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Full 2014 press cuttings

Press cuttings 2014

Various, 2014


I have included excerpts below but encourage you to visit the websites to see the full articles, accompanying images and comments.


Claire Crofton, The Balfron Tower: a tale of gentrificiation, East London Lines
As the weather gets warmer, so does the debate surrounding the brutalist Balfron Tower.

The listed building is due a makeover, and permanent residents are being ‘decanted’ before works begin.

Meanwhile, a housing scheme run by the Bow Arts Trust offers artists temporary residence in the emptied flats until renovation starts.

Many have applauded the scheme for making use of emptied homes and providing artistic opportunities but others say this project bears all the hallmarks of gentrification – an issue close to the hearts of many in east London’s boroughs.

East London Lines heard from one unhappy resident about his thoughts of the Balfron Tower area:

East London Lines also learned of one resident who barricaded himself into his flat in protest – further highlighting the strong negative feelings towards the project.

The History of the Balfron
The tower was originally built as council-housing, but in 2007 ownership was transferred from Tower Hamlets Council to Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association (Poplar HARCA).

Poplar HARCA is currently working with PRP architecture and English Heritage to restore the grade two listed building.

Renovations are estimated to cost up to £100,000 per flat and the refurbished flats will then be sold off privately.

Some have supported the decision, making the point that the money made from sales will be reinvested into social housing.

But others feel that this is another case of social cleansing in Tower Hamlets.

East London Lines invited Poplar HARCA to comment, but they declined.

A pattern of gentrification in East London?
The debate about the Balfron Tower echoes wider discussions about the gentrification of parts of the east of the capital and the 2012 debate about the Olympic regeneration project.

It was suggested that council tenants were being removed from East London in a an attempt to change the face of the area.

The role of artists has been called into question too as many people have claimed that high prices and the ousting of poorer communities often follows the presence of artists in an area.

Many consider this to be the imminent fate of the Balfron Tower.

What does the artist in residence think?

East London lines went to speak to Simon Terrill about the issue.  As the official Artist in Residence at the Balfrom Tower, Simon is perfectly positioned to posit an opinion on the matter.

He exhibits his work in the building’s gallery which is part of the Bow Arts Trust – with themes of concrete, brutalism and human interaction with man-made environments permeating his portfolio.

He uses large telephoto lenses and cinematic lighting to capture the spirit of the Balfron Tower during this transitional period.


Oliver Wainwright, Architects hark back to Festival of Britain with 'vertical carnival’, The Guardian
While today's Expos often leave behind curious wastelands dotted with rotting pavilions and coloured tarmac, occasionally garnished with clusters of private flats, it is heartening to remember that things were not always thus. The Dome of Discovery from the 1951 Festival of Britain may be long gone, the Skylon long lost at the bottom of the river Lea, but in Poplar, east London, the council houses of the Lansbury estate, built as part of the festival's Live Architecture Exhibition, are still very much standing.

The brainchild of Frederick Gibberd, architect of Harlow new town, the estate came out of the premise that the only way to get the public interested in an exhibition of architecture, planning and construction was to build a real place they could walk through – and then actually live in when the confetti had blown away.

“The solution is to take a bombed or cleared site of four to six acres as near as possible to the site of the main exhibition,” wrote Gibberd, “to develop it as a cross-section of a neighbourhood, with such other additional permanent structures as may be necessary to complete the visual picture, providing such buildings are of ultimate use to the neighbourhood.” The “legacy” would be the thing itself, not something to be bickered over for decades after the event.

Some buildings were to be left unfinished, to reveal the science of construction, but delays meant that most were a long way off completion by the time the exhibition opened. As architecture critic JM Richards commented at the time: “As an illustration of Britain's housing and town-planning effort it was a little disappointing, because most of the buildings were still at such an early stage that no clear impression of its architectural form was possible.” Nor was he particularly taken by the quality of construction: “Some of the aridity of design from which the Lansbury housing suffers,” he wrote, “is undoubtedly due to so much having to be sacrificed for the sake of cheapness.”

But what might have looked cheap in 1951 appears a model of quality to today's eye, such is the nostalgia for an age when the London county council readily built 30 acres of new homes in decent, robust materials.

Arranged as a series of neighbourhood groups, the estate comprised two- and three-storey terraces and maisonettes in London stock brick, interspersed with some six-storey blocks, and enlivened by a few “festival-style” touches: trellis porches and balconies, cantilevered stairs and a jaunty clock tower, from where one could marvel at the entire plan. There were to be schools and churches in a simple modernist style, as well as a Catholic church by Adrian Gilbert Scott (younger brother of Giles, who built Bankside and Battersea power stations) in what the Survey of London describes as a fruity “Jazz-Modern Byzantine” style.

While Richards thought the resulting estate “worthy, dull and somewhat skimpy,” it was enough to impress US critic Lewis Mumford when he visited in 1953. “Its design has been based not solely on abstract aesthetic principles, or on the economics of commercial construction, or on the techniques of mass production, but on the social constitution of the community itself, with its diversity of human interests and human needs,” he commented. “Thus the architects and planners have avoided not only the cliches of 'high-rise' building but the dreary prison-like order that results from forgetting the very purpose of housing and the necessities of neighbourhood living.”

While today's London Festival of Architecture (LFA) might not have quite the same ambition, timescale or budget of the 1951 Live Architecture Exhibition, strains of 1950s optimism are being revived in a project that will be showcased in Poplar on Saturday. This year, the British Council's International Architecture Showcase – which in the past has been a simple exhibition – has evolved into a 10-day-long live workshop, pairing 10 international architects with 10 London practices to dream up ideas for the future of the area.

“We wanted to draw on the legacy of the 1951 Festival,” says the project's curator, Moira Lascelles, “and celebrate the influence that émigré architects have had on London's architecture in the past.”

The culmination of the work – which is tackling four live development sites in the Poplar area – will take place in the Balfron tower, that majestic cliff-face of 60s brutalism by one of the most influential émigrés to have left his mark on London, the Hungarian-born Ernö Goldfinger. Saturday will see what the LFA describes as a “vertical carnival” of events, including walking tours of the Lansbury and tours of the building with artists in residence, culminating with a panel discussion on the 28th-floor roof of the tower.

It is perhaps poignant that this celebration of architectural exchange is happening in the Balfron tower, which has become a vertical microcosm of what is happening to such blocks across the city. It has recently been “decanted” of its council tenants to make way for a refurbishment, in which the building will be scrubbed up and polished for private sale, when one-bed flats are expected to go for around £300,000. As yet another public asset is “regenerated,” packaged and sold off, it might be useful to remember what the public ambitions of 1951 actually were.


Hannah Ellis Peterson, Decaying east London tower block to house 12-hour Macbeth production, The Guardian
At 27 storeys tall, the Balfron Tower stands in the shadow of Canary Wharf; a building that once stood as a monument to idealism in social housing, now reduced to a crumbling obelisk in the east London skyline.

But, at least temporarily, the decaying flats and empty walkways of the high-rise block, designed by Erno Goldfinger, will be brought back to life as the stage for Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth. In a fully immersive production that opens in July, audience members will spend 12 hours overnight in the building, as the play is acted out over three floors of the tower.

The play will go on to the early hours of the morning, after which the audience are encouraged to sleep in their designated flats, until they are woken at dawn for the final scenes and breakfast on the roof.

The immersive piece was envisioned and devised by Rift, a theatre company made up of Felix Mortimer, 27, and Joshua Nawras, 28. After being approached by the owners of the Balfron building in 2013 asking whether they'd like to use the space, the pair said it was the history and origins of the brutalist structure, and the utopian vision of its architect, Goldfinger, that originally inspired them to use it to stage Macbeth.

Mortimer said: "The building looked so violent and brutal in the skyline as it's so stark, just a big finger up to Canary Wharf. Goldfinger, who designed the Balfron Tower, had this amazing vision of what the future would be like and it struck so many chords in terms of creating societies and creating a utopia."

The nature of the building, he added, meant it became a main character within the play with sounds recorded around the building as a background track for the production.
"This space was the first thing that we had and it's the main character in this play. It is so dominating you could never fight against its own story, it is audacious, and our job is simply to ensure that the events we are creating use the space to intensify the story. The building spoke to us about society and about Goldfinger's idea of what future society would be, and how that got corrupted. Goldfinger's utopia became Danny Boyle's dystopia as this building was famously used for his film 28 Days Later. We wanted to look at how something so pure and so audacious could turn into a byword for something that is so horrible. So it seemed the perfect place to explore ideas of hierarchy, which is how we came to the idea of putting on Macbeth."

The play will be set in Borduria, the fictional state originally created in Hergé's Tintin that resembles a 1970s eastern European state. The flats are decked out with faded furniture, dusty Persian rugs and old-fashioned televisions, recalling the history of the building where Goldfinger, who moved into the top floor of the building in 1968, would famously host champagne-fuelled parties for residents of the tower.

The show, which lasts around five hours, sees the audience move on a carefully curated journey from a dark, abandoned car park, where the witches are gathered around a fire, to the intimate flats, the specially created bars and even a banqueting hall, where they feast with the Macbeths before being sent back to sleep until dawn on bunkbeds, sofas or even floors of the abandoned flats.

"Macbeth is also a play that exists in this abstract time that stretches out endlessly, where it's always night-time and everyone's always awake, so that's why we felt it was fitting to invite the audience to live and sleep in that world, exist in it in real time and experience it inside out," said Nawras.


Cristiana Bedei, Overnight Macbeth play at Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, East London Lines
A new Macbeth production brings Shakespeare’s tragedy to east London this summer, as the 12-hour overnight show takes over three disused floors of the Balfron Tower in Poplar, from tonight until August 16.

This site specific play is a project by theatre company Rift – formerly RETZ, who staged a similarly immersive production of Kafka’s The Trial, in 2013.  It has been directly inspired by the Balfron ex-council housing tower, a landmark of brutalist architecture from the 60s.

Felix Mortimer, one of Rift’s founders, said: “The building is violent and stark on the skyline. Visiting it and looking out from the roof is where the idea for Macbeth came from. Poplar is filled with Scottish names and Goldfinger, the architect, had such a clear but flawed view of the future – it seemed to harmonise well.”

Running from dusk till dawn, the play will take the audience through a meeting with the witches in a desolated car park to a banquet with the Macbeths in an old-fashioned hall.

The story is set in Borduria, the fictional state from The Adventures of Tintin, the famous comic by Hergé, and the spaces and the decor resemble Eastern Europe in the 70s.

The audience will stay overnight, sleeping in specially designed flats and will enjoy breakfast on the roof the following morning. Tickets to all performances are already sold out.

The Balfron Tower has recently turned into a creative hub offering artists temporary residence before a regeneration plan will turn the residential block into luxury flats for the private market.


Mark Shales, Poplar residents halt artist’s plans to drop piano off Balfron Tower, The Docklands and East London Advertiser
Turner Prize-nominated artist Catherine Yass had been scheduled to drop the instrument off the top of the 26-storey Balfron Tower – but a petition signed by 254 locals has forced organisers to change their tune.

Retired nurse Jean Brown, 66, of nearby Burcham Street, was concerned about the “danger and utter stupidity”, and amazed the idea had even been suggested.
“People seem to have finally come to their senses,” she said. “The idea shouldn’t have even been thought up in the first place.

