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.
See also: Edward Heath’s Feet
David Secombe: Thirty years ago, I accepted an assignment to illustrate a book of ‘London Walks'; I might have approached this task with more enthusiasm if I hadn’t known that I was offered the brief because the publisher didn’t have the money to pay the author’s preferred photographer. I lost my own copy of the finished item long ago, but recently came across one whilst helping my girlfriend clear an elderly aunt’s house. Looking at it now, it’s obvious that it was a formative experience for me, and that my photos were terrible. In an attempt to expiate former sins, this is the first of two posts revisiting the territory in a bid to see if a grizzled hack can improve upon a callow youth.
On a wet evening last week, I traced the steps of the ‘Riverine Strand’ walk in the company of TLC contributor and bad wine specialist CJ of the Sediment blog. We met outside Gordon’s Wine bar at the bottom of Villiers Street, both of us soaked through and longing for a glass of anything a notch above foul. Gordon’s advertises itself as ‘London’s oldest wine bar’, and it remains an atmospheric place to drink, although it has become more of a corporate playground in recent years. On this occasion our way to the bar was barred by thronging suits, which is why this piece lacks a picture of the vaulted cellar which is Gordon’s USP. We moved on …
York Watergate. © David Secombe 2014
Opposite Gordon’s is a surviving fragment of the lost, pre-Embankment riverside landscape that once constituted this area: York Watergate, landing for York House, a palazzo which bordered the river for over 500 years. York House’s final, broke, owner, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, flogged it to developers for thirty grand. As Wikipedia gelidly states: ‘He made it a condition of the sale that his name and full title should be commemorated by George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Of Alley, and Buckingham Street. Some of these streets are extant …’. For CJ’s benefit I pointed out that Samuel Pepys lived in a couple of houses on Buckingham Street, and that he also lived in the building where Gordon’s is now. CJ observed that it was still raining.
Lower Robert Street, Adelphi. © David Secombe 2014.
Lower Robert Street is an odd, subterranean thoroughfare that runs through what was once the undercroft of Adelphi Terrace, the centrepiece of the Adam Brothers’ Adelphi development. From The Encyclopedia of London:
In 1867 the Adelphi vaults were ‘in part occupied as wine cellars and coal wharves, their grim vastness, a reminder of the Etruscan Cloaca of old Rome’. Here, according to Tombs, ‘the most abandoned characters have often passed the night, nestling upon foul straw; and many a street thief escaped from his pursuers in these dismal haunts before the introduction of gaslight and a vigilant police’.
Dickens has David Copperfield wandering through this vanished maze, ‘a mysterious place with those dark arches’, which we can assume was an autobiographical reference. When I visited Lower Robert Street in the ’80s, for the purpose of illustrating the guidebook, it was still possible to see a dark courtyard beyond an iron gate: the basement of an Adam townhouse, seen from the POV of Victorian low-life … but that gate is bricked up now. (I dilated upon this factoid to an increasingly glazed CJ as drops of rainwater fell from his rimless spectacles.)
Above, the Adam houses reportedly were – as the houses that remain still are – a toy-town vision of elegance and grace. Of the Adelphi Terrace, E.V.Lucas wrote in 1916: ‘The Adelphi is still a favourite abode of men of letters, for it is central yet retired, and the brothers Adam planned rooms of peculiar comfort’. David Garrick, Richard D’Oyly Carte, Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, all lived there, making it a sort of riverside version of The Albany.
Adelphi Terrace was demolished by London County Council in 1936 and replaced by Collcutt and Hemp’s vast Deco block. The Adams’ Adelphi was the first neoclassical building in London, whereas Collcutt and Hemp’s edifice – grotesquely named ‘Adelphi’ – has been described by Ed Glinert (in The London Compendium) as ‘London’s most authentic example of totalitarian 1930s architecture’. Like Bush House at the other end of the Strand, it is a permanent reminder of loss, of a wrong inflicted upon the city. (NB: we are currently working on a survey of Boris Johnson’s skyscraper-nurturing programme.) In 1951, London County Council installed a plaque on one of the pillars of the ‘new’ Adelphi to commemorate the one they had connived to destroy. (The photo at the top of this post is of the Adam house which remains on Robert Street, facing Collcutt and Hemp, home to the Royal Society of Arts.)
