From A London Phantom by R. Thurston Hopkins:
I spent many evenings with Dowson in the Bun House. Though the name of this rendezvous has a doughy sound, it never at any time offered buns to its customers. It is just a London tavern, but it was part of the literary and newspaper life of the eighteen-nineties. It was there that I saw Lionel Johnson, the poet, John Evelyn Barlas, poet and anarchist who tried to ‘shoot up’ the House of Commons, Edgar Wallace, just out of a private soldier’s uniform, Arthur Machen in a caped ‘Inverness’ coat which he told me had been his regular friend for twenty years. …
After I had met Dowson a few times at the Bun House we would sometimes rove forlornly about the foggy London streets, initiated bohemians, tasting each other’s enthusiasms. … As we wandered about London at night we often played a sort of game which we called Blind Chivvy. The idea was to find short cuts or round-about-routes from one busy part of London to another by way of slinking alleys and byways which then were not well known to the average London man.
D.S.: We at The London Column like to think of ourselves as being in the vanguard of the Ernest Dowson Revival, but we can’t deny that our Ern remains something of a niche interest. My friend CJ – one half of the award-winning (really) wine blog, Sediment – is unconvinced by my claims for the poet who wrote the quintessential ‘decadent’ poem of the 1890s, Cynara. That said, CJ liked the sound of ‘Blind Chivvy’ and agreed to join me for an afternoon in a bid to play it. Admittedly, we were doing it on a bright July day rather than a murky November evening, and a few things have changed since Dowson’s time, but the promise of some light lunchtime drinking rendered CJ putty in my hands. We met at The Port House on the Strand, an Iberian sherry bar located in the building that was once The Bun House. In the candle-lit gloom, CJ and I munched tapas, drank white wine and attempted to visualise the interior peopled with the bohemian talent of decadent London. We failed. The ambience in the Port House is that of a bodega in Madrid, and there was no way we were going to conjure up the shades of Dowson, Johnson, Machen or anyone else. But it was a start.
Emerging from the Port House, I led a dubious CJ into a narrow entrance next door. Exchange Court is one of those ancient pathways off the Strand that bears witness to a lost London landscape. Halfway up this remnant of 17th century town planning there is a courtyard behind a new (early 1990s) bar called The Porterhouse. Before the construction of this establishment, it was possible to come here – a spot no-one had any reason to visit – and discover a genuine fragment of the ‘Great Wen’: a desolate cul-de-sac that Dickens would have recognised. When I visited in 1984, you could still see the original box office window of the Adelphi theatre, complete with Victorian London prices, bricked up in an alcove. Then they built the pub and the alcove disappeared. Now they store barrels here and the court seems almost cheerful.
We followed Exchange Court to the end and emerged in Maiden Lane, CJ looking around him like a lost Japanese tourist. ‘Where are we now?’ Doing my best Peter Ackroyd, I replied that Maiden Lane was one of the oldest thoroughfares in the West End – and, in the same mode, indicated a plaque above the Adelphi’s stage door commemorating the murder of William Terriss. ‘Who? What?’ On cue, the shutter of a loading bay was yanked open and for a moment we had a glimpse of the business end of a working theatre. The sight of the vast maw of an empty auditorium brought back memories of other West End venues, not to mention Proustian associations of childhood visits backstage. Me: ‘What’s playing here now?’ CJ: ‘Kinky Boots’. We moved on.
We crossed the road to look in the window of Rules, ‘the oldest restaurant in London’ (est. 1788). To celebrate the august history of its dining rooms, Rules’s website features a poignantly misjudged piece of copywriting which is worth reproducing here:
As well as being frequented by great literary talents – including Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Galsworthy and H G Wells – Rules has also appeared in novels by Rosamond Lehmann, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, John Le Carré, Dick Francis, Penelope Lively and Claire Rayner.
Whilst studying the menu I asked CJ if a publisher had ever taken him to Rules and he looked at me beadily, suggesting that I might be confusing him with someone else; Ian McEwan, maybe. Or Marian Keyes, perhaps.