“To have it discussed by the board was ludicrous.

“Harca employs anti-social behaviour officers and if chucking a piano off the Balfron Tower isn’t anti-social behaviour, I don’t know what is.”

Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association (Harca), which manages the Grade II-listed housing block, said no date had been set, insisting it would have taken place “some time over the summer”.

But a statement from the Alison Jacques Gallery, where Ms Yass exhibits work, suggested the event had been booked at the St Leonard’s Road tower for Tuesday.

A Harca spokesman confirmed plans had been pencilled in to drop the piano “as part of a community workshop looking at how sound travels”.

Andrea Baker, director of housing for Poplar Harca, said: “I met with our residents on Friday and received the petition.

“We’ve listened to their concerns and, as a result, the project will not be going ahead.”

The plans were first discussed with the public at an estate board meeting on Monday, June 30, but were only vetoed after the petition was received on Friday.

Ms Yass’ works include the well-known 2000 Tate Britain Christmas tree.

The artist declined to comment save to confirm the event had been cancelled “at the residents’ request”.


Georgie Day, Reimagining the Balfron Tower, or questioning architectural heritage, regeneration and the future of housing, RIBA
The beauty of the Balfron Tower is written all over its fac(ad)e in a very literal way. Its central architectonic move – that of separating the circulation, refuse shoots, and services from the living quarters – is visible, rising out of the Poplar skyline, from most parts of London. Reading between the lines of the Balfron Tower (again quite literally as such lines are created by the individual floor plates), it also becomes clear that there is something funny going on in the section; specifically in the way in which individual access corridors service two floors at the same time: a clever trick whereby entering a flat either means stepping up, or stepping down a semi-storey.  Then there is the message that is contained in its erect, proud, democratic, optimistic and upward form.

The Balfron Tower positively shouts about the socialist leanings of its architect, the Hungarian émigré Erno Goldfinger.  It is unpretentious an architecture in that it is instantly readable. It embodies an architecture crafted from tactile materials that, unlike most of the modern palette for the built environment, become increasingly beautiful the closer you get. It is designed for its inhabitants, in intricate detail for their close looking, and in 1965, it would have also elevated working-class families from tumble-down Victorian housing to some of the best views in London.

In 2014, things have changed. The building was brought from the state ownership of Tower Hamlets by ‘bottom-up’ housing association Popla Harca in 1995, which has since then become a joint venture with luxury property tycoon Londonewcastle, engaged in a £10million refurbishment. The old residents have been ‘decanted’ (in the unfortunate wine-based jargon) to accommodation elsewhere. Having initially been assured that they would be able to move back in should they want to, things have changed: in a far cry from the intentions of the London City Council (and later, during the final stages of its construction and completion, the Greater London Council, who oversaw its inception), all the flats are now expected to be sold to new private tenants, all in the name of Grade II* Listed Status!

This often conservative mechanism is at its worst here: the bottom-line justification is that Popla Harca simply couldn’t afford to restore all the features in a sympathetic way, as this status requires. This is cruelly antithetical to the original social-democratic urge behind the building, which most likely would rather see it being clad in jazzy neon fascia panels than carefully restored and consequently sold off to private investors as buy-to-lets. The conservative tendency of building listings is again expressed locally in the future of the comparable Robin Hood Gardens estate. Designed by the husband and wife couple the Smithsons, this low-rise housing stock is in the process of being demolished to make way for a new mixed use scheme, having narrowly missed its own ‘Do Not Pass Go’ card at a recent review of is cultural and historical significance.

Opportunistically, as oft-poor creative minds are entitled to behave, artists have moved into the Balfron Tower, and an interim programme of arts events is about to start before the redevelopment work begins (the Bow Arts Trust have taken a temporary lease on some of the flats which are being let out as rare-to-come-by live/work units). Again, a question emerges almost as old as modernism itself about the relationship between artists and regeneration. In its more self-aware, contemporary form, these artists are known as ‘cultural capital’, and play a role in raising the value of the development to come. It is inevitable and unavoidable, when public funding for cultural activity is drying up and the only well is the private market, that the arts become embroiled in such scenarios. But it is refreshing (and I hope for much more of it), that some artists, such as Simon Terill with his incisive photography documentation (which includes a project on the Balfron Tower itself), are taking their role in this process seriously. Hopefully some interesting reflections will emerge from the ugly transformation. Watch this space.


Caroline Christie, Hey Creatives, Stop Fetishising Estates, VICE
Last week an artist was supposed to hurl a piano off the 26th floor of the Balfron Tower in Poplar, East London. According to Turner Prize nominee Catherine Yass, the piece – "Piano Falling" – would hopefully offer "real regeneration to an area which has been ignored until it is seen as valuable real estate". The performance was intended as a "swan song", she continued, "to the lost socialist ideals of modernist housing that Ernö Goldfinger, amongst others, brought to Tower Hamlets". 

Unfortunately for Catherine, conceptual art fans and people who like seeing pianos destroyed in imaginative ways, her swan song was silenced by fierce criticism and a petition of 254 signatures from local residents. Jean Brown, one of those residents, told the East London Advertiser that Poplar HARAC – the housing association that owns the property – "employs anti-social behaviour officers, and if chucking a piano off the Balfron Tower isn’t anti-social behaviour, I don’t know what is".

The building – and its West London sister block Trellick Tower, which you'll recognise from the cover of every UK hip-hop mixtape on sale in Ladbroke Grove – was designed by Ernő Goldfinger in 1963 and made a Grade II listed building in 1996. It’s a mecca for fans of brutalist architecture and is even available for tours during the Open House Weekend, where lifestyle supplement enthusiasts queue up for hours to wander around some of the country’s most iconic buildings. Or, in this case, traipse up the stairs and have a peek into somebody's flat.

However, Balfron Tower is no longer the utopian housing venture it once was. The building is now set to be sold-off and turned into luxury flats, with most of the residents already decanted into nearby properties.

But despite the fact its population has decreased, the building is still in the middle of a large estate, and it was these residents who objected to the art piece. Andrea Baker, Director of Housing at Poplar HARCA, said: "We've listened to [the residents'] concerns, and, as a result, the project will not be going ahead."

Ken Coleman
One local resident, Ken Coleman, who lives just across the street and sits on the committee of the estate, explained why he voted against "Piano Falling".

“It’s a fucking stupid idea," he said. "I’d sooner see the artist dropped off there and see what damage they’d do, because a piano would do more. I think it was aimed at somebody who thought it would be art. From what I heard, it was [the artist’s] dream to drop a piano off Balfron Tower."

Muzammil Ali
Another resident, Muzammil Ali, was understandably alarmed at the thought of a piano being dropped from the top of the tower.

“What if a child is walking underneath? It could be anyone – they’d have no chance to survive," he said. "A piano crushing somebody – have you thought about that?”
Yass – and Poplar HARCA, which approved the project – presumably gave that a lot of thought; it's unlikely they would have thrown a half-ton block of wood and metal off a tower block without properly assessing the dangers. But Muzammil raised a good point: that – in the artist's mind, at least – the estate seems to have been viewed as merely a creative space, not a home.

In a similar stunt last year, another Turner Prize nominee – Mike Nelson – planned to convert an empty area of Elephant and Castle's partly-demolished Heygate Estate into a pyramid sculpture. That's until ex-residents complained that turning the buildings they were evicted from into an art piece was "insensitive", forcing Southwark Council to shut the project down.

Earlier this year VICE also reported on the planned demolition of Glasgow's Red Road housing estate during the opening sequence of this month's Commonwealth Games. If it had gone ahead, the writer Dan Hancox argued, it would have essentially been live action gentrification for entertainment purposes.

The televised demolition was eventually called off. However, it's another reminder that there are some who don't seem able to appreciate that flippantly turning a building that's been somebody's home – potentially for their entire lives – into an art project after they've been evicted from it might not always be such a great idea. 

Hilary McCool
As Balfron Tower is being emptied of its former residents, Bow Arts Trust have harvested the empty flats and made them available for cheap studio and live-in spaces for artists. Hilary McCool – an artist who's been living in Balfron Tower for a couple of months as part of the Trust's scheme – welcomed Yass’s piano piece.

“I love the idea of the piano off the roof. It’s just a spectacular thing – especially to see something like that moving through the air," she said. "The noise that it would make, the effect that it has whenever it hits the ground – it would just be absolutely incredible. I’m quite short-sighted and I think about things in a different way. I think about things texturally and in auditory terms, so I like it.”

Daniel Hernandez
Although "Piano Falling" was shut down, another artistic piece – an immersive performance of Macbeth – is currently underway in the building. Daniel Hernandez, an artist who produces immersive theatre himself, was queuing up to see the play when I asked him what he thought of artists using council housing as a backdrop for their own work.

“I’m all for it – I think it’s great, I think it should happen more," he said. "You should use any space to be creative.” 

When I asked what he thought of the residents' grievances towards Yass's piece, he said: "It seems like a fair enough objection, to that specific act. As amazing as it might be – I mean, they live here. As much as I'd like to see someone throw a piano off a building, someone could have a heart attack.”

Remi Smith
Remi Smith, a resident of another Bow Arts Trust studio space in Balfron Tower, thought the building wasn't the best setting for "Piano Falling".

“I think that, overall, what they’re trying to do here over the next couple of months is really great – trying to bring art into the community. But I don’t think they’re really taking into account how much it affects everybody living here," he said. "It’s quite a big feat trying to throw something off a building, and with people living metres away from it I don’t think it’s the right place to be doing something like this.

"I think the artists are quite attached to this building, but what [the Bow Arts Trust project] should really be doing is providing value for the community, and it’s not any more; it’s about making money and showing off a big piece of concrete.”

James McWilliams – who was moved from Balfron Tower to another nearby block of flats, after he'd lived there for 16 years – said: “I think it’s a stupid idea. Throwing a grand piano off Balfron Tower... it's 24-storeys high! It’s dangerous. I don’t know what it’s for – some sort of company want to attract attention, or something or other."

All this isn't to say that art should be limited to a certain venue, or that any artistic endeavour automatically dispels community engagement. But I find it hard to see how the local community in either Poplar or Elephant and Castle would have benefitted from Yass or Nelson going ahead with their respective pieces. The artists would have received a brief flurry of media attention and maybe had an easier time getting grants in the future, but it's unlikely any of that would have trickled its way down to residents. 

And artists and creative directors both fetishising council estates and overlooking the ramifications of the works they stage in them clearly isn't a positive thing. Imagine being evicted from the home where you'd raised a family, only for some St Martins graduate to come along, blow holes in all the walls and stuff them with origami Beanie Babies – I can't imagine you'd be too happy about it.

Stage your art project wherever you want, but be sensitive and considerate of what it is you're doing and where you're doing it. And another top tip: it's probably best to avoid telling people that throwing a piano off a roof is going to "regenerate" an area, because it's very unlikely they'll believe you.