Savoy Way. © David Secombe 2014
At this point, CJ wanly suggested going for a drink at the Savoy; but I reminded him that the last time we did that was five years ago, when both of us had money. Instead, we contented ourselves with a cursory inspection of the hotel’s rear quarters, a paragon of rationality, clad in the glazed tiles the Victorians reserved for only the filthiest urban environments.
At Oscar Wilde’s first trial, the following exchange took place between prosecution witness Charles Parker and prosecutor Charles Gill:
PARKER: Subsequently Wilde said to me. ‘This is the boy for me! Will you go to the Savoy Hotel with me?’ I consented, and Wilde drove me in a cab to the hotel. Only he and I went, leaving my brother and Taylor behind. At the Savoy we went first to Wilde’s sitting room on the second floor.
GILL: More drink was offered you there?
PARKER: Yes, we had liqueurs. Wilde then asked me to go into his bedroom with him.
(In an early draft of The Importance of Being Earnest, a solicitor arrives to remove Algernon to Holloway Prison for non-payment of restaurant bills at the Savoy, whereupon Algie retorts: ‘I am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End. It is ridiculous.’ Prior to his first trial, Wilde found himself held on remand at Holloway.)
It is tempting to imagine Oscar and Bosie hustling rent boys past the laundry bins and crates of vegetables on Savoy Way. CJ wondered whose laundry the gent in the photo might be carrying.
Savoy Chapel, Savoy Lane. © David Secombe 2014.
Adjacent to the Savoy stands one of those anomalous bits of medieval London marooned amongst anonymous offices. Savoy Palace, a vast 13th Century manor, once sprawled across the foreshore here; the Palace was entirely destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt but the chapel was later rebuilt as part of Henry VII’s Savoy Hospital, of which it is now the only survivor. I don’t know whether Oscar and Bosie ever came here to ‘cool [their] hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things’, but this happens to be the spot where another Savoy resident, the newly-electric Bob Dylan, telegraphed Subterranean Homesick Blues for D.A. Pennebaker’s camera, as Allen Ginsberg and Tom Wilson loitered meaningfully in the background.
CJ and I emerged from Savoy Lane onto the Strand whereupon it started raining again, so we redoubled our efforts to find a sane place to drink. Dodging umbrellas and puddles by the corner of Waterloo Bridge, we chanced to see Peter Ackroyd alight elegantly from a cab and dive into a Tesco Express. We thought of waiting to see what the biographer of London would do when he emerged, entertaining the wistful hope that he might pop into Maplin’s for some fuses or a remote-controlled helicopter … but my boot was leaking, so we went to the Lamb and Flag, where we stood outside and drank our beers in the rain.
© David Secombe … for The London Column.
Bow Street police station, WC2. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
Tying in with today’s post on Wilde’s trials on Baroque in Hackney, we reprise this photograph and extract which were originally published in 2010 on Esoteric London.
From The Life of Oscar Wilde by Hesketh Pearson, 1946:
[. . .] at some point between seven and eight o’clock that evening the police called at the Cadogan Hotel and knocked at the door of Room 53.
‘Mr. Wilde I believe?’
‘We are police officers and hold a warrant for your arrest.’
‘Oh really?’ He seemed relieved.
‘I must ask you to accompany us to the police station.’
Wilde got up, a little unsteadily, put on his overcoat, took his hat and gloves, and followed them out. They drove in a four wheeler, via Scotland Yard, to Bow Street. Robert Sherard asked Wilde, in view of his superstition on the subject, whether the cab horse that drove him from the Cadogan was white. ‘I was too much interested to notice’, said Wilde, having chatted away on all sorts of topics with the detectives, who thought him a most amiable gentleman. At Bow Street, the charges were read out to him, after which he was taken to a cell, where press reporters were allowed to peer at him through the grille, and where he paced to and fro all night, unable to sleep. Next day he was removed to Holloway Gaol.
Abney Park Cemetery, N16. © David Secombe 2010.