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The changing fortunes of the Balfron Tower

We all know the Trellick tower, but what about its dark East London twin? Eddy Frankel looks at the past, present and future of Ernö Goldfinger's high-rise dream

Balfron Tower, London

Photo: Rob Greig

From hundreds of feet above ground, London looks like a different city. Airy, green, calm. Hell, maybe even a bit clean. Seeing the city from this height makes you understand why there’s such a demand for high-rise living. There are currently more than 200 buildings of 20 storeys-plus proposed or being built in London. The vast majority of them will be luxury flats. Today’s elite long for the exclusivity of vertical living, the views and the glamour of the penthouse apartment. Who among us doesn’t secretly want to be a modern plutocrat, lording it over Manhattan with a tumbler of scotch in one hand and a cigar filled with the dried flesh of our enemies in the other?

But this hasn’t always been what high-rise living in the city was like. Take a closer look at London’s residential skyline and you’ll notice two kinds of towers: new, shiny, glass-clad monoliths that most of us can’t afford to live in, and old, grim, grey, stubby tower blocks that most of us don’t want to live in. Sitting somewhere uncomfortably in between is Balfron Tower. Designed by Hungarian architect Ernö Goldfinger in 1963, this iconic modernist masterpiece is a big, looming, unmissably brutal chunk of architecture, originally built to house some of east London’s poorest residents. Today, however, it’s on the cusp of becoming one of the city’s most desirable bits of real estate. The history of the Balfron is more than a story of one building: it’s the story of how high-rise living has changed in London since the 60s.

Balfron Tower

The Balfron Tower. Photo: Lisa IndigoBurns Wormsley

I’ve cycled down the Limehouse Cut into the heart of Poplar to stand underneath the Balfron more times than I should admit, awed by its imposing presence. It’s a mean-looking thing: all grimy concrete and sci-fi geometricism. But there’s something beautiful about it. It’s stuck between an A-road near Canary Wharf, the black hole of the Blackwall Tunnel and the bleak greyness of the surrounding area, but 50 years after it was built, it still looks like something from the future. It doesn’t just impose itself on the landscape, it’s a cultural icon too, starring in films like ‘28 Days Later’, music videos by The Verve and Oasis, and countless gritty British TV shows. It’s also an important part of British architectural history: a socialist design in a brutalist style.

The Balfron was the first of two almost identical towers built in London by Goldfinger. The other, Ladbroke Grove’s Trellick Tower, is by far the more famous. Both were constructed to provide social housing for London’s workingclass communities. They were built with plenty of idealism in mind – these were hamlets in the sky (Balfron is a village in Scotland), vertical utopias where everyday Londoners could live in peace. Goldfinger and his wife even had a flat in the Balfron when the building first opened.

‘The Balfron is a classic piece of architecture of its time,’ says Peter Murray, architecture writer and chairman of New London Architecture. ‘It’s not just what it looks like, it’s actually the quality of the detailing, the solidity of the structure and the layout of the space.’ The flats themselves are huge. There’s privacy, too. The walls are thick and solid to keep sounds separated so you don’t feel stacked up among 100 other families.

Despite its architectural merits, the Balfron quickly became an unpleasant place to live. From the late ’60s onwards, reports of antisocial behaviour on the estate were rife – junkies in the stairwells, domestic violence, drug deals and constant low-level crime. How did those early ideals of community and social housing get smashed apart so easily?

Balfron Tower

Photo: Ben Scicluna

‘Like a lot of tall buildings, the Balfron was really badly managed,’ says Murray. ‘There was no proper control at the front door, families were put high up in the building and it gradually became a pretty nasty place to live in. It became a focus for vandalism, drug use and muggings.’ Things were the same over in west London at its sister building, the Trellick, which became so dangerous that Murray describes it as ‘pretty much a no-go area’. Apparently, people wouldn’t even go near it for fear of being hit by the stuff tenants would lob out of the windows.

But there was a turning point in west London in the mid-1990s, when residents of the Trellick came together to reverse the building’s fortunes. ‘What changed it fundamentally was right to buy,’ says Murray. ‘The mix of residents changed, and it gradually pulled itself up by its bootstraps. They got the borough to start funding repairs, then [the Trellick] got listed.’ It was private ownership that helped convert what had become a skyscraping slum into a building that everyone who’d ever worn a turtleneck was desperate to live in. With its mixture of social-housing tenants and private design anoraks, the Trellick today is a modernist success story.

The Trellick Tower. Photo: Lisa IndigoBurns Wormsley

The Balfron? Not so much. It went through the same period of violence and crime, but not the regeneration. Until now. Now a local housing association – Poplar HARCA – is starting to refurbish the flats in order to sell them on the open market. In the process, all social housing tenants have been moved out, and won’t be returning. There are currently no plans for social housing or flats with affordable rent in the Balfron. Considering the state of the housing crisis in London, it should come as no surprise that the plans have upset local residents. Action East End and Tower Hamlets Renters have actively protested outside of Poplar HARCA’s offices in recent months.

I talk to an artist called James, who has been living in the building for three years under a property guardianship scheme: ‘Until May 2014, when the majority of council tenants were rehoused, it was a very mixed community,’ he says. ‘Now it is mostly white, middle-class, early thirties. The character of the place has dissolved.’

