Provocative Objects / Spaces

9 July 2024 -

Provocative Places: The Heygate Estate, Elephant & Castle

I often find myself on platform four of Elephant and Castle train station, which is currently in the middle of a construction site. Both sides of the raised railway tracks are grey voids. Only a few years ago, to the west was the iconic Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre painted bright pink or blue and to the east the monolithic Heygate Estate. I have been watching in pained awe as each day towers adorned with cheap panels of imitation brick or grey plastic rise from the dust bowl. Through the square grids of a fence, I peer down at the empty space dotted with neatly stacked building materials where the Heygate Estate used to be. It housed thousands of people. Many of them fiercely campaigned against it’s demolition. The barrier to the site cheerfully reads, “3000 new homes, including award winning affordable housing”. Others panels are pasted with the words, “inspire” and “work & play”. Construction workers walk around in high-vis jackets which call their company a “family”. This absent area promises to become Elephant Park. It’s part of a £4bn regeneration scheme which has displaced around 3000 people.

An article by Jerry Flynn, the founder of the 35% Campaign, pulls together data about the eviction of the Heygate Estate tenants (1). It says that while the residents were promised a fair deal and to be relocated within the area, most of them were displaced to the outer boroughs of London. Flynn’s campaign named after the percentage of social rented flats that are meant to be made available in new developments. A 2012 planning application for the Heygate Estate redevelopment proposed only 8 social rented flats (2). The current plan is that there will be 2535 new homes, 79 of which will be for social tenants (3). There were 1000 socially rented flats in the Heygate Estate before it’s demolition.

Photo by Pippy Stephenson

Elena Carter spotlights groups of community archivists, preserving the history of working class life in Elephant and Castle, something seemingly destined to disappear (4). She views this archival practice as an act of resistance to gentrification. An activist Carter spoke to described their archiving as a response to the council’s moves to make the neighbourhood “an ahistorical space”.

There is a certain irony about this latest regeneration of Elephant and Castle, in that the area was redeveloped in the 1960s as much of London was recovering from bomb damage from the Blitz and was undergoing a series of slum clearances. The current redevelopment is undoing or redoing the work of the previous redevelopment. History is repeating itself, but this time the emphasis on social housing evident in the post-war era of modernist architecture has been lost. While there was a clear need to redevelop in the 1960s as some people were living in terrible conditions, this current phase of redevelopment appears largely financially motivated.

Photo by Pippy Stephenson

The Heygate Estate walks the well-trodden path of Brutalist buildings constructed with total optimism, falling into disrepair and becoming branded a crime-ridden eyesore and demolished. The huge superblocks that made up the estate bring to mind the dystopian drawings by Ludwig Hilberseimer for his High Rise City (5). The idea that we might want to live somewhere like that is not a popular one today, hence there being nothing left to show for the Heygate Estate. But some residents really did feel at home and testified as such when the developers were setting their plans in motion. It has been claimed that the crime statistics associated with the estate were misrepresented in order to justify its demolition.

Regeneration in itself is a funny idea. The concept of demolishing and trying again, as if a neighbourhood is an Etch A Sketch. But the messages from Southwark Council are hopeful; 5000 new homes, a pedestrianised centre, more green space and 10,000 jobs (6). Things that even the most cynical of cynics would struggle to argue with. It’s the socially violent way that working class people have been removed from this neighbourhood, and most particularly the Heygate Estate, which is in the process of transforming itself into a totally slick and alien place, that is at odds with it’s heritage and sense of identity.


(1) Flynn, Jerry. “Complete control.” City, vol. 20, no. 2, 2016, pp. 278–286,

(2) 2BBC. “ MP calls for more affordable flats on estate”, BBC, Accessed 1 July 2024

(3) Minton, Anna. “The reconfiguration of London is akin to social cleansing.” The Guardian, Accessed 1 July 2024

(4) Carter, Elena. “‘setting the record straight’: The creation and curation of archives by activist communities. A case study of activist responses to the regeneration of Elephant and Castle, South London.” Archives and Records, vol. 38, no. 1, 2017, pp. 27–44,

(5) “Highrise City (Hochhausstadt): Perspective View: North-South Street.” Art Institute Chicago, Accessed 1 July 2024

(6) “Elephant and Castle” Southwark Council, Accessed 1 July 2024

Started by the DHS Ambassadors in 2022, the Design History Society’s Provocative Objects and Places blog series looks at spaces and objects that challenge and confront us as design historians.

Past topics have ranged from the ancient Colosseum in Rome to the ultramodern Antilia in Mumbai; pink razors and Barbies to Lalique’s Bacchantes vase and nineteenth-century asylum photography. The full collection of previous posts can be found here.

We invite submissions for guest blog posts from students, early career researchers, and established academics to those with a general interest in design history. Posts can be on any object or place from any era, anywhere in the world, which in some way incites discussion and debate.Posts should be 500-800 words in length, accompanied by at least one image with associated credits and clearances, and a short bio.

Please send to the DHS Senior Administrator, Dr Jenna Allsopp


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