From Building Design, 19 November 2010:
The controversial plan to tear down the Robin Hood Gardens estate will move a step closer in the next few days when a winner for its replacement is named. Proposals by Tower Hamlets Council to take the wrecking ball to the housing estate, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, caused outrage among the profession, with more than 2,000 people, including Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, backing a BD campaign to have it listed. This week Simon Smithson, architect son of Alison and Peter, again condemned the decision to knock the estate down. “If it’s pulled down I think history will view it as a real act of vandalism,” he said.
In the wake of our recent pieces on Balfron Tower, we present another feature on a controversial, maligned and generally unloved piece of 1960s architecture. Robin Hood Gardens, a mere stone’s throw away from its Goldfinger-designed neighbour, was designed by Peter and Alison Smithson, Brutalism’s golden couple, theorists-cum-architects, ‘the leading architectural thinkers of their generation in the UK’ (it says here). Unfortunately, the location could not be less promising: Robin Hood Gardens teeters like a cliff above the northbound carriageway of the A12 exiting the Blackwall Tunnel, although motorists on the southbound lanes get a clearer view of its looming bulk. As a motorist who has used the Blackwall Tunnel for over a quarter of a century, this view of RHG has always reminded me of a discarded set from Alien or Space 1999 that has been inexplicably dumped in Poplar. Regardless of all other considerations, its fabulously disadvantaged position alone mitigates against 21st century rehabilitation. Not for Robin Hood Gardens the executive-friendly make-over of Balfron Tower; discussions of RHG’s qualities invariably involve a stand-off between those calling for demolition (past and present residents, Tower Hamlets council) arrayed against those who want it listed and thus preserved (Brutalist apologists, mid-century modern aficionados).
A great deal has been written on the failure of Robin Hood Gardens. Those who defend the building speak of the spaciousness of the flats themselves, of the noble attempt to create a space of ‘central greenery’ in the site’s layout, and the Smithsons’ genuine feeling for the humanity that would eventually inhabit their design: ‘Belonging is a basic emotional need … from it comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails.’ Robin Hood Gardens has heavyweight admirers; thus sprach Lord (Richard) Rogers of Riverside: ‘It has heroic scale with beautiful human proportions and has a magical quality. It practically hugs the ground, yet it has also a majestic sense of scale, reminiscent of a Nash terrace’.
Its fans have something of a hard sell. Even the most ardent Smithson admirer has to admit that the site is hideous. A friend of mine, an architect from the Caribbean, spoke of her numbed disappointment on seeing RHG for the first time; in her eyes what had seemed eloquent and rational as a plan failed hopelessly as an actual environment. (In researching this piece, I stumbled across a fascinating item comparing RHG’s central green space to WW1’s battlefield of Ypres.) In 2009 RHG was denied the protection of ‘listed’ status (with English Heritage voting firmly against listing) and in 2012 Tower Hamlets Council announced demolition of the estate as part of a wider ‘regeneration’ scheme for the area. There isn’t room here to excavate the arguments and sheer heat of the ensuing debate, which is taking place even as RHG is being dismantled; but whilst nostalgia for the legacy of Brutalism might be compared to a fondness for discredited utopian certainties, the current complexion of London’s skyline makes one shudder at what is likely to be erected in RHG’s place.
These photographs by Craig Atkinson (from a fine new edition published by the ever-admirable Cafe Royal Books) give an indication of RHG’s imposing mass as well as its shortcomings as an urban environment. But it is the last picture in this sequence that is so telling; the view across to the 21st Century Isle of Dogs and Greenwich Peninsula. There’s the new money, and what all of London will, most likely, soon resemble. There goes the neighbourhood. DS
Further reading: the invaluable site Municipal Dreams published two articles on Robin Hood Gardens in April this year, and they are mandatory reading on this topic.
Tommy Cooper, Thames Television Studios, 1967. Photo © John Claridge.
On Tommy Cooper by Garry Lyons:
It’s all for you, isn’t it, Tommy? All the time – even offstage – you’re thinking: how can I get noticed? How can I get a gag out of this? You’d piss in the gutter to make a drain laugh, wouldn’t you? You’d shoot your granny for half a titter.