No Spitting sign in the Balfron Tower lift

A sign in the Balfron Tower lift. Photo: Bob Bob, Flickr

Peter Murray takes a rather different view: ‘To a certain extent, I think as long as other accommodation is provided in the area, it does often mean that these pieces of architecture are looked after rather better when they have private owners.’ Poplar HARCA tell me that ‘the aim is to reinvigorate Balfron Tower and create a building suitable for twenty-first-century contemporary living, giving it a new lease of life, while being sympathetic to the architectural heritage of this iconic building.’ In addition, the money from selling Balfron flats is intended to help fund social housing in the area. So while it’s not all bad news, it is a double-edged sword. The architectural significance of the building will be preserved, but in the process the building will become something far removed from what Goldfinger intended it to be. Design-centric living – which the architect envisaged for the everyday Londoner – will again only be accessible to the privileged few. ‘It’s scandalous,’ adds James. ‘If these flats are bought by overseas investors and then sit unoccupied, Ernö Goldfinger, a lifelong socialist, will be turning in his grave.’

Of the new high-rises in London, none has social housing in it. According to findings by housing charity Shelter, only 0.1 percent of London’s houses are affordable for the average young family. That’s just 43 homes. Wherever normal Londoners are going to be living in the coming decades, it probably isn’t in a penthouse. But whatever the Balfron’s future is, at least its status as a design icon is assured and its ragged, brutal outline will be inspiring design nerds like me for decades to come. If you have deep pockets, you could even own a slice of the tower yourself. Not that Goldfinger would’ve liked that very much. 

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Michael N

My brother lived in Balfron Tower as a medical student at the London Hospital from the beginning of the 1980s, my twin brother lived there on the 21st floor getting married and having a child. I lived there for over 20 years. It is interesting that your article and its argument about the Tower and life in it does not come from residents, but from an architecture writer, who uses his own view of what it was like to live there to justify his opinion about the future privatisation of the Tower. Apart from the problems of the lifts breaking down, and the use of the fire exit stairwell by young people, we enjoyed living in the tower. The GLC had a policy of letting out the upper floors to students, and encouraging them to pass the keys on. There were numerous long term tenants, who had been there for years, including a chief Nurse, and a retired carpenter, and others. I never knew it as a no-go building, as the nightmare that Murphy portrays. The installation of the door security system did increase the sense of security of the tenants, but it also meant that those who had inherited their keys through students passing them on were evicted. Indeed the building voted not to go housing association on the first ballot! And only finally did so because of a model flat by HARCA promising refurbishment of kitchens and bathrooms. This has ended up as decanting a vibrant community and refurbishing to sell to the wealthy. I find little in what Murphy writes, including his self-justification, to defend this betrayal of the symbolism of architecture for the people. Overall your article misses the point, and is rather disappointing in furthering any understanding of what has happened.

Eddy F

@Michael N Hi Michael, thanks very much for your interesting points. However, I'm not sure who Murphy is. I'm presuming you mean Peter Murray, a misspelling which may hint that you didn't read the whole article properly. I spoke to Peter Murray, the head of a prominent architectural foundation, to try to establish the architectural importance of this very beautiful building. Further into the piece, I did in fact speak to a resident – James, an artist – who was particularly dismayed at what has been happening to the Balfron. Many other residents I spoke to echoed those sentiments, but were unwilling to be quoted in print.

Your point, in many ways, Michael, is the same as mine - I think it's incredibly sad that social housing tenants have been kicked out of a building that was intended for social housing. It paints a depressing portrait of the state of housing in our city. Quotes like these are hardly pro-regeneration:

'Of the new high-rises in London, none has social housing in it. According to findings by housing charity Shelter, only 0.1 percent of London’s houses are affordable for the average young family. That’s just 43 homes.' 

'You could even own a slice of the tower yourself. Not that Goldfinger would’ve liked that very much.' 

'All social housing tenants have been moved out, and won’t be returning. There are currently no plans for social housing or flats with affordable rent in the Balfron. Considering the state of the housing crisis in London, it should come as no surprise that the plans have upset local residents. Action East Endand Tower Hamlets Renters have actively protested outside of Poplar HARCA’s offices in recent months.

The article is balanced in its view - it's not Time Out's job to damn developers, but it is my duty as a journalist to look at all sides of the argument and present them as evenly as possible. I failed in that, because my bias is clearly towards to social housing tenants. You perhaps have ignored that point because you'd rather believe that us media louts are pro-gentrification yuppies. I love the Balfron, and I'm saddened by its state, a proper reading of the article should make that obvious.  

Michael N

@Eddy F @Michael N I did not bother to correct Murphy to Murray, as I thought I couldn't be bothered, as I was angry with your article, and that this Freudian slip simply reflected your apparent lack of research. 

My comment is on the revisionist  history, and that you interviewed an artist who was a part of the decanting process, as if their voice reflects members of a community who have lived in the building for years. Though he is expressing, as is his position, the hypocrisy and contradictions of the decant.

Murray's voice in terms of his personal view of the history of the building is not defended by you. i would be interested in his references, and who you checked his views with. I did not recognise the history of my building in your article. And he does use his history to apparently rationalise privatisation.

Sean H

I'm sorry, but the Trellick is definitely not a modernist success story. It is poison to the eyesight of most of those unlucky enough to catch sight of it . On a course once, I had to walk by it every day for about a month - its immediate vaccinity is representative of nothing but inner-city urban decay and squalor. It is an insanely ugly blott on the cityscape. I would even go so far as to suggest that it is genuinely depressing to look at.