‘The council tenants weren’t going to be allowed back’: how Britain’s ‘ugliest building’ was gentrified | Architecture
A dizzying dining deck crowns the summit of the newly renovated Balfron Tower in Poplar, east London, perched like a crow’s nest on top of the brutalist concrete lift shaft. Floating almost 30 storeys up in the air, with spectacular views across the city, it marks the apex of a new dedicated tower of leisure facilities. Inside what was once the building’s service core and boiler house, connected to the flats by glazed bridges, there is now a cinema, library, gym, yoga space and music room, as well as a whole floor dedicated to table tennis.
It sounds like the kind of lively, communal vision for high-rise living that Hungarian-born architect Ernő Goldfinger imagined when he first designed the building in 1963, as part of the wider Brownfield estate of council homes on this slum clearance site. “The success of any scheme depends on the human factor,” he said, “the relationship of people to each other and the frame of their daily life which the building provides.”
As a committed Marxist, he intended his great concrete castle to provide exactly that kind of social frame for everyone, from all walks of life. He included rooms for table tennis and billiards, a “jazz/pop room” as well as a hobby room designed with older residents in mind. As far as possible, families were rehoused in the tower street by street, in an attempt to retain the neighbourly bonds along the new “streets in the sky”, designed like “East End pavements,” Goldfinger said, “on which the normal life of the neighbourhood continues”.
Almost 60 years later, Balfron’s streets have been scrubbed up and the residents’ facilities turbo-charged, but the kind of community that Goldfinger imagined has long since been evicted. In one of the most high-profile examples of a cash-strapped housing association flogging off a desirable tower block to pay for new homes nearby – and using resident artists to raise the property values in the process – the 146 flats have been gutted and gussied up to be sold to wealthy buyers. Where once Balfron looked out over declining docks, it now winks across the Thames at the towers of Canary Wharf, whose bankers are a target audience for the new flats, which went on sale this weekend.
“We’ve had a phenomenal amount of interest,” says Elliot Tucker of the developer Londonewcastle as he shows me around the building, alongside a couple of Notting Hill estate agents who specialise in selling villas in Ibiza. “It’s mostly coming from young first-time buyers in east London, as well as some affluent architects looking for a trophy property.”
He says that one such architect has his heart set on flat 130 on the top floor. The reason? It is the very apartment where Goldfinger himself once lived with his wife, Ursula, when they moved into the building for two months in 1968 as a social experiment, hosting champagne parties to gather feedback from residents. The response was mostly positive, and Goldfinger used some of the lessons, including adding an extra lift, to inform the design of his taller Trellick Tower, built in west London in 1972. “Bar the complaints of draughts from some windows, heating that didn’t work, they all said the flats were lovely,” Ursula wrote in her diary during their Balfron stay. “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.”
As part of the refurbishment, flat 130 has been designated as one of six “heritage” apartments, preserving the original layout and colour scheme, with some period fixtures added to match the originals. A high-cistern pull-chain toilet stands next door to an enamel steel bath (in separate rooms, as they were), while the kitchen features stainless steel worktops and vintage taps sourced from eBay, so brutalism fans can cosplay at being the Goldfingers. Tucker says the flat in question is being held back for now, and will probably be sold to the highest offer through sealed bids – an ironic fate for the champagne socialists’ penthouse.
More than 1,200 interested buyers have already signed up, but Balfron hasn’t always been so desirable. When it opened in 1968, commissioned by the London County Council as one of the tallest towers in Europe, there was an immediate vocal backlash. “Although perversely beautiful,” wrote Terence Bendixson in the Guardian in 1969, the tower “conjures up thoughts of prisons and pillboxes. Here, too, vandalism is setting in.” Goldfinger was typecast as a megalomaniac, imposing dangerously foreign ideas on Britain – a reputation that was amplified by the James Bond author Ian Fleming naming his monstrous Soviet villain after him . It didn’t much help that even the building’s fans hailed its aggressive, alienating form. “It is as though Goldfinger, from among the Functionalist totems, had chosen as a source of inspiration the artefacts of war,” wrote his former colleague James Dunnett in 1983. “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.”
