It was good to get a chance to visit a recreation of a flat in Balfron Tower, in Poplar, east London, last month. The building was designed by Erno Goldfinger and opened in 1968. It was open to limited tours for a couple of weeks through the National Trust and Bow Arts Trust at the start of October, when I visited, and they added more tours at the end of the month. I heard about it through the Twentieth Century Society and quickly bought a ticket before they sold out – but in my haste to snap up one of the few tickets to visit the flat, I didn’t look into the circumstances of the project, and my experience of the tour and some later reading left me feeling that the views from the flat were the only things that were really clear and untarnished.
The tour was billed as a chance to see inside the tower. More specifically, they recreated a period design for the interior of flat 130, where the Goldfingers had lived for a few months when the building opened – although not as a recreation of the Goldfingers’ home (more on the decor later).
Our group of 10 had instructions to meet the two tour guides – National Trust volunteers – at Langdon Park DLR station nearby and we stopped briefly (and unexpectedly) at a few other places of architectural interest along the way. Initially we were told how widespead destruction from World War 2 bombing, combined with slum clearance, led to post-war opportunities for social housing in the area.
The Lansbury Estate
From afar we saw the Lansbury Estate – named after the early 20th-century progressive Labour politician and social reformer George Lansbury, who had lifelong links with Poplar – it was originally built as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, with different buildings left in progressive states of completion during the Festival period to show the construction.
The estate was one to come out of the Abercrombie plan for post-war London and was designed as a model neighbourhood and the Architecture, Town Planning, and Building Research element of the Festival. The National Trust guide to the Balfron Tower tour says:
“Designed not just to solve a housing problem, but to create a self-sustaining community with all the amenities it needed, the Lansbury Estate (1950s) would later be supplemented by the neighbouring Brownfield Estate (1960s), of which the Balfron Tower remains a major part, and Robin Hood Gardens (1970s) by the husband-and-wife architects Alison and Peter Smithson. In this regard, the Lansbury Estate and subsequent developments arguably represent the most important architectural timeline of post-war social housing in London, if not Europe.”
A visit to the estate wasn’t part of the tour and there wasn’t time afterwards but I’d like to return for a proper look. Especially as the guide put it in that context, and I’m familiar with Robin Hood Gardens already. (In fact – I wrote about it as part of my dissertation. If I can dig it out I will revisit it for a blog post.)
The Brownfield Estate
Next stop on the tour was the Brownfield Estate – specifically, some low-rise homes that the tour guides said were also designed by Goldfinger with some similarities to the homes he designed on Willow Road in Hampstead (2 Willow Road is the Goldfingers’ former home and is managed by the National Trust too, but unlike Balfron is permanently owned by them).
I wasn’t expecting the tour to involve so many stops, or in fact any other buildings than Balfron Tower. I felt quite uncomfortable stopping in a big group outside people’s homes – this was compounded by the tour leaders saying that some residents had complained about people on previous tours peering into their windows, leaving them feeling like exhibits or zoo animals. I wasn’t sure why these complaints hadn’t been taken more seriously than to just include a plea from the tour leaders for us to not peer in windows ourselves. I would have preferred to visit only Balfron Tower; at points I felt our group were conspicuous tourists and sometimes just simply in the way, clogging up the pavements. I felt even more uncomfortable when I read more about the redevelopment and eviction issues later.
We then passed Glenkerry House, a residential tower on the estate, the final design here by Goldfinger and more clearly akin to Balfron. Interestingly, this is now a housing cooperative and so not owned by Poplar HARCA, the housing association that currently owns Balfron Tower, neighbouring Carradale House tower, and many other properties in the local area.
Carradale House – and first hints at evictions
We then stopped outside Carradale House tower, where we had the final piece of background information of the tour before entering Balfron itself. Here we were told that residents of Carradale had specifically asked tour groups not to take photos – and the information from the tour guides, often sketchy, alluded to the removal of tenants from Balfron as part of the partnership between local housing association Poplar HARCA and the Bow Arts Trust. Again, it left me feeling uncomfortable. I found this disturbing interview with an evictee after the visit – and I wish I had read this review on the Guardian website beforehand too, as it sets out the circumstances of the development, as well as decisions around the evictions and ultimate outcome of providing no social housing within Balfron Tower – all at odds with the original aims of the tower to be social housing to keep neighbours together and create communities.
The recreation of flat 130’s interior was led by Hemingway Design and was based on what they felt a more typical family would have chosen after the Goldfingers moved out.
However, it felt like, in an attempt to be everyday, they’d overdone the kitsch to the point where it was a bit distracting.
For example, this was one of the more restrained room designs:
And I would have bet money on at least one painting like this being included in the Hemingway design:
It’s a shame the overwhelming interior design distracted from the feel you could have got for the spaces themselves. But on the consistently excellent Municipal Dreams blog, when discussing the observations made by Ursula Goldfinger about her time living in Balfron Tower, the writer makes the following fair points about attitudes to style and class, and how easily tower-block residents and tower-block design are wrongly written off or blamed for problems:
“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.”
This is in the second of two great posts about Balfron Tower – part one is about the design and development of the building, and part two is about the building from its opening to the present. In a typically balanced, thoughtful, well-researched and interesting blog post (in this case, again part two on Balfron), the writer clarifies that the initial intent to allow social tenants to return to Balfron after refurbishment was changed to a decision to sell all the flats privately:
“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.”
(The Municipal Dreams blog is really worth reading and following – and by coincidence, the first post, from January 2013, is also about Poplar and mentions George Lansbury.)
So on the day of the tour, feeling a little disquiet from the intruding on the estate and unsure (yet) of the fate of the building and its residents, with only a little time in the end to actually have a look around flat 130, and with the interior crowded with kitsch, we couldn’t help being drawn to the expansive views from the windows and balcony.
The views were amazing, clear across London in three directions, helped by some brilliant light that afternoon.
In the near distance you can see another great Brutalist social housing estate, Robin Hood Gardens, completed by the Smithsons a few years after Balfron, using a lower, longer model for a ‘streets in the sky’ development than Goldfinger’s tower did.
Not all the views were quite so inspiring:
Just before we had to leave, there was time to duck back into the kitchen and get one last photo from its window, looking west across London at some more recent towers in the distance.
Update – December 2014
Someone has set up a Twitter account @BalfronSocial, calling for at least 50% social housing in the redeveloped Balfron Tower, and sharing an initial statement of intent along with articles, blog posts and other media of interest. Worth following – and I hope the campaign has similar success to the New Era estate campaign victory.