Michael Faraday Memorial

Px01441_800x500_Av-HDR - 12 Mar 2015

Above: The structure by day, taken during a lull in the traffic.

I have driven, walked and even travelled on a bus past the large shiny structure in the middle of one of the roundabouts at the Elephant Castle on numerous occasions. It is only recently that I have found out that it was built not only as the cover for an electricity substation but also as a memorial to the famous Victorian scientist Michael Faraday.

Px01447_800x500 - 12 Mar 2015

Above: Explanatory panel beside the stainless steel structure. (Click on the image to enlarge and read the text more easily).

As you will see from the explanatory panel, Michael Faraday was the son of a blacksmith whose family lived very close the actual spot where the large structure stands. When Michael was about five years old the family moved to Marylebone. Michael went on to work at the Royal Institution where he discovered the principle of the electric motor. It is very fitting that a building that houses an electricity substation should be chosen as a memorial to his birthplace.

The stainless steel, box-shaped structure was designed by modern movement architect Rodney Gordon in 1959. After graduating from the Architectural Association School in 1957, his first job was at the London County Council Architects Department where he designed the structure in 1961 which (at the time of writing) stands at the centre of the northern roundabout of the Elephant and Castle gyratory system.

The interior of the construction contains a London Underground electrical substation for the Northern line and Bakerloo line. Rodney Gordon originally designed the box clad in glass, intending the workings of the transformer to be seen. The possibility of distracting motorists with the flashing light from the mercury vapour rectifiers and of vandalism to the glass windows prevented this, so the design was changed to a metal casing. If you are wondering about the flashing light, it should be explained that when mercury vapour rectifiers are working they emit an eerie bluish-violet light which would have shone out of the structure if it had been made of glass panels. As it is, no light is emitted because it is totally sealed by the polished metal panels. It was also planned to have the building surrounded by a moat but those plans were also dropped.

Aspects of Rodney Gordon’s design which explained the connection to Faraday were left out when it was constructed, so few people realised why it was built on the site. However, there is an inscription in the concrete paving along one side of the building explaining that it is a memorial to the great man. In 1996 the monument was given Grade II listed building status.

Px01501_800x500_Av-HDR - 13 Mar 2015

Above: Looking from the NE of the structure, illuminated at dusk. Notice the tall tower with the sloping top, called Strata, in the background.

One final detail should be mentioned about the building. If you live in London and you don’t venture out after ‘nursery tea’ you may not be aware that the exterior of the stainless steel casing is floodlit by night with lamps that continually change colour.

Postscript: The pictures were taken in March and show the large structure surrounded by a considerable amount of grass. Within weeks of the pictures being taken work started to remove most of that grass because the complicated road junction is about to be altered to form a new road layout. The substation will remain in the same position but pictures of it in future, once the building work has been completed, will look quite different.


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