The Car & The Elephant : Conclusion Prev: The Elephant Resurgam Go to top


At the turn of the twenty first century, planning is dominated by the rhetoric of sustainability and the environment, of energy efficiency and low emissions. The landscape of the car and its dominance are increasingly marginalised under these new tenets. The current plan for the Elephant and Castle attempts to marry contemporary transport concerns with the idea of architectural sustainability. Town and mobility, in this case, seem to have the best chance yet of achieving a united consensus at the Elephant. The area is once more a testbed for town planning. If the framework works it may yet be the 'beacon,' as hoped, to others across a rapidly developing London and permanently alter perceptions laid during the post-war era. However, the Elephant does not have a history of success. Large scale plans have repeatedly faltered. The 2004 framework has the uphill task of bucking this trend or risk joining the long list of well intentioned, but spectacular failures.

The failure of the post-war Elephant and Castle cannot be put down to any single event. It was rather a combination of events, slow to be realised, that started at its conception. The Elephant was quite simply designed for the car, with the social and commercial provision fitted in between the road network. It was very clear from the start that pedestrians were to be given low priority (Abercrombie stated that "traffic weaving will dominate"). His recommendations were not questioned. The implementation of the scheme appears to have been undermined, forcing several amendments. The LCC, charged with bringing it to life, was forced to work with and rely upon an "impoverished Ministry of Transport,"154 whose priorities differed widely from that of the civic authority. This bureaucratic wrangle undermined the good intentions of a public authority widely admired across the world. The LCC were not masters of their own house at the Elephant. The road plan usurped the town plan to devastating effect.

Congestion at the Elephant had given it its historic identity and its vitality. The slow moving traffic meant passing trade and a mixed use commercial district could thrive as pedestrians could weave their way between vehicles. Following the establishment of the new road network, started by the MOT, the gateway role quickly evaporated as traffic was able to accelerate straight through the area. The Elephant vanished with speed. The noise and danger of fast moving vehicles, on a section of London's primary urban motorway network, created adverse conditions for its dual role as social and commercial centre. These two functions ought to have been incompatible, but at the Elephant architects were forced to work to this contradictory mix. The result was that by 1963, while the Buchanan Report recommended segregating large roads from, "environmental areas,"155 the Elephant had a network of tortuous subways, despised by all, an inward looking shopping centre that would have rather been elsewhere and architects forced to treat the whole experience as a work of abstract art. The post-war era was driven by an urban ideal that architects and planners were charged with translating into three dimensional forms. The LCC ought to have been commended for attempting a cohesive architectural vision, but it lacked any real pragmatism.

Creating an architectural statement without analysing the demand for its provision, drove the construction of the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. The failure to look outside the LCC plan meant that the shopping centre, although a, "seminal building,"156 was unsuitable from the start. The format of the indoor mall, chosen by the architects Boissenvain &Osmond, may have liberated it from its dismal urban context, but it failed to announce its intentions on the outside. Its eventual sale and various commercial reincarnations throughout the 1980's and early 90's generated welcome economic activity, but contributed nothing to addressing the long term future of the area. The problem remained: the road system continued to carve up the area, but it was now flanked by innovative lighting systems off-setting timid office schemes. The collapse of any strategic vision for the Elephant and Castle meant that any activity was deemed better than none.

It must be said that, while the present built environment is at best unlovely, it is certainly distinctive. It may be visually memorable for the wrong reasons, but its place within a vibrant and diverse community cannot be ignored. The anything goes spirit has encouraged a certain amount of enterprise amongst local traders and in recent years they appear to have embraced the area. The retention of this local mix is a pressing concern for the implementation of the 2004 Development Framework. As plans are due to be implemented in 2006, there still remain unresolved issues of housing provision and for whom the new Elephant and Castle will be constructed.

The contrast in emphasis behind the post-war scheme and the current framework for the Elephant and Castle demonstrates an evolution in creating a new type of built environment. While it is heralded as a new start, it shares many of the components of the traditional 'tracked' cities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.157 This refers to cities based on mass transit systems for example, those of tram or metro lines or 'tracks.' It may seem regressive, but planners are imposing "19th century technology on a 21st century city."158 However, if this is the case, it is one positive step backwards taken in order to proceed. The new scheme will be built for pedestrians who, it is hoped, will use public transport and live, work and relax within the same area along the same lines of many traditional European city models. The car will be pushed to the edges of the scheme, forced to take a secondary role to buses and proposed trams. The Elephant will once again be at the centre of a public transport network as it had been for the LCC's trams before the war, though it is not clear how congestion will be resolved. The Elephant will surely remain an important road junction. This may mean yet new tensions between cars, buses and trams and contested road space in a manner seen during the inter-war period. However, after some years of using the persuasive and exhausted carrot, car users are to be shown the stick. There seems no alternative. Southwark Council with the GLA has a mandate to implement its vision for transport in London rather than one guided by the vagaries of the market.

The make up of the Elephant and Castle is sure to change. The bulk of private accommodation is likely to be beyond the reach of local people. Figures from the Mayoral office, puts affordable housing at a minimum of 50%.159 This means a new demographic will enter the area with more young residents "grabbing a bigger slice of the billions generated down the road in the city."160 Indeed, down the road is where Southwark Council wants the Elephant to be: "you should feel you are participating in it."161 The introduction of new types of housing and a service industry has led policies of regeneration elsewhere, most notably Docklands. It seems very likely the future Elephant, like Canary Wharf, will not focus, "too exclusively to the aspirations of the existing population,"162 but rather on an incoming group of mobilised professionals. This is an economically proven success method seen across London. However, such methods risk facing local resentment and may encourage social division. In short, the Elephant may cease to be a local space for South London and become a globalised space in the centre of the city. The scale and ambition of the new developments to be built are more akin to what one would find north of the river: the expectations of a World City on the make. As the Elephant moves from a peripheral space in London's consciousness to a central one, the role of the car has become problematic and will be pushed out by stealth to accommodate an expansive urban core increasingly on display through economic activity and global tourism.

The car once provided the provocation for post-war architects to rebuild the city. For those seeking to rebuild the Elephant and Castle, it still plays this role, but the emphasis has been reversed in favour of the public realm. Despite this, a car owning democracy is still very much in evidence. The UK, despite the efforts of environmentalists, has a growing car population. In 2004 there were 32.3 million licensed vehicles on the road with cars accounting for 80% of this total.163 Cars therefore would seem to have an ongoing role to play in our urban environment whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. However, our cities are increasingly divided between spaces that can and cannot sustain their use. This is matched by a political set of values that in London has become divisive. The Elephant, after years of neglect and derision over its form, will simply no longer tolerate the automobile. Some spaces in the city may follow its example, others may suffer in the future if they do not.


  1. Bendixson, Terence, 1967. p.285.
  2. The Architects' Journal, July 28th, 1965. p.208.
  3. Morrison, Kathryn. A, English Shops and Shopping: An Architectural History, 2003. p.261.
  4. Doherty, I &Shaw, J, 2003.
  5. Hall, Peter, 2002. p.351.
  6. "New Vision Unveiled for the Elephant &Castle" Southwark News, February 19th, 2004. p.7.
  7. London Housing, April 2004. Pp.12-14.
  8. Ibid. Chris Horn, Southwark Council Director of Development.
  9. Thornley, Andy, 1991. p.170.
  10. From 22/05/06.