You leave that gutter out of this.
These lines are a characteristic interchange from the two eponymous comics in my play Frankie and Tommy. Frankie is my dad aged 23, as I re-imagined him. His oppo is none other than Tommy Cooper. The play tells the story of their brief and ill-fated double-act, entertaining the troops in Cairo in 1946.
It was commissioned by John Godber for the 21st anniversary of Hull Truck Theatre Company, and premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992. It caused a bit of a stir. I didn’t see my play as an exposé of a celebrity so much as a bitter-sweet Everyman tale about lost opportunities and faded dreams. For me, the story was a universal one about the shadow cast over youthful illusions by a brief, fleeting brush with true genius. It was about lost opportunity, and coming to terms with one’s failures and mediocrity.
The play is like a variety show Amadeus, with my dad as Salieri and Cooper as Mozart. It’s as much a professional tribute to Cooper’s stage brilliance as it is an unveiling of Cooper the man. It was an attempt to show the fez-wearing buffoon in all his perfectionist complexity, an artist in whom emotional inadequacy was the spur that drove his hyper-nervous and shambolically skilful act – an act full of fumbled magic tricks and painful wordplay acting as armour-plated defence mechanisms from too much inquiry into the inner self.
The invented dialogue of Frankie and Tommy – which owes a lot to Morecambe and Wise, Barker and Corbett and similar duos – is full of puns and evasions in which Cooper constantly undercuts a serious point with a wisecrack or non sequitur. It’s the technique of the inveterate joker who can’t bear to face reality, yet in dodging it not only makes us laugh but often presents us with an even more profound truth.
Perhaps, in the end, that is the enduring force of Cooper’s humour. He wasn’t, as some have claimed, the first ‘alternative comedian’. There was nothing politically anti-establishment about his mainstream, commercial television style. But it was certainly subversive in the way it used ineptitude as comic strategy, satirising the empty slickness of much light entertainment and reminding us that at heart we’re all fools within.
… for The London Column. © Garry Lyons 2011.
This post appeared on The London Column in 2011; we are reposting it as John Claridge’s photos of Tommy Cooper are currently showing in the auditorium of the Museum of Comedy, implausibly located the crypt of Hawksmoor’s St.George’s, Bloomsbury. Museum of Comedy, The Undercroft, St Georges Church, Bloomsbury Way, WC1A 2SR (open Tuesday – Sunday 12pm – 5pm).
A London street artist writes:
I remember living in Hackney Wick around six years ago, just as it was being transformed from a barren industrial area into a ‘funky’ neighbourhood full of vegan coffee shops and ‘warehouse raves’ that had guest lists and cocktails, interspersed with re-purposed plant hire buildings that had been turned into artists’ studio spaces.
I had been a graffiti writer for about four or five years before moving there, and at that point in time I was spending a lot of time utilising the easy access to train tracks from Hackney Wick station to go painting at night. The thing was, Hackney Wick was full of ‘street artists’, yet I never saw any of them on my nightly overground rail missions. The reason for this was that they were mostly drinking chai tea in their studios, plastering canvases with stencilled pop-culture icons or images connoting cunning political/social commentary… But it was still ‘street art’. All the courtyards of the shared warehouse living spaces were covered in pieces, yet the streets surrounding them were bare.
This was the crest of the wave of socially acceptable, tongue-in-cheek street art. It was naughty, but only when it was allowed to be. It was rarely painted illegally, and rarely in places where lots of people could see it; inside the living room of a sandal-clad nut-loaf artisan, or on a peaceful stretch of canal. While the original breed of London graffiti writers tried to paint busy train lines and rooftops, these ‘street artists’ prefer to hit up Tumblr, Flickr and Twitter with photos of their work. ‘Getting up’ has been integral to graffiti culture since the beginning – it is the pure manifestation of the territorial roots of the art form, except now the art form is becoming gentrified, intellectualised and critiqued by Guardian columnists, and ‘getting up’ has turned into social media marketing. While all this is happening, grass-roots graffiti writers are still being locked up with criminal damage charges, sitting in police cells around the corner from a perspex-enclosed stencil that may or may not have been painted by Banksy.