James Dunnett, The Importance of Being Ernö: Goldfinger from wooden toys to 'spatial feeling’, Architectural Review
Ernö Goldfinger’s AR articles formed the first verbal articulation of his architecture’s marked and expressive spatial feeling

Although the house that Ernö Goldfinger built for himself in Willow Road, Hampstead, in 1938 belongs to the National Trust and is open to the public, it is probably fair to say that he is best known as the architect of high-rise housing typified by his 26-storey Balfron Tower (east London) of 1965 and 31-storey Trellick Tower (north-west London) of 1967. But these came very late in his career − he was 65 when Trellick Tower started on site, 73 when the estate was completed. Prior to that he had been preoccupied by small-scale projects and his last design to be executed, in 1968, was a private house: the Perry House, in Windlesham, Surrey. He approached small and large projects in much the same way and the Perry House, for example, has many details (and a dimensional module) brought over from his office building practice.

‘The Abbatts rejected stuffed toys in favour of wood, which suited Goldfinger well, and he designed for them some finely crafted wooden aeroplanes, trains, barges, lettering and a climbing frame’

One of the contacts that brought Goldfinger to England from Paris in 1934 was that with Paul and Marjorie Abbatt, the well-known theoreticians and manufacturers of ‘advanced’ children’s toys. Correspondence starts in 1933, the year Goldfinger married Ursula Blackwell and their first son Peter was born, of whom Paul Abbatt became the godfather. Fired up with paternal spirit, Goldfinger was soon designing toys, logos, exhibitions and catalogues for the Abbatts, as well as adapting their workshop in Midford Place, off Tottenham Court Road, London, with FRS Yorke as ‘local architect’. The Abbatts rejected stuffed toys in favour of wood, which suited Goldfinger well, and he designed for them some finely crafted wooden aeroplanes, trains, barges, lettering, and a climbing frame reminiscent of the structural frames of his teacher at the École des Beaux-Arts, Auguste Perret, that continued to win prizes into the ’60s. In 1936 he fitted out the Abbatts’ flat in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, at the same address as the Nursery Schools Association for whom he designed an ‘Expanding Nursery School’, and he completed a superbly detailed showroom for the Abbatts in Wimpole Street, his most accomplished work to date. During at least part of these years he was on a retainer from them to come up with ideas − but looking at the correspondence (preserved at the RIBA) it is clear that the Quaker Abbatts watched expenditure closely and tension between them and Goldfinger sometimes surfaces. He went on to design and equip with Abbatt products the children’s section of the British pavilion of the International Exhibition in Paris of 1937 and again of the MARS Group exhibition in London of 1938.

With the imminence of war, the Abbatts moved production out of London, finally settling on High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, with its well-established wood-working traditions, and they also bought a beautiful site on which to build a house in the village of Ibstone nearby. This was where Goldfinger was to design for them in 1940 one of his most accomplished domestic designs but which, with the increasing stringency of wartime restrictions, could not be built. The design, an immediate successor to Goldfinger’s celebrated Willow Road houses, has never been published except as a single perspective in the Architectural Association book of 1983. Its plans are missing from the archive. It has, however, been possible recently to reconstruct the complete design from various sources, which is presented here, and to locate definitively the intended site, still known as Abbattsfield.
The project is of interest not only because it illustrates the transposition of the design principles of Willow Road into a spacious rural setting, but also because it immediately precedes the writing by Goldfinger of his three best-known texts, that were published as articles in consecutive issues of the AR from November 1941. JM Richards, then editor, lived round the corner from Willow Road in Downshire Hill, and took refuge in Goldfinger’s new concrete house when the air-raid sirens sounded. In these articles Goldfinger set out a whole theory of architecture and urbanism based on the sensation of space. They are perhaps the first texts to tackle this subject − much discussed in German theory − in English since Geoffrey Scott’s The Architecture of Humanism of 1914.

‘In these articles Goldfinger set out a whole theory of architecture and urbanism based on the sensation of space.’

The slogan of Le Corbusier, Goldfinger’s colleague on CIAM, was ‘Sun, Space, Greenery’, and that of Adolf Loos, with whom Goldfinger also consorted in Paris, was ‘Raumplan’ − literally ‘space plan’ − and both inspired him. Perret’s definition of architecture as ‘the art of organising space’ should also not be forgotten, and the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright on Goldfinger was considerable: he organised an exhibition of Wright’s work at the Building Centre in the 1930s using 3-D viewers to convey the sensation of space more vividly.
In the first article − ‘The Sensation of Space’ − Goldfinger attempts to analyse spatial sensation almost clinically, but concludes: ‘When space is enclosed with the skill of an artist, when the purpose is to move, then “spatial sensation” becomes spatial emotion and enclosed space becomes ARCHITECTURE’, which is illustrated by a Piranesi engraving. The main theme of the next article, ‘Urbanism and Spatial Order’, is the equivalence and interconnectivity of internal and external space, the latter simply having a lesser degree of enclosure − but the advent of high-speed motor traffic meant that external space needed classification both for functional and for perceptual reasons. In the third article, ‘The Elements of Enclosed Space’, he attempts an analysis of space in buildings, but this is developed more in the captions than the text, and he concludes (in bold type) ‘it is the artist who comprehends the social requirements of his time and is able to integrate the technical potentialities in order to shape the spaces of the future’.

It is surprising to find an architect apparently signed up to the Modern Movement with its deprecation of ‘cours intérieures’, so interested in courtyards of various sizes, or semi-enclosed spaces such as the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, which are much illustrated. Goldfinger had built one such external court in his diminutive Broxted House of 1936 perhaps inspired by Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion (both illustrated), and his house for the Abbatts has a number of open but sheltered spaces, responding to their own preferred open-air lifestyle, including a sleeping balcony. Equally the repeated powerful brick piers of the Abbatt House, and the horizontal ‘photobolic screens’ between them, emphasise with their planes the continuity of space between inside and outside. The spreading horizontal of the composition is distinctly reminiscent of Wright (the plan of whose Jacobs House is illustrated in his third article) and he uses the contours of the site to create a major step in level between living and dining areas, a feature ultimately derived from Loos’s Raumplan (not illustrated), and also appearing in the Broxted House, Willow Road, and in the final Perry House.

Spatial feeling is one of the most marked and expressive features of Goldfinger’s major late works, Alexander Fleming House at the Elephant and Castle of 1958, and the Balfron and Trellick Towers and their surrounding estates, and it would have been dramatic in the Abbatt House. It was in these three articles that he first gave verbal expression to this central focus.


Oliver Wainwright, Wayne Hemingway's 'pop-up' plan sounds the death knell for the legendary Balfron Tower, The Guardian
There are few places that provide such a vivid microcosm of London’s gentrification as the Balfron Tower, Ernö Goldfinger’s concrete cliff-face in Poplar. Built as a beacon of social housing in 1968, this heroic 27-storey bookend to east London has been “decanted” of its social tenants over the last few years, to allow it to be scrubbed up and transformed into a silo of luxury flats – which will be marketed to the bankers of nearby Canary Wharf. The proceeds will go towards building low-rise social housing units nearby, in the shadow of the tower’s great heft.

The process began in 2008, and the interim period has been characterised by the usual medley of arts-led temporary uses, to distract from the sore of a vast concrete carcass lying empty. Well-meaning local arts organisation, the Bow Arts Trust, has supplied a ready flow of artists eager to fill the flats on short-term tenancies as they have been vacated, while property guardianship company, Dot Dot Dot, has filled a similar number of flats with its guardians. They pay for the pleasure of providing security, with none of the rights of being a tenant – but for the chance to live in a grade II-listed brutalist masterpiece, it’s a compromise many are willing to make.

As residents have battled their displacement, their plight has been framed against a backdrop of arts events, in a kind of live gentrification jamboree. There have been pop-up galleries and impromptu supper clubs, 24-hour theatre performances and a weekend branded as a “vertical carnival,” concluding with an architectural symposium on the roof – from which one artist also proposed to hurl a piano, before her plan was damned as an act of crass lunacy. All the usual actors of regeneration have been paraded through the building, the artist-tenants performing their valiant role as the kamikaze agents of real estate “value uplift”, enjoying a last hurrah on the deck of the brutalist Titanic.
Now this six-year carnival is coming to a head, with the momentously named Balfron Season. Running until mid-October, it is another festival of activity organised by Bow Arts, the housing association Poplar Harca (responsible for the tower and 9,000 properties in the 4 sq mile area around), and the Legacy List, the spawn of the Olympic public arts vehicle. It will see a further vibrant programme of pop-up cash-ins, from an “experimental dining experience,” featuring a six-course tasting menu for £40, to an evening of “East End bingo”. But the thing that jumps out from the usual line-up of workshops and panel discussions is an unlikely alliance with the National Trust, which will be staging its very own Poplar pop-up for the next two weeks.

Enter doyens of design nostalgia, Wayne Hemingway and his daughter Tilly, who previously refurbished the interior of Ringo Starr’s aunt’s former house in Liverpool’s doomed Welsh Streets. Now they have been called in to simulate a Balfron flat in “authentic” 1968 style. For an admission fee of £12, you can admire G-Plan tables and a floral sun-lounger, Ladderax shelving and a woven bucket chair, all stuffed into the psychedelic surroundings of op-art wallpaper and Heal’s fabrics. With period touches extending to crockery and table lamps, it looks like some supercharged Austin Powers film set.

The flat in question is No 130, where Goldfinger and his wife Ursula lived when the building first opened, holding champagne-fuelled soirees for the residents, floor-by-floor. It was in order, wrote Goldfinger, to “experience, at first hand, the size of the rooms, the amenities provided, the time it takes to obtain a lift, the amount of wind whirling around the tower and any problems which might arise from my designs so that I can correct them in the future.” The experiment lasted two months, before the architect and his wife retreated to their Hampstead nest on Willow Road (a property now also managed by the National Trust). Their stay was decried as a publicity stunt by the architectural profession – “Please come down, Ernö” was the headline printed in the Architects’ Journal – and it went on to provide the inspiration for JG Ballard’s High Rise, in which the pompous master architect lives at the top of his doomed creation, and comes to a sticky end.

But it was a pleasant sojourn for Ursula Goldfinger, and an eye-opening window on to popular taste. “Bar the complaints of draughts from some windows, heating that didn’t work, they all said the flats were lovely,” she wrote in her diary. “Those I have been into are beautifully kept, people are going to a lot of trouble to install them mostly with outrageously terrible furniture, carpets, curtains and ornaments, though I don’t think the designs of fabrics are much worse than those I see at the Design Centre.” At least the Hemingways, it seems, have been faithful to her observations.

Parodic decor aside, the two-week open flat provides an interesting glimpse into the Goldfinger dream, but there remains something deeply uncomfortable about feeding off the lost ambition of what the building once was. The Balfron’s younger brother, the Trellick Tower, across town in the much more affluent borough of Kensington, remains majority social rented, despite similar pressures. Only 36 of its 217 flats are in private hands, whereas the Balfron’s 146 flats will soon be entirely privately owned.

As Joseph Watson, programme manager at the National Trust, writes in the accompanying guide book, “Balfron Tower is the welfare state in concrete. It deserves, nay demands, our attention.” But it demands our attention precisely because it is now the zombie corpse of the welfare state, being spruced up and sold off like countless estates across London, eviscerated of its original social purpose. Now it’s become the fashionable icon of plates and cushions, brutalism is a style reserved for the few.


Mark Brown, Balfron Tower exhibition showcases Ernő Goldfinger’s brutalist talent, The Guardian 
The Seekers are on the record player, there are some Peek Frean’s Cheeselets in the kitchen, a board game of Careers laid out in the front room and incredible views of the Thames and south London.

