Mythologies of Resistance in Elephant & Castle

Project

In Elephant and Castle, south London, development proposals are underway to create a new city centre, a £1 billion ‘new destination town centre’, 970 new residential units and ‘educational hub’. This language masks the impacts of development on the existing community, including the displacement of businesses and residents, the fracturing of local social and cultural fabrics, and increase in commercial and residential rents. Community groups have accused the developers, architects and council of engaging in a programme of ‘gentrification’ and ‘social cleansing’. The sheer scale of development and the physical transformations underway around Elephant and Castle suggest it is an example of London’s regeneration par excellence.

What then of those who disagree, those who wish to resist the trajectory of regeneration? How can an alternate vision of the urban arise? Such a project is centred on the re-introduction of the political, the capacity to make visible that which is invisible and heard that which is silenced. Rancière refers to such a task as dissensus, the claim by those excluded, those with no part. The antithetical state to consensus. A political practice of architecture or urban design is one undertaken as a means of achieving urban justice and equality. It is one that acknowledges that there resides a nascent potential for resistance within design practices that free themselves from the language and discourses, expectations and demands of the present. With this in mind, where then are the opportunities for the political to occur, the sites for dissensus? Current approaches tend to remain confined to the abstract level of theory, failing to engage with a direct urban context. As a result, while evocative, few convincing answers to this question are offered.

This project represents an attempt to overcome this hurdle. To tackle this problem, I have studied everyday spatial practices and phenomena to uncover the hidden narrative and discursive practices that evoke political participation without being formally or conventionally recognised. These political moments, I suggest, constitute modern mythologies. Through this concept of mythologies, I wish to capture the diverse relations and orders of the everyday which simultaneously reinforce and resist contemporary urban regimes. The use of the term ‘mythologies’ is influenced by the surrealist practices of Luis Aragon, and Roland Barthes’ study of the everyday. The aim, through this lens, is to reveal the practices of consensus that limit and silence opportunities for participation in regeneration in Elephant and Castle, the mythologies of regeneration, and inspire future design practices and interventions influenced by mythologies of resistance.

Interview

What prompted the project?

I am a member of London’s Latin American community, a migrant community that often finds itself excluded from planning, architectural and regeneration processes in the city. By failing to recognise the diverse groups that help create and shape a space, the profession gravitates towards the type of banal, identikit developments that have begun to dominate the urban environment of London. This is a situation that is unsustainable, uninspiring and cannot be allowed to continue!

What informed the choice of Elephant castle as site and condition to address?

Elephant & Castle currently represents a battleground for competing trajectories of the city: on the one hand, we have a vibrant, embedded community who have designed and appropriated a space of their own; on the other, an imposed regeneration development, theoretically offering a new ‘cultural hub’ and ‘city centre’ while leveling existing social and cultural spaces, displacing local communities, and replacing them with un-affordable luxury flats and shops. It perfectly distills the shifting economic, political and architectural dynamics of the city.

How common are projects as the one confronted by you within the urban fabric of London? How have they changed the morphology of the city?

The case is an extremely common one. Facing regular and severe budget cuts, most boroughs throughout London have relied on a handful of international property development firms to effectively design the city for them. Companies, such as Lendlease and Delancey in Elephant and Castle, are solely motivated by their financial strategy; design, therefore, becomes wholly guided by a philosophy of profit maximisation – from the scale of the room, to the building, to the neighbourhood, to the city. Their arguments are parroted by councils through their urban strategy and planning policy, disguised through terms such as ‘opportunity areas’ and potential ‘areas for growth’. As a result, little attention is paid to the genuine effect these developments have on existing populations – who could argue against wanting ‘opportunity’ or ‘growth’ for their neighbourhood? Unfortunately, design becomes subservient to the economic needs of these firms, with the architectural profession often playing the role of a willing participant.

To what extent has Brexit affected these developments? How do you see these developing in the next 20 years?

One of the most frustrating aspects of Brexit has been the way in which it has totally dominated all political conversation. Consequently, insufficient time and attention is given towards reflecting on the current trajectory of development for the city, questioning its effect and potentially imagining alternatives. I hope this situation will change soon as it feels we are quickly reaching a breaking point. Perhaps a positive aspect to have come from Brexit is an increasing trepidation by big developers to invest in these massive regeneration schemes, though I believe the trend started earlier. I think the perception that big residential schemes represent easy money for developers is under some scrutiny – Southwark, for instance, has seen the average price of newly built flats fall, though they admittedly still remain prohibitively expensive to local residents. I would say that there will be a shift in 20 years, for the simple reason that it is difficult to imagine how this practice of regeneration can be sustainable in the long term – if every existing community is priced out, who will remain here to live? How can London pretend to be the inclusive, diverse, multi-cultural city it advertises if this trajectory is allowed to continue?

What drew you to explore the notion of mythologies as medium upon and through which to explore your speculation?

The notion of mythologies first came to me from exploring surrealist and post-structuralist readings of space and of the city. Works such as Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and Roland Barthes’ Mythologies inspired me to view ‘mythologies’ as invoking a a sense of tradition, of ethics, culture and fiction. Crucially, they describe a political relationship expressed through the everyday. These contemporary, urban mythologies play a massive role in the way we experience the city, even at an architectural level. They can be read in the idealistic and utopian renders that architects trade in, or the branding exercises and language typically used to sell big developments – think ‘the shard’, ‘the walkie talkie’, ‘elephant park’. These mythologies refer to a world that isn’t and will never be quite real.

Within such a speculative project, what role does the drawing hold? Can we refer to it as a manifesto?

It can perhaps be seen as a manifesto, but I don’t believe i’m proposing anything new. In fact, my initial inspiration comes from what now feels a lost period of radicalism that sought to challenge and contest architectural dogma, to design a new politics. If anything, I hoped to resurrect some of that spirit and energy – one that welcomes appropriation, re-conceptualisation, détournement. The collages of Ivor de Wolfe’s Civilia, while advocating for a different political philosophy, helped inspire me to envision how these fictional landscapes could be illustrated in a playful yet critical way. The drawing became a valuable tool to communicate a political and social position with those members of the community I spoke with in Elephant & Castle, to free the design process from some of the shackles that typically accompany consultation or engagement. Why not create our own mythologies of the area, our own fanciful and impossible landscapes?

What role and power do we as architects hold in trying to contrast these 'gentrification' plans? Is this something you are keen on exploring further?

I think we have an incredibly important role within these processes. Every architectural proposal exists within a political and economic context, operating through an established set of processes and practices. Where developments and proposals such as those in Elephant & Castle refer to the same precedents, the same proposals in Hackney, Stratford, Brixton, Vauxhall, the City of London, Dubai, Beijing etc., what if we begin to look to alternatives? What do these alternatives look like and how can they exist both inside and outside the contemporary practice of architecture? How can this inspire a renewed architectural praxis? I have no answers yet, but I hope that throughout my career I can sketch out what a different architecture may be.

What is for you the architects most important tool?

I may be reaching a bit here, but I would suggest our most important tool is our optimism. That is to say, the motivation that drives us to want to improve our environment, to look to propose something better. It should be this quality that guides us to reflect and question our role within wider processes – political, social, economic – and demands we take a position. An optimistic architect will know it is our responsibility to make the world around us a better one.

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