Two street artists, Boe and Irony, recently painted a four story chihuahua on the side of a tower block. They suggest in an interview to have pulled this off without alerting anyone as to their activity. I mean, granted, the piece is nice. It’s a definite improvement over the old, plain brick wall, However, as someone who has spent their fair share of time crawling around on rooftops and side streets with buckets of paint, I don’t buy it. All credit to them if they actually managed to walk around the streets with their faces covered from the cameras, holding a fuck off ladder and the 20+ cans of spray paint they would have needed, set up shop on a residential building for 4+ hours and paint an entire face of said building without anyone even knowing they were there. That would be fucking impressive. There are writers who have been painting in this city for decades, who know all the dark secrets of how to get into train yards undetected and have hit up at least one rooftop in every borough in the city, who wouldn’t attempt a stunt like that.
Street art has always had its own lines of communication. Taggers, know each other by tag and reputation and possibly on the tracks. It’s territorial. Now, the territory is worldwide. The territory is in the bank. The artists get cash, the local authorities who pay them get kudos, and global gentrification accelerates week by week. ‘Street art’ is becoming just another kind of civic prettification – even the Southbank Centre has commissioned some to make itself appear more relevant. Individual neighbourhoods may get brightened up, but the work is mainly for the portfolio and the commercial opportunity.
The big street animals are unobjectionable. Even the Daily Mail likes them. People didn’t want Hackney Council to paint over the rabbit in Hackney Road a few years back – it’s inoffensive and it got a reprieve (and no-one likes Hackney Council). But now you get big animals wherever business is moving in on an ‘up and coming’ area. I see a giant bird or squirrel or fox and all I see is money.
… for The London Column.
Jeremy Paxman, Dannie Abse, Helen Mort, Forward Poetry Prize jurors 2014. © David Secombe 2014.
Perspectives – five paragraphs for Frank O’Hara by Dannie Abse:
I sit in L’Artista, our local Italian restaurant.
Outside, a rain-thrashed queue waits for their bus.
At an adjacent table, a man with liquorice hair
is shouting to himself; but soon I discover
he’s phoning someone. At 1.50pm I order
Fusilli all’ Ortolana and their house-red poison.
A waitress bending forward to pick up a spoon
bothers me in more ways than two.
She moves with such grace and femininity
the very earth is richer where she stands
It surely makes all the clientele forget
their ‘nostalgia for the infinite’ and to understand,
perhaps for the first time, ‘the nostalgia of the infinite’.
Umbrellas pass by the window as I eat my pasta.
Some of it spills onto my trousers, dammit.
Why does this make me think of how those poets
who write enigmatic nonsense become famously
the darlings of the professors they most despise?
At 2.23 p.m. I drink my cappuccino and glance
at the TV that’s flitting behind the counter.
The 2012 dogs of war are pissing on the dead, Frank.
It could by Syria. Could be Afghanistan.
At 2.40 p.m. the Renoir beautiful one
brings me the bill (£15.10p). She squawks. Pity
her voice like a very active yak makes me shiver.
Outside the rain’s gone North. A 2.41 droplet
of pure silver falls from a high tin roof.
Dannie Abse, 1923 – 2014. Thanks to Baroque in Hackney. The results of the 2014 Forward Prize for Poetry will be announced tonight at the Royal Festival Hall.
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.
The photos are from the exhibition Balfron Tower An Unrealised Future, featuring work by photographers Michael Mulcahy, Mike Seaborne, Peter Luck and James Wakefield. This runs until this Sunday (21st September), 12 – 6 pm at Flat 89, Balfron Tower, Poplar, E14 0QT (2 min. walk from All Saints DLR). Buzz flat 89 for entry.
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. D.S.
A friend came to see me on one of the evenings of the last week — he thinks it was on Monday, August 3rd. We were standing at a window of my room in the Foreign Office. It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below on which we were looking. My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’.
From Twenty-Five Years 1892-1916 (New York, 1925) by Viscount Grey of Fallodon, formerly Sir Edward Grey. Sir Edward Grey was British Foreign Secretary in August 1914; Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th.