Urban Backstages: Elephant and Castle's Infrastructures of Making
- Original design
- n.a, 1862
The 2020 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2021 programme mid August 2021
Urban Backstages, looks at the hidden forms of production that underpin the cultural life of the city.
Taking diverse spaces of cultural production, we set out to challenge the narrow definitions of culture in planning, identifying the inherent inequalities in investment for culture. Cultural regeneration strategies often default to funding landmark cultural institutions, public sites where culture is consumed and displayed, often overlooking backstage spaces such as workshops, rehearsal spaces, migrant businesses and depots where cultural production takes place.
Urban Backstages takes a look at the backstage of public cultural life, focusing on hidden infrastructures spanning across London, Glasgow, Marseille and Buenos Aires. By understanding the Elephant & Castle arches’ underlying infrastructural conditions and how these allow for its appropriation by different cultural producers, different strategies for socioeconomic sustainability in the city are revealed.
The walk is an opportunity to open the doors of these spaces to a wider public, discussing how we balance an appreciation of their importance without the need to put them ‘on stage’.
Beyond the iconic modernist landmark of the Elephant & Castle shopping centre we will meet some of the individuals working in these places: from the Victorian tenement buildings/workshops of Pullens Yard, to the audiovisual equipment hire depots of Robert Dashwood Way, and the Maldonado walk Latin American businesses nested in readapted railway arches. We also hope that by making these spaces more visible we can contribute to raising awareness of the importance of keeping these sites of cultural production.
The tour will be guided by Andrea Cetrulo, Associate at Theatrum Mundi and an urban theorist, DJ and cultural programmer, who has worked with members of Elephant’s Latin communities to involve them in our research. She will be joined by researchers from the team working on the Urban Backstages project.
The workspaces in Pullens Yard consists of two-story blocks constructed from yellow London stock brick laid in Flemish bond. The four-story tenement buildings are Victorian style, three bays wide, and flat roofs used as roof terraces. The site is located further down from the buzz of Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. The tenement buildings define the urban edge of the site. The site is one block behind the railway arches, surrounded by a new residential/office building. The planning use class falls within B1 Commercial Industrial Workshop. The tenants have a long-term lease with the length of 15-years, and the space has a single landlord (Southwark Council).
Pullens Yards is an example of a model of providing working-class housing with workshop spaces directly connected to homes, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, as many industrial processes were still carried out in the home in this period. Historically intended for ‘dirty’ trades such as blacksmithing, smelting and carpentry, a slight shift in the demographic of tenants was engineered during the 1980s when the yards moved into public ownership. After plans for demolition and redevelopment were scuppered by squatters, the council incentivised artists to move into the workshops and offered them subsidised rents. Accordingly, there has been a shift in trades within the three remaining yards towards artistic activities. As our data on the type of businesses today signifies half of the businesses in Peacock Yard are design, fine art, and architecture businesses while the rest of the units accommodate businesses such as photography, offices, clothes and accessories, health, and, jewellery. So, the workshops today are used by diverse artistic practices and creative industries.
The legacy of Pullens Yards’ radical past lives on in a cluster of social amenities, which still exist on site. Fareshares Food Co-operative, occupies a shop unit at 56 Crampton Street, with volunteer workers providing cheap wholefoods to the local community. The rear of the unit was opened up as InfoShop, a volunteer DIY social centre, and archive, providing a link to the site’s history of resistance to topdown modes of development.
Since 1863, when the London, Chatham and Dover railway viaduct was constructed, the wider site was used as a coal depot for Network Rail. In the 1970s, the site was occupied by the Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO) printing works, creating a street in between the factory and the railway arches. The railway arches became a business park accommodating light industrial trades ranging from metal works to car mechanics. In 2006 after the closing of the printing works, the London Wide Initiative – in collaboration with the GLA, English Partnerships and First Base – redeveloped the site as one of the first projects in the Elephant and Castle's regeneration campaign.
Robert Dashwood Way falls within the Business class, specifically Commercial Industrial Warehouses (B1 class). Our data, however, signifies a large proportion of arches serve as Storages and Depots (B8 class), offering equipment rental services (audio-visual and theatrical) that support major cultural institutions in the city. Robert Dashwood Way is managed directly by Network Rail, both the arches themselves and the street outside them.
While local authorities have determined the arches suitable for light industry close to residential areas, there have been ongoing tensions between the tenants of the arches and the residents over noise, street congestion, and rights of light. This hints at an issue of incompatibility between different activities in the area and of contradictions between the interests and views of different actors. While it reveals possible tensions between neighbours, it raises the questions of whether light industry and residential uses can coexist and how to ensure a diverse mix of uses in an area that undergoes intense redevelopment.
The eight arches in Maldonado Walk, are the first stretch of the railway arches in Victorian brick construction style. This strip accommodates roughly 25 workspaces which were, until recently, owned and rented by Network Rail with informal rolling leases. They contain different types of businesses including food production, jewellery making, fashion design, hair, beauty, film, music, and clothes. The arches fall into A1 planning use class, meaning it is intended for use as commercial retail, shop, and showroom.
Located opposite the 43-story residential Strata Tower, Maldonado Walk is a section of pedestrian walkway running along the west side of the railway viaduct between Walworth Road and the Crossway Christian Centre on Hampton Street. A satellite of the Latin American business cluster focused in the shopping centre, the many small businesses and artisans they contain, seem like something of a hardy outpost surviving in the face of intense speculative development.
While local authorities have determined the arches suitable for commercial retail and shop and showrooms, the fact remains that they are culturally idiomatic forms derived from the home countries of the migrants, and require more attention in classification. Activities such as food, arts and crafts are, as local activist and scholar Patricia Roman- Velazquez has described: “extremely important and defining elements of any culture, which bring communities together and attract others to join in and understand more.”
The spatial, cultural and social history of Maldonado Walk is part of the story of the larger area of Elephant and Castle. Latin American immigrants in the 1990s inhabited in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, spilling out to the Draper House and the railway arches, stretching from Eagle’s yard to Rockingham Street. In 2010, part of Eagle’s yard was repaved as part of the public realm of Strata Tower. In 2018 Southwark Council decided to change the name of this stretch of railway arches from Eagle Yard to Maldonado Walk after an Ecua- dorian scientist named Pedro Vicente Maldonado.