While the flats were enjoyed by most of their residents, the maintenance and upkeep of the tower plummeted after the dissolution of the Greater London Council (the LCC’s successor) in the 1980s, when it was taken over by Tower Hamlets council. Its new caretaker described it as “a disaster area … burnt-out cars, black soot stains, bin rooms full of old rubbish,” and it became a focus for vandalism and drug use in the 1990s. “The Balfron Tower gives Poplar a final mugging,” wrote Simon Jenkins in the Times in 2000. “Its footings are a no-go area for humanity. Trash, chicken-wire and graffiti abound. The tower is without charm or visual diversion. It makes Wormwood Scrubs seem like the Petit Trianon. Poverty is not Poplar’s curse. The curse is architecture.”
Two years on, the building provided an apocalyptic film set for the zombie horror movie 28 Days Later, and by 2014, it was branded “Britain’s ugliest building” by the Mirror. Yet, the very same year, the National Trust opened a pop-up flat in the tower, with retro interiors styled by Wayne Hemingway, charging visitors £12 a time to sample the vintage timewarp. It was a sign that, outside the tabloid hatred of postwar modernism, the popular tide was turning to embrace Balfron’s brutalist aesthetics. With its striking form emblazoned on tote bags, cushions and coffee cups, just like Trellick (which remains predominantly council housing) and the Barbican (which never was), the building took on a marketable image that transcended its original social purpose. Egalitarian quotes from Goldfinger are proudly printed on the construction hoardings, and the marketing suite is something of a Goldfinger shrine, despite the luxury flats bearing no relation to his aims.
Given that the development’s chief selling point is Balfron’s status as a beloved icon of brutalism, and that many of the potential buyers are likely hardcore fans, it is strange that, apart from the six “heritage” units, all of the flats have been completely stripped of their original details. In the hands of lead architects Studio Egret West, working with Ab Rogers Design, the partition walls have been removed to create open-plan living spaces, of a kind familiar to most new-build apartment blocks, while the fixtures and fittings reflect generic contemporary taste, with some faintly retro touches.
The flats designed by Rogers are a little more quirky, with red bathroom ceilings and oversized tiles, while the other half, by Egret West, opt for cork bedroom floors and terrazzo splash-backs. But both could be anywhere. The sole reminder that you are in a brutalist landmark is a ghoulish plant stand, to be given to new buyers, made from little concrete cylinders that were drilled out of the building during structural testing. It’s like mutilating an old friend and putting their dismembered limbs on show.
Outside the flats, in the common areas of the building, the architects have dutifully restored the original finishes as far as possible, sourcing similar coloured tiles for the walls of the different streets, and rich green marble for the entrance lobby. An exception is the new door numbers: typographers may have a heart attack when they see the jaunty curves of what looks suspiciously like Comic Sans (but which turns out to be a custom designed font by Ryan Gander, based on Ursula Goldfinger’s handwriting in her diary). It’s a minor detail compared with the most egregious alteration of this Grade II*-listed building, found on the facade itself. Where once rose Goldfinger’s striking grid of white-painted wooden window frames, now stretch sleek bands of dark glass framed by brown-anodised aluminium, as if transplanted here from a 1980s business park.
“It’s a tragic missed opportunity,” says Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, which successfully campaigned to have the tower’s status upgraded from Grade II to II* in 2014. “Surely brutalism now has enough fans that a conserved Balfron could be successfully marketed as a unique opportunity to live in a genuinely iconic brutalist masterpiece. Now all that’s left is an ersatz hybrid.”
The 2012 renovation of Carradale House, another Goldfinger block next door, saw its windows replaced with modern double-glazed timber frames to the original design, showing it could have been eminently possible at Balfron, too. But the architects defend their decision as in keeping with the spirit of the building. “Throughout the project, we have aimed to imagine what Goldfinger would do today,” says Christophe Egret, “and felt replacing the windows was in tune with his original vision.”
From the outside, the building may look like it has had its eyes gouged out and replaced with naff mirrored shades, but the real impact of the change is felt on the inside. While the original windows were fully openable, allowing gusts of air to flow through the double-aspect flats from one side to the other, most of the new bedroom windows are sealed shut. On my morning visit, one east-facing bedroom had reached 30C, while it was in the low-20s outside.
