Michael Faraday Memorial, London
The sixties were about to swing as 1961 saw the first appearance of the Beatles at Liverpool’s Cavern club. Above the earth Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, whilst back on terra firma the cold war heated up when the first blocks of the Berlin wall were cemented into place. In South East Asia, 18,000 US ‘advisors’ arrived in Vietnam.
Closer to home the residents of the Elephant and Castle in South London no doubt marvelled, ignored and tut-tut-ted at these developments in equal measure. After the severe bomb damage of WWII their little corner of the world was slowly being reshaped by planners and architects full of exciting new ideas. The future would be a better, sleeker, more exciting place to live, although the dislocation between these ideas of modernity and the ordinary people were already apparent. For one thing locals were pondering the appearance of a huge shiny futuristic metal box in the centre of a roundabout in the middle of the Elephant. Back in 1961 nobody really knew what it was. Thirty years later the same was still true when, in June 1995, the Evening Standard ran a story with a picture of the box headlined ‘But what on earth is it?’
One often repeated urban myth can be discounted immediately, as the steel cube is most definitely not a subterranean home for dance music pioneer Richard D. James (aka the Aphex Twin). Admittedly it would be a great rock ‘n’ roll story if an artist who credits synaesthesia as an inspiration for creating ground-breaking ambient, acid and techno music should chose to burrow a home under one of South London’s busiest roundabouts. Sadly he lives in a converted bank just round the corner.
In truth it’s easy to sweep the mystery away. Just use one of the pedestrian crossings that link the urban mainland to the traffic island and take a look at the stone inscription on the north side of the box. This tells you that the stainless steel structure is a memorial to local boy done good Michael Faraday, who, although not the most famous south Londoner, was one of the most amazing individuals the capital has ever produced. Born into poverty in 1791, Faraday received only basic schooling but in his teens a fascination with science led him down the road of self improvement. By his early twenties he secured a post as a chemical assistant at the Royal Institution. Over the following years Faraday worked extensively on the principles of electricity, discovering in 1831 electromagnetic induction, the principle behind the electric transformer. This pioneering research laid the basis for the commercial exploitation of electricity. So the next time you switch on your kettle give a little salute to Michael Faraday.
The story of the memorial built to honour this great man starts with its architect, Rodney Gordon. He intended his design to embody the visionary credentials of the man it was celebrating and as part of the regeneration of the Elephant and Castle the structure would act as a link between the past and the future. Originally this was to be achieved by constructing the box out of glass which would allow the public to see the London Underground transformer which sits within the memorial. Sadly fears of vandalism scuppered this idea and with it the clearest link between Faraday’s work and the modern world. So the design was altered and steel replaced glass as the primary construction material. With the original concept compromised, the location of the box became all the more unfriendly. A site in the middle of a roundabout at one of the capital’s most frantic traffic interchanges would discourage casual sightseeing at the best of times. So shorn of much of its meaning the large metal box became adept at rousing little more than incredulity among harassed Londoners.
Over the years the memorial has had its champions. In 1996 Blue Peter held a competition for children to design a new lighting scheme for the site and in the same year the structure was given grade II listed status. This recognition was important because the memorial is an iconic piece of architecture. At twenty three metres wide and six metres tall the structure dwarfs all the vehicles, save the double-decker buses, which circulate it.
On a sunny day the light shimmers off the 728 stainless steel panels, and by night the box exudes a warm glow which is spellbinding when taking a late night journey home. A massive over-sailing beam caresses the structure and completes a design which belies the passage of over four decades. Unlike the Rolling Stones, this product of the sixties still looks remarkably modern. At least its listed status ensures that when the massive redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle takes place over the coming years the memorial will be saved and moved to a new site. Hopefully this change will provide the location and audience it deserves.
How to get there
The Elephant and Castle is well served by buses and has an underground station on the Northern & Bakerloo lines. The Michael Faraday Memorial is located on the northerly of the two roundabouts at the Elephant, right opposite the shopping centre.