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Review: Un(in)tended space

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FAT reviews Elephant and Castle’s Occupation Road

As a counterpoint to the Gesamtkunstwerk collaboration between artist and architect that is A House for Essex, we offer here a short description of a place that happened by accident.

The intriguingly named Occupation Road leads to a leftover patch of city in the backlands of South London’s Walworth Road. The sort of place beloved of psychogeographic drifters, it stands just to the south of the emerging Elephant and Castle regeneration, whose shiny, orderly towers march ominously towards it.

It is the kind of site once common in London – but in a time of precipitous land values, no longer. The main armature of the site is a Victorian arched railway viaduct, whose purpose has nothing to do with the place that is formed by it. The arches offer an array of architectural experiences: Soanian layerings of unintentionally juxtaposed walls and openings that filter the light; framed Ballardian concrete ramps revealing mysterious hinterland enterprises beyond; a grand entrance into an unexpected labyrinth of blockwork ‘welfare facilities’.

Views from the arches afford, among other things, a Baconesque soil pipe scene of crucified drainage, while the interiors of the arches display virtuoso renditions of serendipitous brickwork detail.

The site’s former function as a vehicle depot leaves a series of mementos: a brick gatepost sculpted by the artist known as white van man; artful conglomerations of pipes, lights and deconstructed signs; dynamic action paintings on manhole cover backdrops.

There is a landscape ‘scheme’. Buddleias grow in neat rows along walls and between paving slabs, providing affordable homes for Admiral butterflies. Grasses feminise a painted stick-man with a tutu. Surrounding buildings display absent-minded modifications: a box perching precariously on an octagonal turret crashes into a pitched roof with incongruous horizontal windows; luxuriously tiled walls span the gaps between arches and buildings, creating interstitial spaces for no use at all.

Architecture in the pages of magazines such as the AJ is always discussed in terms of intentionality, notwithstanding the input of others and the circumstantial conditions of an architectural event. Occupation Road offers to those who look closely an environment abundant in architectural moments, which are largely arrived at by accident. What will eventually be built here will be done with an intention – an architect’s intention. It may or may not be a ‘good’ design. Whether it will be as rich as that which, in the words of John Cage, the American composer and advocate of chance operations, manifests ‘nature in its operation’ remains to be seen.

Occupation Road, Elephant and Castle, south London

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