The guiding impulse behind the Heygate estate was to provide decent, sanitary housing – over 1,000 dwellings – for the poor. Some of the first to move in had never had a private source of running water. It is a late example of buildings born of the hope that large-scale civic intervention might, at the expense of the taxpayer, improve living conditions for significant numbers of people. The aesthetics were progressive in intent too: there remains a vestige of the aspiration that a new, more equitable world would begin to emerge as the hieratic classicism of the past was finally sloughed off. It is often forgotten that this state-sanctioned modernism was once viewed with some pride by the first generation to benefit from the Welfare State.
It is true, of course, that British local councils generally practised a degenerate modernism-on-the-cheap and that large building firms with off-the-peg solutions, rather than architects, were the people they usually did business with. However, the impulse to reshape the world through the transformation of urban space seems worthy of nostalgia – especially as this particular example will soon be demolished (no doubt in one of those show demolitions staged to exorcise the bad spirit of modernism).
The Heygate is a late version of 20th century vanguardist architecture, late even as an example of the 'new brutalism' – a tendency which had its roots in an early 1950s reassertion of le Corbusierian values against their populist detractors. The much-criticised elevated walkways, for example, were an attempt to develop le Corbusier’s work by establishing connections between separate buildings and between the estate and the surrounding area. (It was at one point thought that the Heygate, Aylesbury and North Peckham estates would all be linked by walkway – placing a lattice of 'streets in the sky' across a huge territory.) Even if the estate is unpleasant in some respects to live in, there remains a grand and imposing ambition to such projects. The remorseless horizontals of the three main blocks are still impressive to the eye. Many would argue that the worst features of life on estates like this have more to do with entrenched poverty than architecture.
The Elephant's endemic impoverishment has for a long time provoked hyperbolic visions of regeneration. Much of the area was blown to smithereens during the Second World War. A desire to remodel it emerged very quickly at the cessation of hostilities. In 1945 there were redevelopment plans that would "put Trafalgar Square into the shade". In 1946 London County Council unveiled a scheme, described as the "most revolutionary scheme in the country", that involved a three-tiered construction with a roundabout raised 12ft above ground and a system of subways. When the contract for a shopping centre was touted in the 1950s the winning design – the one that is now facing destruction – was billed by LCC as "an extremely fine architectural composition". As late as 1963, it was thought that the centre’s transparent roof would open gloriously during fine weather.
When finally realised, the shopping centre was less appealing. The place soon became a cipher for precisely the urban misery that it had been designed to replace. A low-budget revamp in the early 90s, which entailed painting the centre bright pink, only underlined the building’s shortcomings. Yet the area continued to attract grand schemes. In 1996, architects proposed a 1,000 ft long 'Brighton pier', made of timber, across the roundabout to replace the subways. The current regeneration scheme dates back to 1997. Plans are now well advanced for the complete redevelopment of the whole site. A timetable that extends until 2014 will see traffic rerouted, a new 'civic square', a 43-storey 'eco-friendly skyscraper' and shops. There is a familiar hyperbole to the regeneration rhetoric: "one of the largest regeneration programmes ever seen in Europe" says the website. The errors of the 60s and 70s are dismissed as easily by council spokespersons as were the old tenements by their postwar predecessors. The politics of regeneration are now very different, though: the area needs to "feel the pulse of the City and share in its success" says the head of the scheme.
I’ve never lived on the Heygate and I'm glad of that. However, the Elephant has often been near at hand. In 1991, I commuted by bike most evenings from New Cross to Kings Cross. One night I was knocked over by a car on the Elephant’s north roundabout. The impact destroyed the joint at the base of my left thumb and the Elephant, like the fused joint, has nagged at me ever since. Shortly after the accident I moved to Camberwell, clocking up many hours waiting for buses outside the shopping centre. Then, in the late 1990s, I lived for a couple of years on an estate on the Blackfriars Road, north of the Elephant. In 2006, I found myself in Kennington, again close to Walworth.
What interests me now about the shopping centre is its sound. In the late 1990s I began to admire its peculiarly roomy, dreamy acoustic. I made some recordings then and I’ve made many more over the past year or so. In the shopping centre you get, of course, voices speaking many languages – the second level, for example, has many Latin American businesses. But more important is the combination of overlapping human voices with piped pop songs. Often you catch some ancient love tune – the Commodores, the Bee Gees, Roberta Flack – floating by. Perhaps some of the more worn-down users of the shopping centre went for those songs once. For me, the romantic love hymned decades ago by these tarnished old hits tallies with the pathos that now marks the hopes of betterment expressed in the architecture of the area.
In 1849, Charles Dickens wrote a bitter letter to the Times after witnessing the execution of a Mr and Mrs Manning at Horsemonger Lane gaol, midway between the Elephant and Borough's Marshalsea prison (in which his father had served time for debt). The hanging took place in the early morning and it was preceded by a riotous all night gathering of local people. Dickens arrived at midnight:
"As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on negro melodies, with substitutions of 'Mrs. Manning' for 'Susannah', and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians, and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police, with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly – as it did – it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil."
His language betrays fascination as well as disgust. The vitality of the ghoulish collective makes itself strongly felt. The "zest" with which the dual execution is celebrated infuses Dickens’ prose. The Devil, as ever, has the happening tunes: it is remarkable that the spiritual “Oh Susanna” should have had a vigorous life in London’s popular culture so long before the age of mass-distributed recordings of American music. This was 24 years, even, before the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a black American choir, had given a hugely popular performance at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, just opposite the current shopping centre. Hundreds were turned away on that occasion. The Fisk Singers sang "Go down Moses", "John Brown's Body", "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", and many spirtuals. Charles Spurgeon, the Reformed Baptist 'Prince of Preachers' who hosted the event, was cheered as he spoke of the ending of slavery in America and of a "real mystery and deep theology in this singing that we can hardly understand".
The "Oh Susanna" that Dickens heard had somehow made its way from ante-bellum North America across the water into the ports of London. This journey is, for me, emblematic of the spread of cultural motifs by acoustic means. In my own work on the Elephant, what I'm aiming for is an encryption of the acoustic environment and a recovery of the ethic of renewal that animated its architecture. I'm putting selected field recordings online along with photographs of the area. Next, I want to reorganise the field recordings – processed, this time – into a larger piece of electronic music.
For Walter Benjamin, the street is the "dwelling place of the collective" and the shopping arcade the "drawing room" of the masses. For us, numerous incursions on the idea of public space – CCTV, laws governing assembly, gating, ASBOs – have thoroughly trashed such aspirations. Even taking photographs inside the shopping centre is prohibited these days. When the Heygate's 33,000 cubic metres of concrete and 2,200 tonnes of reinforced steel come tumbling down, I hope that its failure is not all that is remembered of it.