Or there would have been 46 years ago. Today the vista is somewhat spoiled by the O2 arena, modern office blocks and the noisy A12/A13 interchange at the entrance to the Blackwall tunnel in east London.

In 1968 the man looking out from this scene would have been the architect Ernő Goldfinger, in Balfron Tower, the brutalist residential tower block that he designed as social housing.

The flat has been returned to its 60s condition by the National Trust, who will allow visitors for two weeks, beginning 1 October. The tours that will include a discussion on the development of postwar social housing.

The trust is best known for its country estates and cream teas, but also looks after Goldfinger’s modernist Hampstead house and saw the Balfron Tower pop-up as an opportunity to explore his achievements.

Flat 130 on the 24th floor of Balfron Tower in Poplar was occupied by Goldfinger and his wife, Ursula, for two months in 1968.

Joseph Watson, the trust’s London project manager, said moving in was not just good PR from Goldfinger. “He was trying to test the building – he really saw it as his empirical responsibility to test the architecture.”

It was a building Goldfinger was immensely proud of and he would invite residents over for champagne soirees to hear their views and encourage community bonding. “He was absolutely a utopian,” said Watson. “He really did believe you elevate, quite literally, the lives of people, that you could give them better lives through good design.”

The brutalist architecture is not everyone’s idea of pretty, but Watson said he would happily move in. “You can have the argument about the aesthetic outside, but from the inside looking out, with the light and floor to ceiling glass – it would have been an absolute revolution for people coming from dark and pretty unpleasant Victorian tenements.”

The flat has been given a 1968 makeover by the designer Wayne Hemingway and his daughter Tilly. So there’s a Credo Carefree cooker in the kitchen, an enormous lurid orange Calor hairdryer in the bedroom and a Staples Ladderax shelving unit in the front room.

Tilly Hemingway said she imagined the girl of the family was a nine-year-old Beatles fan, while the boy was a 15-year-old geek. His room has posters of London buses and the Small Faces while his modest LP collection includes The Seekers and records by Dusty Springfield and Cilla Black.

The Hemingways scoured auctions, markets and eBay to get the look. “It has been really good fun, hard work and stressful at times because the flat was in a bit of a state,” said Tilly. “It was covered in a 90s pattern carpet so we had to rip that up and it was fingers crossed as to what was underneath.”

She too would move in. “100% yes. I love brutalist architecture – it’s the unfussiness of it. It’s clean lines and big windows and the views. I’m not a fan of Victoriana where there’s too much fuss.”

Goldfinger is probably best known as being the man Ian Fleming so disliked that he named a villain after him. And in many eyes he is a villain for designing Balfron and the similar Trellick Tower in west London.

Both blocks became a byword for social decay, broken lifts and rampant crime. “The buildings were never maintained and cared for in the way that Goldfinger had envisaged,” said Watson.

Balfron Tower’s current landlord is the housing association Poplar HARCA, which plans to refurbish the grade two-listed building. Tenants are in the process of being rehoused; flats whose tenants don’t want to move back will be sold privately to people considerably richer than the residents Goldfinger was inviting over for drinks.

“I would certainly want to live here,” said Watson. “Definitely. I love the utopian vision and there is something interesting about the impact that architecture can have on people’s lives.

“I worry a great deal about some of the things being built simply with an eye on profit and no eye on the quality of life it gives to people.”


Loving Dalston, Brutal attack on Bow’s Balfron Tower popup
THE NATIONAL TRUST popup in a flat at the top of the concrete Balfron Tower has not gone quite as its organisers might have expected.

National newspapers initially puffed handsomely the announcement of a show-and-tell 27 floors above Poplar.

Once a few scribblers had trekked out to the nest of flats at the gates of the Blackwall Tunnel, the tone changed. The exercise was instead attacked by critics from the Right and the Left.

In The Times, for example, a Thatcheristic Oliver Moody said the Balfron was designed by a “permanently irascible” Hungarian Marxist called Ernö Goldfinger, a brutalist who dazzled local authorities in the 1960s with blueprints for soaring and cheap tower blocks.

“Finished in 1968,” noted Moody, “Balfron Tower is everything Britain hates about its postwar architecture.”

Yet the popup was a good idea. The towers were not just magnificent in their weirdness but a badly needed history lesson.

Moody went on: “The lost civilisation that made these concrete mausoleums died out only 30 years ago.”

Almost four million houses were destroyed in the Second World War, and after it, Britain fell into “a brutalist blockfest”, in which a [so-called] slum street was cleared every month.

Moody pointed out that today’s politicians promised 200,000 new houses a year; in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s era local authorities often built more than 350,000 a year.

The Times columnist concluded that Britain should learn to love its high-rises so people could muse on the architectural mistakes of the Sixties, the “age of cheap modernism”.

In The Guardian Oliver Wainwright, a trained architect, launched an attack on the decanting of local people in the face of “a kind of live gentrification jamboree”, including the Wayne and daughter Tilly Hemingway-decorated flat in 1968 style (apart from, Loving Dalston noticed, the inclusion of a book referring to famous figures of 1969).

Artist-tenants, ranted Wainwright, had performed their usual role as “kamikaze agents” of real-estate price rises. A six-year “carnival” was climaxing with the Balfron Season run by Bow Arts Trust, Poplar Harca, a housing association, and the Legacy List, “spawn” of an Olympic arts vehicle.

Wainwright said that in more affluent Kensington, only 36 of the 217 flats in Goldfinger’s companion piece, Trellick Tower, were in private hands, “whereas the Balfron’s 146 flats will soon be entirely privately owned”.

Bow Arts has invited Wainwright to a discussion entitled Cultural Regeneration or Gentrification? Tickets are free but have all been allocated.


Thomas Lane , A national treasure, Building Design
BD editor Thomas Lane applauds the National Trust’s Balfron Tower initiative

National Trust organised tours of Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower demonstrate how public perceptions of Brutalist architecture have shifted from reviled to respect.

The National Trust, more usually associated with country houses and coastlines, has created a pop-up experience in the flat lived in by its architect Erno Goldfinger for two months in 1968 to test out the desirability of high rise living. The two week programme sold out in two days.

People from all walks of life have rushed to sign up, the predictable groups of architecture students have been outnumbered by curious locals including one man who had sat gazing up at the building from the adjacent Blackwall Tunnel approach road for years and wanted to see inside.

Flat 130, on the 25th floor has been decorated by designers Tilly and Wayne Hemingway to look how it might have appeared in 1968. The three bed flat features G Plan furniture and shag pile carpet in the living room, posters of the Beatles in the girl’s bedroom and a radiogram in the boy’s bedroom. It all looks lived in with newspapers open on the table and magazines left on the floor of the children’s room.

Best of all are the views out of the window, a gritty urban mix of snaking dual carriageways and social housing from the early 20th century to now. There’s a bird’s eye view of Robin Hood Gardens with Canary Wharf and the new City towers forming the backdrop.

The building structure is in remarkably good condition but needs to be brought up to modern standards with current landlord, housing association Poplar Harca, planning a major refurbishment of the grade II listed building starting next year. Most of the tenants have been rehoused with the remaining ones due to move out at the end of the year. The bulk of the 136 flats are expected to be put up for private sale.

In the mean time, if you’ve got a ticket then you’re in for a treat.


Brownfield Estate Board listed for National Award, Say It Poplar
Poplar HARCA’s Brownfield residents estate board have been shortlisted in a national award which recognises the tremendous work they have done tackling ASB on their estate.

The Resident and Communities Award criteria was for applications which showcased positive outcomes for victims and the wider community, creative initiatives to resolve neighbourhood issues and outstanding commitment and dedication. The Brownfield estate have been shortlisted against two other finalists with the winner being revealed on November 11th at the Social Landlords Crime and Nuisance Group awards.

In the last year the Brownfield estate board have taken it upon themselves to improve community cohesion and reduce ASB in a whole host of different ways. From joint estate visits to highlight areas where repairs or estate changes could reduce the likelihood of ASB occurring, to ‘days of action’ – multi agency door knocks coordinated with Police, Fire Brigade and Youth Services where every resident was visited.

All of this has had an overwhelmingly positive impact – increasing how safe residents feel in this area up to a staggering 95%.

ASB Manager Joe Williams said: “It’s fantastic to see the hard work the board have put in recognised nationally. They have supported and worked with our team to really make a difference in the area – consistently volunteering their own free time to make sure their estate is a safer place to live.”

Brownfield estate board chair Sandra Chalmers said: “We are thrilled to have been short listed for the SLCNG award. As an estate board we have introduced Days of Action every 3 months, we walk the estate at different times throughout the day and in the evenings, we are also there for residents when and if they need us with many residents knowing us by name.”


Municipal Dreams, Balfron Tower, Poplar: imparting ‘a delicate sense of terror’
Balfron Tower is now one of the stately homes of England – a National Trust attraction no less.  Recently it’s hosted an arts season, a Shakespeare play, and it’s provided live-work accommodation for twenty-five artists since 2008.  And all that, to be honest, makes me sad because once Balfron was simply housing for the local people who needed it – although its size and style and big name architect did always get it special attention.

The site for what is currently the Brownfield Estate, in which Balfron is located, had been identified as early as 1951.  The now truncated St Leonard’s Road was one of Poplar’s principal streets; the area as a whole comprised a dense grid of old and substandard terraced housing.  The land was acquired in 1959 just as the new Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach to the east was cutting its own brutal swathe through these old streets.  In 1963, the London County Council asked Ernő Goldfinger – one of the most celebrated modernist architects of the day – to design the first buildings of the new development.

Rowlett Street Phase I, as the Balfron Tower was originally known, was built – by the LCC’s successor body, the Greater London Council – between 1965 and 1967 and officially opened in February 1968 by Desmond Plummer, leader of the GLC.

It is 26 storeys and 276 feet high – in plain construction terms, ‘an in-situ reinforced concrete cross-wall structure linked to the service tower by precast concrete bridges at every third floor’.  It contained 146 homes in all, 136 flats and 10 maisonettes.  The maisonettes were located at ground level and on the 15th floor – the latter provides the distinct break which can be seen in the otherwise uniform façade of the Tower.

The idea of a service tower had been pioneered by Denys Lasdun at Sulkin House and Keeling House in the 1950s.  Its advantage, as Goldfinger pointed out, was that ‘all noisy machines, including lift motors, water pumps, fire pumps, rubbish chutes, and the boiler house at the top, are completely insulated from the dwellings’.   Noise within the flats was also reduced ‘sideways by a 9 inch concrete wall and top and bottom by a 1 foot thick concrete floor’.  It wasn’t so easy to deal with the near-motorway just outside the block.

The service towers also contained two communal laundries and ‘hobby rooms’ for teenagers, one for table tennis or billiards and the other set aside – in language which must have been a little dated even for its time – as a ‘jazz/pop room’.  Decades later, in a rather more authentic demonstration of youth culture, the Tower was home to pirate radio stations which made good use of its commanding height.

Goldfinger hoped that the large balconies provided for each home would provide a play area for toddlers; ‘a sunken play area with slides, towers, water and a sandpit’ was located at ground level with a day nursery to follow.  He acknowledged that ‘common shopping and welfare facilities’ were lacking – as they were in so many estates in which councils understandably prioritised the immediate pressing need for roofs over heads.  This, he said, was a problem which needed to be solved on ‘a political plane’.

