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Full 2001 preserving post war heritage

'The Lansbury Estate, Keeling House and Balfron Tower: Conservation issues and the architecture of social intent', in Susan MacDonald (ed), Preserving post-war heritage: the care and conservation of mid-twentieth century architecture
Book

Martin O’Rourke, 2001

Quotes

Martin O’Rourke ‘The Lansbury Estate, Keeling House and Balfron Tower: Conservation issues and the architecture of social intent’ in Susan MacDonald (ed), Preserving post-war heritage: the care and conservation of mid-twentieth century architecture (Shaftesbury: Donhead Publishing, 2001), pp.169-176.

The wave of optimism that characterised the post-war period of fifty years ago is difficult to appreciate in our more guarded and cynical times. It was an era when market forces and spending limits counted for less than social cohesion and better living standards for all. Imaginative architectural ideas were enthusiastically harnessed to the task of rehousing the working class of East London, who had endured generations of slum conditions and the trauma of the Blitz, when up to one in six Londoners were made homeless. The response to this great social need was a wave of public investment and confident new architecture.

Dealing with the legacy 
Many East London estates and building groups survive from the post-war period, the best serving as inspirational beacons against which to test our own feeble attempts at a robust celebration of urbanism.

Current preoccupations in town planning urge us to concentrate new development on brownfield sites and restrict new building in the Green Belt. It is therefore especially relevant to revisit earlier modern attempts to reshape the city with high-density urbanism, based on an egalitarian architectural programme employing twentieth-century aesthetic forms. Can we regain a faith in recasting the city in exciting but humane forms?

When considering post-war historic buildings, we need to judge architectural quality and value from a new perspective. Traditional conservation attitudes tend to revolve around buildings from a past age, shaped by forces that are safely remote from us. An archaeological approach to building fabric and artistic intent is used to establish relative value. We need to incorporate modern philosophical and architectural ideas into the value systems we use to judge post-war buildings. We must recognise the values and achievements of our own culture. The reluctance to do this explains why historic modern architecture still struggles for wider acceptance in the conservation world.

Serious conservation of post-war buildings must involve an understanding of how building processes shaped the architecture. Much of the modern aesthetic was forged from industrial techniques. We need a sophisticated repetoire of diagnostic methods and repair techniques peculiar to the problems of ageing concrete and steel. The variety of products and advisers is growing as more modern buildings are listed, but a system of values and ethics for the repair of such buildings is barely established.

A brief review of some cases involving post-war buildings may be useful in highlighting conservation problems, and showing how the historic building interest can be a positive tool of regeneration.

Balfron Tower: a heroic landscape
Heading east from the domestic scale of Lansbury, we come to a different architectural world, the Brownfield estate. Most of the estate is made up of unremarkable LCC and Poplar Council four-storey maisonettes. In St Leonards Road, however, is Balfron Tower, part of a housing development designed by Ernö Goldfinger, begun for the LCC in 1963. Balfron Tower is a boldly modelled concrete tower block containing ten maisonettes and 136 flats. It is a major landmark and shows Goldfinger’s mastery of concrete, which he gained in the 1920s with Auguste Perret in Paris. Balfron Tower is also notable for the clever device of having a separate lift and stair tower, linked at every third floor to the main block. This device reduced the need for corridors, thereby permitted more spacious flats, and providing a dramatic architectural articulation of the building form. Balfron Tower is complemented by a subsidiary group of buildings including flats for the elderly, a shop, community centre and under grounding car parking. The development was carried on to Goldfinger’s design in a more softly spoken idiom over the next ten years in further smaller blocks beyond the adjacent Carradale House.

Balfron Tower and its attendant building group constitute a major achievement of full-blooded modern architecture in the post-war period. It demonstrates that a social housing programme can be achieved with dramatic and high-quality architecture.

Meeting new needs
Balfron Tower sits close by the Blackwall Tunnel Approach, a major traffic artery. The recent road-widening scheme has brought increased traffic volume closer to the building, creating a need to soundproof and upgrade the windows. The occupants of the flats objected to the installation of secondary glazing, as great disruption would have been caused to internal fittings and all work would have been carried out inside each flat.

It was decided that replacement windows were the only practical solution. Because the budget was tight, a standard UPVC window was selected. It was at this point that Balfron Tower was spot-listed to ensure that the question of an architecturally sensitive solution could be fully addressed.