The architects say the proximity of the busy A13 road meant that non-openable windows were required to protect the residents from noise and pollution, and that a “sophisticated natural ventilation system” will keep the rooms cool (the developer says it was not switched on during my visit). But if you’re shelling out £375,000 for a one-bed flat, or £800,000 for a four-bed – along with an average annual service charge of £3,300 – the least you might expect is to be able to open your bedroom window.
For Michael Newman, the transformation of Balfron Tower is a bitter blow. He lived in a council flat on the 21st floor from the late 1980s, until he was “decanted” a few years ago to make way for the new buyers. “I really loved living there,” he tells me. “It was a complete cross-section of society. My neighbours included a retired soldier who had been in Burma, a carpenter in his 80s who cycled everywhere, a young Somali family and a born-again Christian. The views were amazing – I was woken by the sun rising every morning, then saw the sun setting over the city from my living room and kitchen. It was beautiful.”
He describes the moment when the estate was transferred from the ownership of Tower Hamlets council to the Poplar Harca housing association in 2007, after a residents’ ballot. “We were told that if we voted for it, they would refurbish our flats,” he says. “They even built a show flat, kitted out with the brand-new kitchens and bathrooms we would all get.”
After years of inaction, residents received a notice in 2010 that they would have to leave the building while refurbishment works took place – but there was no mention of whether they would be able to return to their homes after the renovations. “I kept asking Harca, but they just said they didn’t know,” says Newman. “The psychological stress was unimaginable.” Residents were informed that it was “possible but not probable” that they would have a right of return, with Poplar Harca citing “the impact of the global financial downturn” and planning setbacks as reasons for the uncertainty. In an FAQ factsheet distributed to residents by the housing association, “Can I move back in when the works are complete?” was listed as “one of the questions we just don’t know the answer to yet”.
David Roberts, a researcher at University College London who co-led the Grade II*-listing campaign, has documented the building and its regeneration process in forensic detail. As part of his award-winning PhD research, he compiled dozens of documents from five decades on a dedicated website, including a confidential viability report produced by the Homes and Communities Agency in 2012. The report confidently stated in no uncertain terms: “Balfron will become a leaseholder-only block.”
Rubbing gentrifying salt into the gaping wound, as the building was being emptied of its tenants, Harca invited artists to occupy some of the flats in a temporary “guardianship” scheme, in collaboration with Bow Arts Trust. “I went to a cheese and wine party of one of the painters,” Newman recalls. “He had made beautiful paintings of the building, but there were no local residents in the room. Most of the artists didn’t realise that the council tenants weren’t going to be allowed back, and they were being used to celebrate the death of the community. When I look at the building now, it feels like a gravestone.” He adds that he doesn’t blame Poplar Harca, and that he is happy in his new home in Carradale House, but he sees the project as a symptom of “a political system that prioritises economics over community”.
Others see the refurbishment as a pragmatic solution, given the lack of government funding for social housing. “Some residents were very happy there,” says one former Balfron leaseholder, who was part of the residents’ association. “But there were also a great many families living in overcrowded conditions who couldn’t wait to leave. I think it made sense to capitalise on the niche love of the heroic brutalist building, and sell the flats to people who actually wanted to live there, in order to provide much more suitable homes for families nearby.”
It chimes with Poplar Harca’s justification: “By concentrating sales in the higher-valued Balfron Tower, it was found that fewer social rented properties would need to be sold overall,” says a spokesperson, “and a sensitive refurbishment of the Grade II*-listed building could be achieved.” So how much has the great sell-off achieved? Across the Brownfield estate, Harca says the regeneration has seen a net increase of 45 habitable rooms, due to the higher number of larger family properties – but an overall loss of 21 social rented homes.
From their new private rooftop garden, in between games of ping pong and cinema screenings, the new Balfron residents will be able to look down on what they helped to pay for, elevated on the summit of what was taken away from the community in the process. Although, actually, they won’t see much: for health and safety reasons, the roof garden has been surrounded by a new 2-metre high concrete balustrade that almost entirely blocks the view.