As for the height of the block, Goldfinger was sure this was a positive: ‘The whole object of building high is to free the ground for children and grown-ups to enjoy Mother Earth and not to cover every inch with bricks and mortar’. 

Goldfinger was a larger-than-life character (to put it kindly) and this makes it easy to conflate the building and the man and see both as somehow ‘brutal’ – more concerned with a showpiece building than the lived experience of its residents.  In fact, he recognised clearly that:

the success of any scheme depends on the human factor – the relationship of people to each other and the frame of their daily life which the building provides.

‘These particular buildings,’ he continued, ‘have the great advantage of having families with deep roots in the immediate neighbourhood as tenants’.  Of the first 160 families in the estate, most were rehoused from the immediate neighbourhood and all but two from Tower Hamlets. They tried, where possible, to rehouse former neighbours together.

Goldfinger hoped, perhaps a little optimistically, that the access galleries – he counted the number of front doors on each, 18 on seven of the levels – would form ‘“pavements” on which the normal life of the neighbourhood’ might continue ‘very similar to a “traditional East End” street’.

Those corridors weren’t exactly ‘streets in the sky’ but he saw their design as far preferable to a traditional point block where only a few flats could be arranged around a single internal corridor.

Such were the good intentions and it’s worth recounting them to remind ourselves that these Brutalist blocks were designed – above all and for all their drama – to provide good homes for ordinary people.  (The same is true of the even more heavily criticised Robin Hood Gardens estate nearby, designed by the similarly controversial Smithsons.)
In fact, it’s often the acolytes rather than the architects themselves who most deserve criticism.  There’s an astonishing amount of writing about Balfron Tower which simply fails to register that it was housing at all.

Then there are the architectural descriptions which seem to celebrate the more dramatic but arguably inhuman features of its design, reaching their nadir in this account of Balfron by Goldfinger’s former collaborator, James Dunnett:

It is as though Goldfinger, from among the Functionalist totems, had chosen as a source of inspiration the artifacts of war. The sheer concrete walls of the circulation tower are pierced only by slits; cascading down the facade like rain, they impart a delicate sense of terror.

Lynsey Hanley, perhaps unfairly critical of Balfron elsewhere, was very reasonably critical of this: ‘is living in a council flat supposed to be delicately terrifying?’

Internally, of course, the flats were spacious and airy with a quality of fixtures and fittings that very few of their residents would have enjoyed before.  And the views were wonderful.
Among the first to move in were an unusually affluent couple from Hampstead – Ernő and Ursula Goldfinger.  They moved in to flat 130 on the 25th floor (now refurbished with sixties kitsch as part of the National Trust tour), paying as was proper the full rent of £11 10s rather than the subsidised figure of £4 15s 6d due from tenants.  They stayed two months.

Goldfinger wanted:
to experience, at first hand, the size of the rooms, the amenities provided, the time it takes to obtain a lift, the amount of wind whirling around the tower and any problems which might arise so that I can correct them in future.

In next week’s post, we’ll see how that experiment went, we’ll assess how Balfron Tower succeeded as social housing for its more usual residents, and we’ll examine the twisted politics which have brought it to its current sad state.


Municipal Dreams, Balfron Tower, Poplar: ‘they all said the flats were lovely’
In last week’s post, we left Balfron Tower just as its first residents were moving in, among them the Tower’s architect, Ernő Goldfinger, and his wife, Ursula.  That affluent couple moved out after a couple of months.  It’s a cruel irony that Balfron Tower, conceived in the twentieth century as decent housing for ordinary people, will in the twenty-first become the preserve solely of the most wealthy.  How did it come to this?

Back in 1968, the champagne parties thrown by the Goldfingers for their neighbours made it easy for some to condemn their stay as a piece of show-boating by a wealthy couple who would soon return to Hampstead but Goldfinger was serious in his intention to discover the strengths and weaknesses of his design.  This is clear in his own account and in the careful notes drawn up by Ursula – even if they do smack a little of an ethnographic exercise in participant observation. 

For instance, good on detail, Ursula noticed how difficult the heavy swing doors to the bridges were for those with parcels or a pram.  And the access corridor was ‘appallingly cold in an East wind’.  These comments are tempered by her observations of the community: ‘everyone was helpful with the doors, not just to me but with each other or a child, or anyone at all’.  And that cold corridor was:

well kept, I have never seen rubbish in it at any time of day. Milk bottles are left outside the doors all day as people are at work, never turned over or broken. Some people have door mats outside, I have not yet heard that one has been stolen. This happened to me and friends of mine in Hampstead.

As regards the flats themselves, those she had visited were ‘ beautifully kept, people are going to a lot of trouble to install them mostly with outrageously terrible furniture, carpets, curtains and ornaments’ – although she did add that she didn’t think the fabric designs ‘much worse than those I see at the Design Centre’.

We might mock the condescension here and feel unsettled by her surprise that working-class people could actually behave rather well but it is worth making the point that this was a respectable and law-abiding community.  If things went wrong later, this wasn’t the result of some original sin in the building’s design.

Some of the early faults were corrected. Ernő noted copper gaskets on the windows which made a ‘trumpeting noise’ in the flats when winds were high (they were replaced) and the need for thresholds on front doors (which were added), for example.  They both noted – the eternal problem of municipal high-rise – the inadequacy of the lifts and he added an extra lift to his plans for Trellick Tower, Balfron’s sister in north Kensington completed in 1972.

In general, Balfron seems to have been popular in their early years.  According to Ursula, one woman stated of her flat that she ‘wouldn’t change it for Buckingham Palace’.  Ursula continued:

I have heard many people who live low down say they would like a flat higher up. I have heard no tenant who lives high up say they would like a flat lower down…they all said the flats were lovely…I have never heard anybody express regret for the terrace houses they have mostly come from.

But three months after the Tower’s opening Ronan Point collapsed and the love affair with high-rise was very near its end.  Moreover, Balfron would not be immune from the social and environmental problems which afflicted council estates up and down the country from the late seventies.

For those who hated high-rise and hated in particular the uncompromising architecture of Balfron, the lessons were obvious: ‘high-rise living, at its worst, can be a ghastly and isolating experience’. An intrepid reporter sent to the Tower found evidence to back this up: a 59-year old resident living alone on the top floor felt like ‘a battery chicken in a box’; he didn’t know his neighbours and had been burgled twice.  A young single mother complained, understandably, how badly being ‘cooped up in the flat all day’ was affecting her two pre-school children.

There were criticisms too of poor maintenance.  On the abolition of the GLC in 1985 the Tower was transferred to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.  Its new caretaker described it as ‘a disaster area…burnt-out cars, black soot stains, bin rooms full of old rubbish’.

For all that, Balfron was never as notorious or troubled as Trellick – the same source describes it as having ‘had a boring life’ and possessing a more stable community – and it seems to have recovered quickly.  CCTV was installed in 1990 and that caretaker later reported few problems with vandalism: ‘I know all the kids, who their mums and dads are. I’ll knock on someone’s door if I’ve seen them doing something’.

Balfron has worked, not for everyone and not all the time – not a modernist utopia for sure but a decent home to most of its residents.  It stood the test of time structurally too.  There was no experiment with system-building here and the concrete fabric is described as being ‘in good condition’ and many of the internal finishes ‘surprisingly resilient’.  That solid concrete – ‘spine walls and slabs that pass straight from the inside to the outside’ – does make for very poor thermal insulation, however, and requires substantial work to meet modern standards.

It was Grade II listed by English Heritage in 1996 and ownership was transferred to the local Poplar HARCA housing association in 2006 after one of those ‘an offer that can’t be refused’ ballots that marked the housing stock transfers from councils to housing associations of the time.  Tenants were promised new kitchens, new bathrooms, a whole range of repairs and improvements – basically the kind of necessary upgrade that local councils were financially unable to offer.

Poplar HARCA also planned to build 130 new low-rise homes on the Brownfield Estate for which Tower residents would have priority. If they moved out, their former flats would be sold to help finance the overall programme of redevelopment.

In 2010 it became clear – belatedly, it might seem – that the building’s repair and refurbishment would require all tenants to be – in that chilling bureaucratic phrase – ‘decanted’.  And the rules of the game changed.  The option for tenants to return to improved homes has been removed; all flats are now to be sold on the open market.

Poplar HARCA reckons it will spend £137,000 on each flat – an expensive job made more expensive by the need to safeguard the architectural integrity of a listed building. In December 2013 Londonewcastle, which describes itself as ‘a luxury residential property development company’, was awarded the contract to do the work.  In the words of its website:

Whether clients move to us for a hip studio, neighbourhood apartment or luxury penthouse, Londonewcastle creates inspiring, vibrant environments which combine high specification residential services with select retail, restaurant and offices.

Understandably, the City types who move in (Canary Wharf is so close) or the speculators that buy won’t want poor people sullying their space.

In the meantime, as Balfron has emptied (one or two families are still holding out), its flats have been let out to property guardians and artists.  This brings in a little income, it provides a little security but it’s hard not to see all of them as an insidious gentrifying vanguard – embedded agents of regeneration, in the words of one critical participant.

The kind of ‘urban renaissance’ proposed for areas such as Poplar nowadays rests on conspicuous consumption and the affluence of middle-class incomers.  It displaces and marginalises existing communities.  By way of contrast, look just to the west, go back sixty years, and see a different world, different priorities – the Lansbury Estate, a council estate built in 1951 to meet ‘the needs of the people’ and the model then of a better and more democratic future.

Local housing association Poplar Harca has been seeking a partner to give a new lease of life to the 145 apartments in the late-1960s brutalist block designed by architect Erno Goldfinger for the Greater London Authority. The surrounding area is to be transformed by Poplar Harca’s regeneration of the Brownfield Estate, Chrisp Street Market and Aberfeldy Village. Balfron Tower is the sister to Goldfinger’s 31-floor Trellick Tower in North Kensington. It featured in Oasis’s Morning Glory video and Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic film 28 Days Later. Image and blurb from the Londonewcastle website

‘Local housing association Poplar Harca has been seeking a partner to give a new lease of life to the 145 apartments in the late-1960s brutalist block designed by architect Erno Goldfinger for the Greater London Authority’. Image and blurb from the Londonewcastle website

Defenders of Poplar HARCA would argue they are doing their best to work the system – a sell-off of prime real estate here, some replacement social housing there.  The rules require that we sell off homes in the social rented sector to maintain the ones we have. The same rules imply that some homes are too good for ordinary people.  And, in practice, those rules break up communities and disperse too many tenants far from their original homes and neighbourhoods.

There may be some good people trying to make those rules work as effectively as possible for those that need housing.  But many more are making a quick buck and the rules need changing.  We have come to accept our society’s divisions and the exclusion of our poorest neighbours. The need to defend existing social housing and build anew has rarely been so stark.

As Balfron Tower, built to provide good quality and affordable housing for the ordinary people of the borough, is set to become a plaything of the hip and wealthy, there are 23,500 households on the waiting list for social housing in Tower Hamlets; 1500 households, officially homeless, are living in temporary accommodation.

Its sell-off is a loss of housing for those who need it most.  For the rest of us, it’s a loss of common purpose and decency.


Municipal Dreams, Social Housing as Heritage: Thoughts on the National Trust and Balfron Tower
Following a recent post on Balfron Tower, I sent a slightly snarky tweet to National Trust London.

