All photos © Tim Marshall 2015.
Merry Christmas everyone.
… from The London Column.
Remember that old 70s movie, Network? It’s mainly famous for its catchphrase – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’ – and for Peter Finch’s bravura performance (which earned him a posthumous Oscar) as Howard Beale, the newscaster who has a meltdown on television and gets the whole country saying it. On Saturday night I went to a private reading of a stage adaptation of the film, scripted by my friend Chris Brand (a fine actor as well as a writer) and produced by another friend, Peter Finch’s nephew Dallas Campbell. There are several reasons why it was a brilliant evening, and the first of them – before the evening even began – was the surprise of the surroundings.
We were in the old Water Board building in Rosebery Avenue in Clerkenwell. This sounds boring enough, and indeed we had only been told it was going to be in a ‘board room’. But this is grand municipal architecture, and this particular example harbours a secret at its heart.
The Water Board building was built on the site of a previous water company building – the old New River Company building, Water House. The New River is the river you can see a bit of, running through Clissold Park in Stoke Newington; it’s technically more of a canal; built by one Hugh Myddleton to bring water from Hertfordshire to a rapidly growing London. It was completed in 1613. Water House, built in the same year, was originally a ‘cestern house’ adjoining the reservoir, and included accommodation for the site manager.Many people had use of its residential accommodation (including Edward Sadler, who was also probably the founder of next-door Sadler’s Wells). This building grew over the decades to reflect the massive success of the New River company (King James, a key funder, lost money on it, and Hugh Myddelton was created a baronet). It grew larger and larger, and more and more respectable until finally it was a large house. In about 1693, one Sir John Grene, a wealthy shareholder of the New River Company, was living in Water house, and he commissioned an ornately carved set of pannelling for a room that became known as the Oak Room… You can read a long and intensely interesting account on British History Online.
In 1914, London’s water was municipalised and Water House had to go. Work on the new Water Board building began in 1915 – stopping between 1916 and 1919 due to the War – and the building, on a scale commensurate with the ambition of its civic status, was finished in 1920. For the past twenty years it’s been flats. When you walk in through its large stone-clad entrance, it feels plausibly Edwardian – but then the first thing you are confronted with is a grand, glorious, light-filled, pink-painted Art Deco ballroom. (This, however, is the former Rental Ledger Room, and used to host ranks of large oak desks.) The building is awash with light.
Turn left and through large glass doors to a wide, high, sweeping staircase with huge windows. At the top, back through the doors, turn down a little corridor, open another door, and you are suddenly in a rather unexpected time-warp: an oak-carved antechamber, which is the mirror of another oak antechamber, at the two ends of a dark, oak-panelled room. A marble fireplace looms in the middle of the long wall, with bookshelves in the alcoves on the sides, and intricate carvings above. Pride of place belongs to a magnificent lion and unicorn panel, where the unicorn’s horn stands free of the carving.
This is Sir John Grene’s Oak Room – given new ceiling joists in the 1860s, and then carefully dismantled and reassembled in the new Water Board building – a nod to the history of the site. The room was dismantled again in the War and the panelling taken away for safe-keeping, but the ceiling could not be moved again and the central painting had to be restored again after the War. The room is very dark – it makes more sense when you know that in its day it had glorious windows on three sides, giving panoramic views over the Round Pond that was the New River reservoir, and its filter beds. It was even open to the public.
Accommodations had to be made when it was transplanted into the new building; in one corner we found a door which, opened, revealed only brick. It was on the outside wall of the building. It’s been not-a-door for almost a century, but for two and a half centuries before that, it was a door and people walked through it. And the doorways into the antechambers – two on each end of the room, with a central panel – will have been its other windows.
You could write a whole blog post just about the notion of civic pride and historical awareness, the respect for the past and sense of beauty and historical decency that made a company spend £2,000, back when that was proper money, to keep this in situ. Nowadays, they would more likely put it on display in an airlocked vault under perspex.
In the middle of the room is a giant black oval table. When we were there it was littered with scripts, plates of chocolate biscuits, and numerous large white candles. The room has electric light, too, of course, but the three-dimensional black walls seem to just absorb it. Those three walls of windows have been a bit of a loss, in fact.
So there we were. Friends on chairs around the walls of the room, with glasses of wine or gin & tonics. Around the table sat the actors. And the reading, in due course, began…
(See more here … )
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.
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.