Pre-Memoriam: Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre

Today I visited an old friend. An old friend on death row. Haphazardry may have delayed the execution by two years… but they are definitely beyond reprieve. Bulldozers and cranes – a particularly savage deathodology – will rip them apart in 2012.

South London is a world leader in bittersweet concurrent dichotomies. She is at once central and provincial – or, to use the sociological language, both core and peripheral. Andfore, I willfully believe, beautiful/ugly for it. Much as the Virgin Mary is both saint and slut, South London too straddles seemingly incompatible dualities at once. And where else could be the epiphany of such be but our Cathedral of now & then, good & bad – the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre.

I set off from my Anarcho-Situationist Commune expecting to find a wreck. A useless shell echoing faintly with former glories & nagging regrets. Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre, sentenced to death for someone else’s crimes: the post-war town planning of modernity’s rationality. Knock it down. And dance upon its grave immediately with the hoisting of a new contemporary development.

But… my friend was… alive! Vibrant. Vivid. Vivacious. It’s a mess, certainly, a mandarin-enraging crumblejumble of not-neatness. What we have is an abandoned 1960s brutalist shopping mall – there is something of the post-apocalyptic here – but like fungus growing in a dampridden flat, life starts anew. The 20th century supermarket meets the medieval village market. Stalls selling crap, fabrics, tat, bits, bobs, gloriously delicious foodstuffs, boomin’ reggae vibrations, and general material titillations, have, over long years, popped up hicklety-picklety/fractal geometry/in your face/what a lovely place. From a ridiculous beginning – an absolute failure – South Londoner’s inherent transpontine truculence (a fair reaction to being an unwanted appendage) has seen them make something of nothing.

This is the exact kind of thing, a sort of “natural” or “chaotic” multilayered living-irony, a kind of playful fractal mix, that inspires postmodernism. But South London’s organic analogue dualities are under threat from a hypercapitalist hunger to continue their project of rationalised – McDonaldized – postmodern homogenuous designed dualities. And to think that hypercathedral of pomo, the glass’d & steel’d mall-centric Redevelopment Project, is going to knock this beauty of a social hub down into dust… Put bluntly, this grand artefact is going to be literally destroyed because the likes of Starbucks and Gap can’t be arsed opening up in a heterodox shopping centre.

This isn’t a call to arms, although I wish it could be (and I am bloody tempted to chain myself to the beautiful red E&C statue when the bulldozers finally come). Rather, I am documenting the faint echo of an already lost possible future. Oh, the pathetic tides we are swept along in.

So, Elephant & Castle is threatened with the ghosttownisation of homogeneous rationalisation. The irony is (and my word don’t they love lashings of it!) that the implementation of this project – “Europe’s biggest” (as was Auschwitz) – will kill what it hopes to recreate. Stupid bastards.

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4 Responses to “Pre-Memoriam: Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre”

  1. There’s some life in here, ain’t there…

    The focus of the replacement scheme on public space and market (rather than covered mall) will, I trust, mean it doesn take 50 years to find it’s place.

    One part of me would love to strip off the hideous additions and restore what is, in some ways, a remarkable and important (if misconcieved) building.

    The other, larger, part of me wants to rip it down with my bare hands…

  2. whenever I have visitors from abroad they always say how marvellous the shopping centre is because it’s full of life and all kinds at that. One friend called it a “carnival”. Another tells anybody who wants to know that she did all her Christmas shopping at the Elephant one year because it has shops that people do use regardless of their status. I will be sad to see it go precisely because we will get the same bland repetitions that you see everywhere. And this in the name of progress.

  3. Keep the faith, my good man. Keep the faith

  4. There are few things more inspiring than wandering through a decayed, ancient vision of grandeur. Ayutthaya in Thailand. That mud-mosque place in Burkina Faso. And the E&C Shopping Centre.

    My first proper visit was with my visiting parents. I had shown them St. Paul’s. The Eye. We ambled through the V&A, knowingly and ultra-patiently. It was only by Thursday when I said – right, fuck it – it’s the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre today. If you don’t like it, get your own itinerary.

    My father hasn’t spoken to me since. Not that he’s talkative. Maybe I’m projecting.

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