The National Trust were offering guided tours of Balfron, climaxing in a visit to Flat 130 – the temporary home of Ernő and Ursula Goldfinger for two months in 1968.  I’d visited the Tower during London Open House myself a couple of weeks earlier and had viewed the various studios and installations of artists temporarily resident in the block before its refurbishment and sell-off to the private sector.

It was hard not to see a total process here – nothing that could be viewed as ‘regeneration’ except in its most attenuated and twisted form, rather something more akin to burial: a long good-bye to social housing dreams and aspirations, sugar-coated as is the British way with that cost-nothing deference the ruling classes give to their vanquished foes.

To be fair to the National Trust, they responded:

And a dialogue and invitation ensued to attend the Balfron tour.  Last Friday, I went along.

We started at the Spotlight Café – not, in its own words, ‘a youth club, or a youth centre’ but ‘a multi-million pound creative youth space designed to inspire’.  It’s managed by local housing association Poplar HARCA and funded by LandAid (‘the property industry charity’), British Land and the Canary Wharf Group – a £7m project designed by Astudio ‘to provide users with opportunity for leisure and skills development, helping to empower and galvanise the local community’.

It’s an interesting building and it has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?  It provides local youngsters with activities and facilities they want and, if that depends on a lot of ostentatious Corporate Social Responsibility and comes with all the market-driven jargon of ‘skills and opportunities’ and visual paraphernalia of post-modern design, so be it.  But it’s worth studying as a building of its time, perhaps as representative of a nexus of social and economic relationships as Toynbee Hall, say, in Whitechapel not far away.  Nowadays, we don’t ‘improve’ people, we ‘empower’ them but the more cynical among you might see a persistent and essential hierarchy in place.

Those observations were, not unreasonably, beyond the remit of our guide but he did mark the place – Poplar – and its place – Poplarism – in another history: a time when local councillors went to prison to defend working-class conditions and we believed change would come from below, through struggle, rather than through corporate benevolence or the generosity of the market.

We moved on to the Chrisp Street Market and the Lansbury Estate, the Festival of Britain’s 1951 model housing estate, named after the leader of that earlier revolt, George Lansbury, and built to meet the ‘needs of the people’.  All this was well-noted. The guide commented on the modesty of the architecture – rightly, of course, particularly with Balfron coming up as its antithesis – but I’d love people to appreciate the ambition of this moment and its drama.  We believed then in the possibility of collectively building a better world.  We no longer do. Even the language would embarrass most contemporary politicians.

Next we walked through the Brownfield Estate: for Owen Hatherley ‘still remarkable as an example of a time when public housing could be valued as much, or rather more, than any other form of building’.  The low-rise, designed by the Goldfinger team, is unassuming but it’s carefully crafted and well-constructed.
We noted, as we walked past, Goldfinger’s Glenkerry House –a Brutalist building which can bear the adjective proudly though Goldfinger himself disliked the term.  Its 75 flats and four maisonettes have been owned and managed by residents through the Glenkerry Cooperative Housing Association since its construction.  It would be interesting to have learnt more about why the GLC chose this model here and what its wider lessons might be.

Next, after looking at Carradale House, the third of Goldfinger’s Brownfield designs, on to the main show – Balfron Tower itself, accessed through the basement and then up the surprisingly quick but disturbingly coffin-shaped lift to the twenty-third floor.

Flat 130 has been re-created by Hemingway Design in sixties’ style.  It’s great fun, certainly the most purely enjoyable part of the tour and a beautiful exercise in nostalgia.  But it felt to me too much like pastiche – a set of sixties’ clichés and probably not (as the guide pointed out) the décor or furnishings that most of the new residents would have possessed.

There’s a telling misstep here, I think.  The National Trust invites us to study an image of the sixties – a rather hip image of a hip sixties as contemporary hipsterdom might view it.  We are safely removed from the reality of Balfron’s actual residents at this time – we don’t need to engage with real people moving from the slums; we can forget it is (or rather was) a council flat in a council block.

And we are invited – at the very least, allowed – to forget that this particular bit of council housing is being sold off to rich people.  The resident artists, the Balfron Arts Season and National Trust tours are, at minimum, complicit in this; at worst, they are its agents.

Now, to be fair to the National Trust, they come to this late in the day and they’re hardly to blame for Balfron’s demise. The guides were well-informed and interesting, good on the architecture  and sensitive to much of the local history.  The guidebook is generally excellent: well-written and illustrated with thoughtful coverage of major themes – Goldfinger himself, Brutalism and high-rise, some East End and social housing context.

But the section on ‘Balfron Now’ pulls its punches.  The ‘dynamic partnership’ of Poplar HARCA with the Bow Arts Trust is noted but its meaning is glossed over. Do middle-class artists (however much some were ‘harnessing local creativity into artistic interventions’) really contribute to the regeneration of social housing?  Isn’t this really a process of gentrification?  And the end-game of that process – the sell-off of the flats to those who can afford to buy them – isn’t mentioned.

Still, I wish I’d written these words of Joe Watson’s introduction myself:
Like it or loathe it, this was intended to be heroic architecture that offered the best of design to the masses, freed people from condemned slum housing, and elevated them – literally – to a better life.  Balfron Tower is the welfare state in concrete.  It deserves, nay demands, our attention.

But if you mark that politics you have to note our politics – the politics that has seen social housing progressively marginalised and demonised, the politics that has allowed the welfare state to be chipped away and sold off.

Let’s put this more moderately.  The National Trust doesn’t have to take sides but it should address the politics (or the social and economic context if you want to put it less scarily) – as it should address those of any of its properties.  If I’m looking at an eighteenth-century stately home, for instance, I want to hear about the Enclosure Acts that created the parkland, cleared the village, set up the ‘model farm’ in its place.  I’d like to learn about the draconian laws against poaching and the gentry and clergy which enforced them, or the investments in slavery which supported their life-styles…

In short, we need to be told what maintained all that high art and beautiful ostentation and how the building fits into the politics of the day.  When we come to the more recent history of Balfron Tower, and the more so when the Trust has to its credit chosen to celebrate mass housing rather than that of the upper classes, our duty to examine the lived reality of ordinary lives and the politics which shapes it becomes even stronger.

Who lived here?  What changed?  What’s happened to social housing, why is it being sold off? These are not incidentals to Balfron’s past and present but are central to them.  Ignore those and we’re left with a sanitised ‘heritage’ which will please the architectural aesthetes but tell us very little of its true story.


Dezeen, Brutalist buildings: Balfron Tower, London by Ernö Goldfinger 
Brutalism: a 27-storey slab block is next up in our Brutalist buildings series. As the precursor to the larger and more famous Trellick Tower, Ernö Goldfinger's Balfron Tower in east London was a testbed for the architect's utopian housing ideals.

Completed in 1967 in Poplar, alongside busy traffic artery the Blackwall Tunnel, Balfron was the first chance for the Hungarian-born architect to realise a vision for large-scale public housing that had been in development for over 30 years.

The most striking characteristic of the building is the composition of volumes that makes up its distinctive profile. Like the Trellick, its younger and larger sister, the structure consists of an apartment block and a separate lift tower, connected on every third level by bridges.

"Balfron Tower is a very sophisticated building designed by Goldfinger at the mature height of his powers," said James Dunnett, a former apprentice of the architect who now has his own practice.

"It shows a refinement of spatial and social conception and of detailed design derived from his student days in the Paris of the 1920s, that birthplace of modern art, culture and design."

Goldfinger had moved to London in the mid 1930s, following a spell in Paris under the influence of architects Auguste Perret and Le Corbusier, who went on to design the pioneering Unité d'Habitation.

Before the war Goldfinger completed a series of private houses that included his own Hampstead residence, followed by several office and school buildings. It wasn't until 1963 that he was commissioned by London County Council for his first public housing project – the initial structure for the proposed Brownfield Estate.

"With Balfron, Goldfinger was for the first time finally able to realise an idea about housing he had first exhibited at the famous Modern Architecture conference in Athens in 1933," Dunnett told Dezeen.

Reinforced concrete gives the building its rigid structural grid, which visibly frames each residence. As the bridges extend across from the elevator tower they form a series of horizontal bands across the eastern facade, offering a counterpoint to the 84-metre height.
There are no balconies on this eastern elevation, due to the presence of the dual carriageway, but Goldfinger still managed to create private outdoor space for every residence.

Most balconies can instead be found along the western facade, overlooking St Leonard's Road.

There are 146 homes overall, consisting of 136 flats and 10 two-storey maisonettes. The maisonettes occupy floors one and two, and 15 and 16, forming an obvious break in the fenestration pattern.

Internally, access corridors are only located on the bridge levels. One bedroom flats are housed on these floors, with their front doors sitting next to those of larger double-aspect units that occupy the floors directly above and below. There are six homes per storey.

The concrete elevator tower sits at the northern end of the site to accommodate laundry rooms and rubbish chutes, and features a series of vertical slit windows.

Goldfinger believed the ideas demonstrated by Balfron could offer the best of design to the masses, as an alternative to the slum housing that was still common throughout much of Britain in the 1960s.

In a letter published in the Guardian at the time he explained: "The whole object of building high is to free the ground for children and grown-ups to enjoy Mother Earth and not to cover every inch with bricks and mortar."

To prove the desirability of high-rise living to his critics, Goldfinger and his wife Ursula Blackwell moved into Flat 130 for two months in 1968 and threw a string of lavish parties.

During this time, the architect is said to have engaged with residents about the pros and cons of the scheme. The results went into his design for the more famous Trellick Tower, completed five years later in North Kensington.

"People often forget about Balfron – it's kind of stranded on the edges of east London and doesn’t have the same notorious reputation that made its larger brother, Trellick, so well known," said Andrea Klettner, who runs the blog Love London Council Housing.

"But I think the tower and the surrounding Brownfield estate form one of the most coherent sets of Brutalist buildings that are still intact in the UK," she told Dezeen.

"The tower's proportions are just right and there are so many excellent features – from the underground car park, whose ceiling is made of beautifully sculpted pre-cast concrete panels, to the well-proportioned flats with generous outside space."

Goldfinger also designed Carradale House, the second building completed on the estate. The base of both buildings is sunken down below the surrounding ground level, meaning the Balfron's main entrance is at the end of a bridge. The entrance hall is lined with green marble.

Balfron was given a Grade II heritage listing in 1996 and the surrounding estate has been given a conservation area designation. The building is now undergoing a renovation to bring its apartments up to modern housing standards, which also presented an opportunity for a month-long arts programme.

Curated by Bow Arts Trust, Balfron Season features a series of events that celebrate the life of the building and the people who have lived there. National Trust has also taken over one of the apartments – the one that Goldfinger himself lived in – and for the opening, designers Wayne and Tilly Hemingway have furnished the interior in the style of a 1968 period flat.


David Secombe, Balfronism, The London Column
From Urbanism and Spatial Order by Erno Goldfinger, 1931:
From the point of view of the town, the individual is a mere brick in the spatial order of the street or square.

Thus sprach Erno Goldfinger, doyen of the Modern Movement, Brutalist visionary, Marxist voluptuary, and namesake of James Bond’s most memorable antagonist. (The story goes that Ian Fleming was unimpressed by the house Goldfinger built for himself in Hampstead, whose construction required the demolition of some pretty Victorian cottages. In revenge, Fleming appropriated the architect’s name for 007’s next outing; Goldfinger is supposed to have considered legal action.)