The question of new windows for Balfron Tower raises many points that are peculiar to the control of change in post-war social housing. The spot-listing meant that works that had already begun had to be interrupted. The standard windows destined to replace the originals before the spot-listing did not match the geometry of the Goldfinger windows; they also had ‘storm window’ casements set proud of the surrounding frame, unlike the original flush-fitting window and frame detail. Alternative timber products proved to be prohibitively expensive and were, in any case, further from Goldfinger’s original design due to a thicker section of the timber frames. A more suitable window design had to be sourced - one that was quickly available, would conform to current safety and performance standards, and was affordable. In the event, a French UPVC section was found that allowed a very close match with the original window section and geometry, and satisfied all the other requirements. The French UPVC windows were, therefore, chosen as the best solution that could be achieved given the tight constraints of time, resources and performance.

The windows at Balfron Tower raise a more general issue for large post-war social housing complexes. As these buildings are now thirty to forty years old, the question of replacing doors, windows or even external cladding will become more pressing. A balance must be struck between respecting the historic architecture and finding appropriate solutions to performance upgrading for thermal, acoustic or safety purposes.

The future of Balfron Tower
Most post-war public housing developments have suffered from inadequate or sporadic maintenance, due to tight funding restrictions on housing authorities. With the lack of a consistent, adequately funded maintenance and repair regime, urgent repairs can sometimes be underfunded and ill-advised.

Balfron Tower and its surrounding now need a comprehensive scheme of repair, landscaping and improvement. With the listing of the building, Tower Hamlets have recognized the need for special care to protect and enhance Balfron Tower. In consultation with English Heritage, the Council are considering the possibility of designating a conservation area around the whole group of Goldfinger buildings. Proposals are also being considered for an improved automatic entry system and the restoration of the public areas, including the distinctive marble and mosaic finishes that are characteristic of Goldfinger’s work.

Like the people of Lansbury, the inhabitants of Balfron Tower are protective of their building and frustrated by many years of inadequate funding. The listing of the building and the inclusion of the whole group within a conservation area will assist Tower Hamlets Council, in cooperation with English Heritage, to harness regeneration resources in a sensitive manner.

Conservation and regeneration: a richer future for the social heritage
The listing of post-war public social housing has brought into focus the fundamental issues of what should be preserved and how best to achieve this. It is essential that the world of conservation learn the skills of the housing manager and understand the difficult choices imposed by limited funding. The accolade of listing can, however, support local people’s sense of value in their own environment and encourage high aspirations for repair and improvements.

The Government is committed to the regeneration of more than 2,000 deprived areas: major funding will be committed to housing repair, environmental improvement and other, wider social concerns. At the time of writing, a reshaped Single Regeneration Budget has already been given £3 billion to target 50 areas with populations of around 20,000. There has also been a release £3.6 billion from council house sales to fund further housing repair.

Many of the chosen areas may include buildings that are either listed or deserve to be considered for conservation area designation. A partnership between local bodies, housing departments, conservation officers and English Heritage can ensure that the substantial funds available will be used not merely to repair buildings, but to respect and restore real architectural quality and the special sense of place that often exists, masked by neglect and low resources. Previous attempts at estate regeneration in the public sector have often been criticised for being only skin deep and not addressing the causes of decay. Repairs and changes that do not respect the positive characteristics of buildings and places can often lead to a new spiral of decay.

The substantial new government funding is a spectacular opportunity to recover post-war optimism, rediscover the hidden riches of modern social architecture and enhance the lives of some of the most deprived people in our cities.

Questions
& Answers

Why is it listed?

Page(s):

Meeting new needs
Balfron Tower sits close by the Blackwall Tunnel Approach, a major traffic artery. The recent road-widening scheme has brought increased traffic volume closer to the building, creating a need to soundproof and upgrade the windows. The occupants of the flats objected to the installation of secondary glazing, as great disruption would have been caused to internal fittings and all work would have been carried out inside each flat.

It was decided that replacement windows were the only practical solution. Because the budget was tight, a standard UPVC window was selected. It was at this point that Balfron Tower was spot-listed to ensure that the question of an architecturally sensitive solution could be fully addressed.

