“Show apartments in Elephant and Castle! Who thought this up?!” hams Alan Carr in not-quite-mock bafflement. “All I remember is that massive roundabout!”
This is the only flicker of introspection in the first episode of the latest series of Interior Design Masters, the BBC’s popular design contest show now in its fourth run (think Bake Off, but with untreated plywood where the warmth should be).
Elephant and Castle, a ring road-centric neighbourhood of Southwark, south London, has in recent years been picked up, turned upside down and shaken for its zone one square footage. Once a nucleus of postwar municipal planning, all Ernö Goldfinger blocks and optimistic council housing, its gentrification of late has been quick and dirty.
Gone is the shabby Sixties shopping centre, one of the only places left in central London where you could bowl in a full-sized lane without a mandatory cocktail deal. Demolished in 2021, it displaced a long-standing community of Latin American traders. To make way for a “new town centre”, these plans rattled residents who felt the lack of social housing would price them out, and questioned the promise to relocate stallholders.
Part of this transformation – where food comes card-only from shipping containers, and shelter from four-fifths of your income – is Park Central West. Clad in mattress-like white darts, the tower block became a glossy pinnacle of the latest confected locale, Elephant Park, in 2021. A new housing scheme that rose from the dust of the notorious Heygate estate, wilfully neglected until its demolition nine years ago.
The apartments there are “build-to-rent”, with “an ethos of ‘rent it like you own it’” – in the marketese of the developer Lendlease. By poshing up the rental lifestyle, the build-to-rent model is colonising that ever-expanding limbo where even high earners are stuck unable to buy. Cue the ten contestants of Interior Design Masters kitting five of Park Central West’s flats out in naff pineapple lamps, superfluous banquettes and many, many “pops of colour”.
To justify the splurge of high-spec millennial tat, viewers are reassured repeatedly that this is a “sustainable” housing project. These are “new show homes in a brand-new development where eco-friendly features are absolutely at the heart of its design”. I’m sure Park Central West is eco-friendlier than what was there before (you’d hope housing built in 2021, a time of more exacting building standards, would be). But the suggestion that this is a socially conscious, green haven of “Elephant and Castle’s exciting regeneration” sounds cynical.
The designers’ nods to sustainability, after all, are gimmicks: a “living headboard” crammed with cacti, “turmeric walls” (“my inspiration is sort of India”) and circus tent upholstering. Oh, and don’t forget the “vibes”: “Ibizan, chill vibes”, “a botanical, eco-friendly vibe”, to mention a few.
[See also: Ted Lasso is the most overrated show on TV]
Describing the “huge amount of regeneration” in Elephant and Castle as an “opportunity to inject new ideas from the ground up”, this episode exposes the assumption that upcycling furniture and turning your living room into The Day of the Triffids somehow makes a development like this a moral project.
Yes, build-to-rent lets tenants hang pictures up and paint their own walls, and there’s usually a few gym machines and some kind of “co-working space” squatting in the building somewhere. But it also means, in central London at least, only high-paid professionals can really benefit. Build-to-rentals are 11 per cent pricier than other nearby properties, on average. As I write, Lendlease has listed a two-bed, unfurnished Park Central West flat for £682 a week.
“Each pair [of contestants] has been given a different brief because I wanted to reflect the broad spectrum of clients this development is going to cater to,” says the interior designer and Interior Design Masters judge Michelle Ogundehin, as the broad spectrum of Elephant and Castle narrows by the square foot.