Goldfinger’s most  conspicuous  buildings in London are Elephant and Castle’s Metro Central Heights (formerly Alexander Fleming House, no relation), West Kensington’s Trellick Tower, and Trellick’s almost-identical East End counterpart Balfron Tower in Poplar. Trellick and Balfron are often cited as inspirations for J.G. Ballard’s dystopian classic High Rise, wherein the denizens of an exclusive tower block turn feral.

To some extent, Trellick Tower saw this narrative played out in reverse. Commissioned in 1967 as social housing for the London County Council, upon completion in 1972 Trellick quickly became a ‘problem’ estate. There was talk of demolition, it became a byword for urban grit (name-checked in The Sweeney no less) – but, facilitated by the gentrification of seedy/glamorous West London and an increased appreciation of the charms of ‘mid-century modern’, the tower gradually became a suitable address for aspirational professionals, and was Grade II listed in 1998 – two years after Balfron was. 

Now it is east London’s turn. Balfron appeared first, topped-out in 1967 in an environment even more forbidding than old West Kensington. The location is still uncompromising: Balfron abuts the churning A12, feeding the Blackwall Tunnel just two hundred yards to the south. This piece of civic engineering affords majestic views of Balfron from the east and south but blights the lower floors facing the motorway. Balfron’s unprecedented height, hammered concrete finish, and stand-alone service tower with flying corridors and arrow-slit windows combine to give it a distinctly pugnacious aspect. The overall impression is of an urban fortress – a building fit to shelter the last bastions of humanity against marauding zombies (a role it plays in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later).

Balfron and its sister block, low-rise Carradale House (also by Goldfinger), are relics of a lost civic culture. There was a time not that long ago when modernity was a form of social utopianism. The East End had been blitzed, the residual housing stock was seen as Dickensian, and a clean, futuristic solution (Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Docklands) was an irresistible prospect for the ambitious bods at the LCC.

Balfron Tower was a brave project, and it took a fearless architect to see it through. It was intended to herald a dawn of new, better housing. Its flats meander up and down different levels, and the interiors are full of sensitive detailing. Goldfinger himself spent two months living in one of its penthouse flats, to evaluate the building; this led to important technical variations at Trellick when it was built a few years later. Amongst other things, he made sure Trellick had three lists instead of just two, after finding himself waiting twenty minutes for a lift to Balfron’s 27th floor.

Faced with accusations that his building constituted social engineering, he was robust: ‘I have created nine separate streets, on nine different levels, all with their own rows of front doors. The people living here can sit on their doorsteps and chat to the people next door if they want to. A community spirit is still possible even in these tall blocks, and any criticism that it isn’t is just rubbish.’ 

For all its elegance, sincerity, attention to detail, and integrity of construction, Balfron suffers from design flaws which mitigate the modernist dream: the lifts don’t serve every floor, concrete decay is an issue, and the uninsulated solid walls suffer from heat loss. However, the East End is being relentlessly gentrified, and Balfron is about to be transformed into a block fit for the well-heeled and design-conscious (let us call them hipsters). The old tenants have been decanted elsewhere for the works to begin, and before the tower gets its upscale makeover, Balfron has become a sort of temporary sink estate for artists – this in response to special cheap deals on the rent – who are softening the place up for a bourgeois and executive future.

The accepted rubric is that the artists ‘inject new life into communities’; and in recent times Balfron has itself become something of an installation. In 2010 it hosted an ‘empowering’ photographic project, and this year has seen, amongst other things, a site-specific production of Macbeth, not to mention a bid by a Turner-prize nominated artist to throw a piano off its roof (abandoned after protests from residents that someone could get killed).

All this corporately-licensed conceptual ‘playfulness’ masks the fact that an important piece of public housing is being very deliberately annexed by the private sector. No longer a vision of better housing for a better future, Balfron is now the deadest of things: a design icon, a beacon for those who crave tokens of retro-urbanism. Owen Hatherley has coined the term ‘Gormleyism’ to describe the use of Antony Gormley’s solitary figures as cultural embroidery in bland civic developments; perhaps ‘Balfronism’ will become shorthand for the use of artists en masse as a form of social cleansing.

The patina of time makes quaint what was once brave, difficult, or merely awful. It won’t be long before ‘Ballardian’ is a term used by estate agents. 


David Secombe, Balfron Remebered, The London Column
Katy Evans-Bush:
Balfron Tower. I love it. It anchors Poplar, it looms over the A12 just by the Blackwall Tunnel approach, and it seems to defend that whole end of Tower Hamlets. In the evenings, when the sun reaches a certain point, it glows golden. You couldn’t help but find it beautiful, its slightly Escher-esque planes and shapes and perspectives changing with the weather and the light, its strange humanity, its arrow-slit windows. Just as the now-demolished gasometers in Stepney did, it casts its grandeur over everything around.

Poor Balfron suffers the slings and arrows of public disgust towards its whole genre. People think ‘the New Brutalism’ is called that just because it’s brutal, but in fact, it’s a play on the French term ‘béton brut’, for raw concrete. It’s easy to forget now that when this architecture went up, it was intended to make life better for people. Goldfinger referred to its corridors as ‘streets in the sky’, and the plan included incredibly optimistic landscaping: Balfron has private yards for the bottom flats, mature trees and shrubberies shielding it from the A12, and light coming at it from all directions. Its flats meander up and down levels, and have balconies and stupendous views.

A website by a Trellick Tower resident, Chris Paulsen, gives the flavour of its aspirations towards good living:
The flats themselves are large by tower-block standards, & packed with space-saving devices. … Doors of wood & glass slide rather than open out, & can be used to partition certain parts of each flat. Glass is plentiful in order to let in as much natural light as possible… Adjoining the main tower is a service tower. This incorporates lifts, stairs, & refuse chutes, as well as a boiler house. The lifts stop at every third floor, meaning that in some flats the bedrooms are above, & in some below, the entrance level. The flats have large balconies which, if you are high enough up, offer views across the North Downs.

My own personal knowledge of Balfron Tower reached its zenith in 2001, when, as a publicity officer for Tower Hamlets’ housing department, I toured the place with a deputation from Trellick Tower, and a member of its resident management committee. The reason they were visiting was very simple: Trellick was in trouble and needed a major overhaul. (The figure given at the time was £9m to get it up to its original standard.) Balfron and Trellick are ‘sister buildings'; Goldfinger learned some lessons from Balfron, but by 2001 they were like twins raised separately.

Trellick had, being in (even if only north) Kensington, been gentrified while the East End was still thought of as a wild space. Its tenants were that bit more prosperous, and more able to get mortgages, and had bought their flats under Right to Buy. However, many new owners didn’t have the money to maintain the flats – or else they did have the money, and took out original features. Kensington’s reputation for affluence got in the way of attempts to secure funding. They had a vandalism problem, and some of the original features – such as the marble that had been in the entry area – had been stolen. The building had been designed to have a concierge but for many years it never had one. No one was – literally – keeping an eye on things. It was in a bad spot.

Balfron, by contrast, had had a boring life, with tenants instead of leaseholders, and with several rounds of major works on it – new windows, for example, and new asphalt in the external linking walkways. It also had more of its original features, like the quarry tiles lining the corridors – different colours on different floors – and its flats had more of their original fittings – for example their bakelite light switches instead of Thatcherite gold-look ones. And Balfron had had one asset money can’t buy: it had had one very hands-on, community-spirited caretaker for almost twenty years.

I interviewed Irvine Gallagher, otherwise known as Jock, for the council’s newspaper, East End Life, around the time of this tour of the block. (I knew him a bit to have a drink with; when I rang him to suggest the interview, there was a long silence, and then he growled: ‘IN THE PUB.’) He told me, ‘When we took over this estate from the good old GLC it was a disaster area. Burnt-out cars, black soot stains, bin rooms full of old rubbish’.

‘No one knows as much as me about Balfron Tower’, he said. ‘I know how the whole building works, where everything is. I’ve had calls from housing management, architects, heating engineers. They wanted to put in new central heating but it’s listed, they couldn’t run the gas pipes up the outside – I identified where the cupboards were, and internal routes where they could run their pipes. I know how the flats fit together, this one on one level, this one on two – I always know where the water’s coming from’.

Jock was a people person, though, as well as being able to do 3D mental mapping. ‘I know everything that happens here’, he said. ‘Everybody knows me and I know everybody . I know all the kids, who their mums and dads are. I’ll knock on someone’s door if I’ve seen them doing something. Nine times out of ten people are grateful and say they didn’t know their kid was doing whatever.

‘But there isn’t much vandalism. We’ve got CCTV, and if a kid is doing something we can see them. We call out the window, “Smile for the camera!” You should see them run!’
Happy days. Also around the time of this interview, Jock had to apply for his job, as the council was bringing in ‘super-caretakers’ – a sort of Blairite caretaker-manager position. I spoke to him right after his interview and he said it had gone really badly. It lasted five minutes.

Five minutes! What went wrong?? ‘Well what was I supposed to do’, he growled down the phone. ‘Spend an hour talking about fucking BLEACH.’

So the job went to someone else, and Jock became an under-caretaker, and I heard last year that he had recently passed on.

My other personal connection with Balfron Tower is that when I was working in that job, my marriage had broken up and my children and I were living in adorable but extreme overcrowding in a wisteria-garlanded one-bedroom flat in Hackney. Things were difficult, and at just this juncture a flat came on the market in Balfron Tower for something like £37,900. But Balfron was in Poplar, and my kid were in school in Stoke Newington, and you couldn’t raise a mortgage in Poplar (or a tower block) to save your life, and I had no savings at all… In one corner of my brain I have always lived there.

I left that job few months after the Balfron tour and the interview with Jock, and have no idea how Balfron Tower fell into the situation it’s in today. It’s about to have the makeover of a lifetime, which will also catapult it into a new social class. Indeed, as life imitates art, the millennial city imitates the famous ‘I Love My Life as a Dickhead’ video, wherein the hipsters have taken over Trellick Tower. For with the ensuing works, and the the huge project of decanting all of Balfron’s tenants underway, Balfron’s flats have been let all year at cheap rents to artists, to keep the place full – and, presumably, soften up a tiny little social transformation.

Balfron went to sleep as a brave and plucky social housing experiment; is currently dreaming a strange technicolor dream; and will wake up, what only feels like a lifetime later, a princess.

And it’s some slight consolation to know that, if I had bought that flat all those years ago, I’d have a big headache just about now.


Peter Murray, London Society Visits Balfron
I am indebted to Susan Holder who organised the trip to Balfron Tower and sent this report.

In the 1960’s, modernist architect Erno Goldfinger lived for a short time in a flat in his 27-storey  Balfron Tower in Poplar so that he could get to know the residents and canvas their opinions of his building. Sometimes he would invite them over for a glass or two of champagne and more than 50 years later, on August 20th, the London Society invited members to a get together in another flat on the 24th floor of Balfron Tower but this time a more contemporary tipple was served – a glass of prosecco!