Rules faces Bull Inn Court, another alley where Dowson might have gone to find company (‘absinthe makes the tart grow fonder’ is his line); in July 2015 it is a spot where office workers go to juggle cigarettes and smart phones. But a couple of doors further along, the tone is abruptly elevated by the ecclesiastical majesty of Corpus Christi. Mirroring the promise of the Adelphi, its doors were invitingly open, affording views of ‘the grey twilight of gothic things’ (or the 1870s repro version) in WC2. Dowson converted to Catholicism in the last years of his short life, so it’s at least possible that he took communion in Corpus Christi. In any case, we yielded to the lure of its gilded interior and behaved like a pair of sightseers, taking photographs and lighting candles (25 pence a go).
We backtracked west along Maiden Lane, down Chandos Place and thence into Brydges Place. We have featured Brydges Place on The London Column before, so I won’t dilate on this atmospheric passageway here – except to note that there were more homeless pitches since my last visit and the stink of piss was overwhelming. Brydges Place debouches into St Martin’s Lane next to E.N.O., where we emerged to see a Mariachi band posing on the steps of the Coliseum. Mexican dance music seemed like a bit of a departure for English National Opera, but the band looked fun and an obliging gaucho performed some impressive lasso moves for the cameras. Diverting as it was, this wasn’t the woozy, drink-soaked metropolis we were looking for, so we repaired to The Salisbury to re-group. The Salisbury was once a well-known gay pub, extensively referenced in the Dirk Bogarde film Victim, and where the serial killer Dennis Nilsen cruised in the 1970s and 80s – but any flickers of the city of dreadful night were banished by the holiday crowd ramming the bar. The Salisbury’s ghosts were as lost to us as those at The Bun House. We sat behind an etched glass window, drank London Pride and swapped stories of career disappointment. The phantom of Thurston Hopkins’s essay, who they fear is haunting them on their nocturnal rambles through London, is a man Dowson described as having ‘a face like a wizened bladder of lard’ – but in the noisy saloon of the Salisbury, CJ and I were merely haunting each other.
Opposite The Salisbury is an entrance to another 17th century survival, a passageway called Goodwins Court. Needless to say, Goodwins Court was a surprise to CJ, who remarked upon the beautiful bowed shop-fronts (18th century, I am told, although they are no longer shops, and it is hard to tell exactly what they front now). When I was a boy my parents took me to a show-business party in the house at the end, the one that abuts Bedfordbury. The host was the late Tony Sympson, an actor whose family were instrumental in preserving Goodwin’s Court against destruction. I remember a jewel-box of a house composed of implausibly large rooms, their Regency elegance constituting an act of defiance: as late as 1978, the threat of wholesale demolition still loomed over Covent Garden. The house is still someone’s home; perhaps the most desirable place to live in all the West End. Next door is Giovanni’s, a discreet Italian restaurant popular with old-school actors and producers. I have purple memories of this place too: a lunch with an actor friend which deteriorated into an afternoon lurid enough for me to give up drinking for months afterwards. After mistily reminiscing on all of the above, CJ pointed out, not unreasonably, that those anecdotes are specific to me, and that the state of my liver was of little interest to him.
Taking the hint, and with time against us – CJ’s dinner beginning to call, in far distant Mortlake – the rest of our dèrive went at something of a galop. By this stage, I had a destination in mind, a spot with more recent associations than the 1890s. We walked swiftly up Garrick Street, crossed Long Acre towards Seven Dials, cut up West Street (past The Ivy and those strangely conjoined twins of tourist theatre-land, The Mousetrap and Stomp), crossed Shaftesbury Avenue, continued north on Stacey Street – alongside the vast bulk of the Covent Garden Odeon and beyond the fragile greensward of Phoenix Garden – and finally arrived in crumbling, doomed Denmark Street.