The question of new windows for Balfron Tower raises many points that are peculiar to the control of change in post-war social housing. The spot-listing meant that works that had already begun had to be interrupted. The standard windows destined to replace the originals before the spot-listing did not match the geometry of the Goldfinger windows; they also had ‘storm window’ casements set proud of the surrounding frame, unlike the original flush-fitting window and frame detail. Alternative timber products proved to be prohibitively expensive and were, in any case, further from Goldfinger’s original design due to a thicker section of the timber frames. A more suitable window design had to be sourced - one that was quickly available, would conform to current safety and performance standards, and was affordable. In the event, a French UPVC section was found that allowed a very close match with the original window section and geometry, and satisfied all the other requirements. The French UPVC windows were, therefore, chosen as the best solution that could be achieved given the tight constraints of time, resources and performance.

The windows at Balfron Tower raise a more general issue for large post-war social housing complexes. As these buildings are now thirty to forty years old, the question of replacing doors, windows or even external cladding will become more pressing. A balance must be struct between respecting the historic architecture and finding appropriate solutions to performance upgrading for thermal, acoustic or safety purposes.

The future of Balfron Tower
Most post-war public housing developments have suffered from inadequate or sporadic maintenance, due to tight funding restrictions on housing authorities. With the lack of a consistent, adequately funded maintenance and repair regime, urgent repairs can sometimes be underfunded and ill-advised.

Balfron Tower and its surrounding now need a comprehensive scheme of repair, landscaping and improvement. With the listing of the building, Tower Hamlets have recognized the need for special care to protect and enhance Balfron Tower. In consolation with English Heritage, the Council are considering the possibility of designating a conservation area around the whole group of Goldfinger buildings. Proposals are also being considered for an improved automatic entry system and the restoration of the public areas, including the distinctive marble and mosaic finishes that are characteristic of Goldfinger’s work.

Like the people of Lansbury, the inhabitants of Balfron Tower are protective of their building and frustrated by many years of inadequate fundings. The listing of the building and the inclusion of the whole group within a conservation area will assist Tower Hamlets Council, in cooperation with English Heritage, to harness regeneration resources in a sensitive manner.

Conservation and regeneration: a richer future for the social heritage
The listing of post-war public social housing has brought into focus the fundamental issues of what should be preserved and how best to achieve this. It is essential that the world of conservation learn the skills of the housing manager and understand the difficult choices imposed by limited funding. The accolade of listing can, however, support local people’s sense of value in their own environment and encourage high aspirations for repair and improvements.

The Government is committed to the regeneration of more than 2,000 deprived areas: major funding will be committed to housing repair, environmental improvement and other, wider social concerns. At the time of writing, a reshaped Single Regeneration Budget has already been given £3 billion to target 50 areas with populations of around 20,000. There has also been a release £3.6 billion from council house sales to fund further housing repair.

Many of the chosen areas may include buildings that are either listed or deserve to be considered for conservation area designation. A partnership between local bodies, housing departments, conservation officers and English Heritage can ensure that the substantial funds available will be used not merely to repair buildings, but to respect and restore real architectural quality and the special sense of place that often exists, masked by neglect and low resources. Previous attempts at estate regeneration in the public sector have often been criticised for being only skin deep and not addressing the causes of decay. Repairs and changes that do not respect the positive characteristics of buildings and places can often lead to a new spiral of decay.

The substantial new government funding is a spectacular opportunity to recover post-war optimism, rediscover the hidden riches of modern social architecture and enhance the lives of some of the most deprived people in our cities.

What have others said about Balfron Tower?

Page(s):

Heading east from the domestic scale of Lansbury, we come to a different architectural world, the Brownfield estate. Most of the estate is made up of unremarkable LCC and Poplar Council four-storey maisonettes. In St Leonards Road, however, is Balfron Tower, part of a housing development designed by Ernö Goldfinger, begun for the LCC in 1963. Balfron Tower is a boldly modelled concrete tower block containing ten maisonettes and 136 flats. It is a major landmark and shows Goldfinger’s mastery of concrete, which he gained in the 1920s with Auguste Perret in Paris. Balfron Tower is also notable for the clever device of having a separate lift and stair tower, linked at every third floor to the main block. This device reduced the need for corridors, thereby permitted more spacious flats, and providing a dramatic architectural articulation of the building form. Balfron Tower is complemented by a subsidiary group of buildings including flats for the elderly, a shop, community centre and under grounding car parking. The development was carried on to Goldfinger’s design in a more softly spoken idiom over the next ten years in further smaller blocks beyond the adjacent Carradale House.

Balfron Tower and its attendant building group constitute a major achievement of full-blooded modern architecture in the post-war period. It demonstrates that a social housing programme can be achieved with dramatic and high-quality architecture.