Ian Martin: My ten favourite bits of London, Architects’ Journal
8. Balfron Tower
The scruffy version of Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower. I used to know someone who lived there and it was a pretty frightening place to visit. I’m sure it’s got a Trellick-level hipster quotient now. To be honest, it’s seeing it on the skyline I like most. Still so shocking and futuristic. Also, it was designed for and built by the GLC, in the days when more than half the architectural profession was in public service. What a monument to those days of a thriving public sector.


Sam Jacob, ‘Exploring a century of ideas about housing with the AA Night School’, Architects’ Journal
Winding through the low-rise streets of the Lansbury Estate, we come to the majestic slab of the Balfron Tower, Erno Goldfinger’s pixelated cliff-face that stands as an East-End mirror to his Trellick Tower in the west, together book-ending the city like stately concrete robots. It contains a stack of 136 flats and 10 maisonettes, these two-storey units articulated on the 16th floor as a horizontal ribbon, like a distinctive cummerbund around the building’s portly girth.

When the tower opened in 1967 Goldfinger himself moved in for two months, holding champagne-fuelled soirées at the top of the building, like Ballard’s doomed architect in High Rise. Built as social housing by the GLC, the democratic vision is now coming to an equally sticky end: the Balfron is soon to be scrubbed up by Studio Egret West and sold off as high-end private flats.


Tower block tours give 'Brutalism' a closer look, Times of Oman
The National Trust is the keeper of Britain's stately homes and coastal walks, its army of elderly volunteers sustaining visitors with tea and cakes. Starting this week, it will also offer tours of a 1960s concrete tower block in east London.

The 27-storey Balfron Tower in Poplar is being refurbished after decades of neglect as a wave of gentrification spruces up former housing estates and casts a fresh eye on once-derided designs.

"It's not beautiful," conceded Joseph Watson, programme director of National Trust London, as he surveyed the spectacular views from the top floor across nearby Canary Wharf, with the Millennium Dome and the Shard in the distance.

The imposing grey block is a leading example of so-called Brutalist architecture, a post-war style named after the French word "brut", in reference to the raw concrete that figured boldly in its designs.

Built by architect and designer Erno Goldfinger, the tower was the first fulfilment of his dream of a new form of social housing -- clean, open and modern.

James Bond creator Ian Fleming famously hated Goldfinger's designs, naming one of his villains after him in apparent disgust.

The trust acknowledges that the 47-year-old tower, with its separate lift shaft attached by eight mid-air walkways, is not everybody's idea of a heritage property.

But Watson insisted the building, which was listed as a conservation site in 1996, should be celebrated as much as Britain's country estates and churches.

To do so, the trust is holding a fortnight of tours of the top floor flat in which Goldfinger lived, refurbished in period style, as well as the surrounding estates.

"This was heroic architecture, this was architecture that was trying to stand up and be counted," Watson told AFP.

Looking up at the tower from the balcony of his flat in Carradale House, a smaller social housing estate next door that was also designed by Goldfinger, resident John Boardman said it was "marvellous" the trust was taking an interest.

"Over the years, I've thought they ought to pull it down or put a bomb under it. But it's an icon," said the unemployed 56-year-old, sipping a mug of tea. 

'Utopian dream' 
Goldfinger and his wife lived in Flat 130 for two months in 1968 to prove the desirability of high-rise living, inviting local residents to champagne-fuelled parties.

The flat has now been refitted in intricate Sixties detail as if home to a couple and their two children, complete with a Beatles poster on the girl's bedroom wall.

"It's an incredible part of design history," said the designer, Tilly Hemingway.

She highlighted Goldfinger's attention to detail, such as the planting box fitted into the balcony, and the generously proportioned rooms, as examples of how Balfron Tower was at the cutting edge of housing design in the 1960s.

The original residents came from surrounding slums that were made uninhabitable after the bombing in World War II, and many were given modern, well-equipped flats, organised so they lived near their old neighbours.

Watson said it was all part of a "utopian dream". 

"Of course it doesn't work out in the long run, but it does feel like it's a very important moment for us to re-examine and to celebrate," he said.

'Luxury housing' 
A landmark of east London -- just as its sister building the Trellick Tower is to west London -- Balfron Tower is a popular backdrop to music videos and movies, including Danny Boyle's horror movie "28 Days Later".

It stands among other major Brutalist designs from the 1950s to 1970s, including the looming J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington, DC, the High Court of Australia and the Philippine International Convention Center.

The Balfron Tower declined in the 1980s and 1990s, the building neglected and its halls stalked by drug dealers, and is now set for a major refurbishment.

Most of the state-subsidised residents have been moved out and all 146 flats are set to be redeveloped and sold off, according to the local housing association.

Those involved in the National Trust tours acknowledge the irony of the imminent end of Goldfinger's dream of low-cost, well-designed housing.

"I don't fully agree with selling it all off privately, especially as I've heard about it being luxury housing," said Hemingway.

"Erno would probably turn in his grave a bit hearing those words."


Northern Ireland’s Social Development Minister Visits Poplar HARCA on Fact Finding Tour
Nelson McCausland, Northern Ireland’s Minister for Social Development, visited Poplar HARCA on Wednesday 9 April.

The fact finding tour was an opportunity to see Poplar HARCA’s £1.7 billion resident-led regeneration programme in action.

The tour included visits to Chrisp St Market, the UK’s first pedestrian shopping centre, currently benefiting from a regeneration and arts and culture programme; The Spotlight Centre, a new multi-media creative space for young people; The Aberfeldy Village, a new 1,174 home development and the iconic Balfron Tower, designed by architect Erno Goldfinger.

[The article is accompanied by an photograph of Nelson McCausland, Northern Ireland’s Minister for Social Development, and Steve Stride, Poplar Harca CEO, pointing over the dockland landscape below in a seeming reenactment of Desmond Plummer, Conservative Leader of the GLC doing the same with Ernö Goldfinger 46 years earlier.]


Mike Brooke, Sir Ranulph Fiennes names modest East End OAP Tom Gleed Britain’s ‘greenest tenant’, East London Advertiser
Tom relaxes in garden he helped create on Poplar's Brownfield EstateTom relaxes in garden he helped create on Poplar's Brownfield Estate

He was declared ‘Green Tenant of the Year’ by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, one of the world’s greatest living explorers.

The modest grandfather from Poplar’s Teviot Estate beat off competition from 100 other nominations from all over the country to take the title for transforming a community space into a thriving, sustainable garden.

But the accolade took the modest 69-year-old pensioner by surprise at the Chartered Institute of Housing awards.

“I was totally in shock,” Tom admitted afterwards. “They had to call my name out twice—I was stuck to my seat.

“Things like this don’t normally happen to people round here, so winning a national award is something I’ll always remember.”

Some 500 VIPs and guests were packed in the prestigious Lancaster Hotel awards night to cheer Tom as he was named UK’s ‘top tenant’.

His award was decided by a public vote first reported in the East London Advertiser when he found himself shortlisted in September.
It was a thank-you from the people of Poplar for all his work on his neighbouring Brownfield housing estate, such as digging out a wildlife pond and building “a palatial chicken coop” for 10 rescued battery hens.

“We had chickens when I grew up in Poplar High Street,” he recalls. “I love the thought that we saved these ex-battery birds.”

He was nominated for the award by Poplar Harca housing association which runs Brownfield Estate.

“I don’t like being at the forefront like this,” he shyly admits. “I just get on with it.

“I’m here every day, New Year, Christmas, and just enjoy it.”

The father-of-three grown-up children, whose own balcony garden on the Teviot Estate won first prize at last year’s ‘Tower Hamlets in Bloom’ contest, spent his working life refitting naval and other vessels, often finding himself aboard making repairs while at sea.

His last major job at Graving Dock at Millwall, on the Isle of Dogs, was refitting helicopter landing platforms on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s original Sir Galahad support ship in 1977, which was later sunk in the 1981 Falklands conflict—all Tom’s work destroyed in an instant by an Argentine Exocet missile!

“I was very upset when I heard Sir Galahad went down,” he remembers. “We spent months fitting out that ship. It was a big contract.”

Now he takes on a different battle—to keep the Brownfield Estate next to the Blackwall Tunnel green, to everyone’s delight who voted for him.


& Answers

Who lives in Balfron Tower?


Oliver Wainwright, Wayne Hemingway's 'pop-up' plan sounds the death knell for the legendary Balfron Tower, The Guardian
Built as a beacon of social housing in 1968, this heroic 27-storey bookend to east London has been “decanted” of its social tenants over the last few years, to allow it to be scrubbed up and transformed into a silo of luxury flats – which will be marketed to the bankers of nearby Canary Wharf. The proceeds will go towards building low-rise social housing units nearby, in the shadow of the tower’s great heft.

The process began in 2008, and the interim period has been characterised by the usual medley of arts-led temporary uses, to distract from the sore of a vast concrete carcass lying empty. Well-meaning local arts organisation, the Bow Arts Trust, has supplied a ready flow of artists eager to fill the flats on short-term tenancies as they have been vacated, while property guardianship company, Dot Dot Dot, has filled a similar number of flats with its guardians. They pay for the pleasure of providing security, with none of the rights of being a tenant – but for the chance to live in a grade II-listed brutalist masterpiece, it’s a compromise many are willing to make.


Municipal Dreams, Balfron Tower, Poplar: imparting ‘a delicate sense of terror’
Balfron Tower is now one of the stately homes of England – a National Trust attraction no less.  Recently it’s hosted an arts season, a Shakespeare play, and it’s provided live-work accommodation for twenty-five artists since 2008.  And all that, to be honest, makes me sad because once Balfron was simply housing for the local people who needed it – although its size and style and big name architect did always get it special attention.


Municipal Dreams, Balfron Tower, Poplar: ‘they all said the flats were lovely’
It’s a cruel irony that Balfron Tower, conceived in the twentieth century as decent housing for ordinary people, will in the twenty-first become the preserve solely of the most wealthy.

In the meantime, as Balfron has emptied (one or two families are still holding out), its flats have been let out to property guardians and artists.  This brings in a little income, it provides a little security but it’s hard not to see all of them as an insidious gentrifying vanguard – embedded agents of regeneration, in the words of one critical participant.

What have others said about Balfron Tower?


Ian Martin: My ten favourite bits of London, Architects’ Journal
8. Balfron Tower
The scruffy version of Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower. I used to know someone who lived there and it was a pretty frightening place to visit. I’m sure it’s got a Trellick-level hipster quotient now. To be honest, it’s seeing it on the skyline I like most. Still so shocking and futuristic. Also, it was designed for and built by the GLC, in the days when more than half the architectural profession was in public service. What a monument to those days of a thriving public sector.


Sam Jacob, ‘Exploring a century of ideas about housing with the AA Night School’, Architects’ Journal
Winding through the low-rise streets of the Lansbury Estate, we come to the majestic slab of the Balfron Tower, Erno Goldfinger’s pixelated cliff-face that stands as an East-End mirror to his Trellick Tower in the west, together book-ending the city like stately concrete robots. It contains a stack of 136 flats and 10 maisonettes, these two-storey units articulated on the 16th floor as a horizontal ribbon, like a distinctive cummerbund around the building’s portly girth.

When the tower opened in 1967 Goldfinger himself moved in for two months, holding champagne-fuelled soirées at the top of the building, like Ballard’s doomed architect in High Rise. Built as social housing by the GLC, the democratic vision is now coming to an equally sticky end: the Balfron is soon to be scrubbed up by Studio Egret West and sold off as high-end private flats.