In the 1950s Denmark Street (‘London’s own Tin Pan Alley!’) was London’s music business quarter, an Expresso Bongo world of post-Suez Britain. Then, the street was the domain of the impresario Larry Parnes, (much-mocked svengali of improbably-named singers like Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, Johnny Gentle, and some others who actually made it), songwriter Lionel Bart (‘King of Denmark Street’), the jingle writer Johnny Johnston (Softness is a thing called Comfort, Beanz Meanz Heinz, and 5000 others), and all the other personalities of the pre-Beatles universe. In the 1960s The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Donovan, Bowie, Hendrix all came here to record, in studios carved out of 17th-century basements. Ten years later it was the turn of the phlegm-flecked protégés of Malcolm McLaren (the ’70s version of Larry Parnes) The Sex Pistols, who rehearsed and lived here for a while. And, whilst he is unlikely to get a blue plaque, Dennis Nilsen – abovementioned, hanging around the Salisbury – spent the early ’80s working in a jobcentre that used to be on the corner with the Charing Cross Road. This jobcentre’s speciality was the catering industry, and for one Christmas staff party Nilsen made his colleagues punch in a large cooking pot he brought from his home, the same pan he used for boiling his victims’ heads.
There are still music shops to be found on Denmark Street, but the redevelopment of St Giles has been the cause of much anguish amongst London’s music lovers, as first the Astoria and then the 12 Bar Club have been laid waste in favour of Crossrail and a looming corporate/retail zone. Around 1900, the year Dowson died, the great loss London suffered was the destruction of Wych St. and environs to create ‘new’ Aldwych and Kingsway (the subject of one of our previous walks). That particular act of civic philistinism didn’t just obliterate some of the prettiest streets in the capital, it cauterized life on the streets – which is exactly what it was intended to do, removing ‘unwholesome’ theatres and booksellers and erasing one of London’s cultural centres. The destruction of the area around Denmark Street is the 21st Century equivalent. How do we characterise it? London dans le style Boris, perhaps, London après Cameron, London sans coeur, etc. Chalked graffiti on the hoarding in front of the remains of the 12 Bar was eloquence itself …
By now CJ and I were starting to feel generally chivvied out. The day-glo office blocks opposite St.Giles in the Fields measured the gulf between the city of our imaginings and the one we are actually stuck with. Calling it a day, Charles headed for Waterloo and his train to Mortlake, and I boarded a quasi-Routemaster 38 to Hackney. Sitting on the top deck, in an interior as retro as the Orla Kiely catalogue, I considered the dilemma: if Soho is dead, if the West End is dead, if Chelsea is dead, if Shoreditch is dead (no cheering please), what is left? A Bright New World safe for out-of-town consumers to play in – but not somewhere you would want to live, even if you could afford to. Hence London becomes the new Dubai, and Margate the new Peckham. Good for Margate, perhaps, but London as a place of invention and creativity becomes no more than a historical footnote. Don’t look for culture here, mate, only ad agencies can afford the rent. Live music? Try the relocated 12 Bar Club – it’s on the Holloway Road (if you can find it). No call for it round here, pal. The revolution will not be televised – but you can download it as a podcast.
(I have just noticed that this post is the 250th on The London Column. I was going to apologise for the fogeyish tone, but then thought ‘why should I?’)
Expedition to Greeneland by Susan Grindley
There was a problem with the spellings
of Yeastrol, or Yeastrel, and Tontons Macoutes.
I was the ofﬁce junior, despatched
with marked-up galley proofs to Albany.
I washed and ironed my hair the night before,
wore my shift dress from Peter Robinson’s
new Top Shop with white stockings and white
patent shoes from Elliott’s of Bond Street.
I’d cracked the secret code to all his books –
women who thought that they were loved were not.
He kept them parked and waiting in the margins,
all that religious stuff – just an excuse.
I didn’t see him. I just left the envelope
with the top-hatted porter at the lodge.
I told them casually back at Production,
‘GG is lunching at his club today.’
Regular readers will have spotted that we have run this post before; we are running it today in memory of our dear friend Sue Grindley who died last week. The poem is from Susan’s collection New Reader, published by Rack Press.
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.
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.
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.
See also: Edward Heath’s Feet