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.
Holy Ghost Zone, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2008.
When playing Monopoly my father was always determined to acquire Old Kent Road and Whitechapel, and to build on them as soon as possible. It’s the most modest portfolio on the board, with houses on Old Kent Road, as I remember, costing little more than a hotel on Mayfair. ‘You might laugh,’ my father would tell us in baleful tones, ‘but everybody always lands on Old Kent Road.’
I’m interested in the Old Kent Road as a sort of social counterweight to Hampstead, but my friend David, a South London partisan, is a genuinely keen on it, and gave me a guided tour this week.
Tesco, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2004.
‘When the evening sun’s like this,’ he said cheerfully, as we skirted a sofa that had been thoughtfully set out on the pavement, ‘it’s got a sort of I’m-in-a-scary-part-of-LA charm.’ We were walking past the Old Kent Road’s array of cosmopolitan food shops, beauty parlours, international cash transfer places, evangelical ministries, van washing businesses. As the cars screamed by, David would stop every now and again to photograph the lowering clouds over some light industrial unit or brutalist block of flats. He seemed particularly taken with the visual possibilities of the flyover at the southern end of the Road. ‘A friend of mine owns a flat that looks right on to that,’ he said enviously.
I looked at a price list outside one of the Road’s pubs: it advertised a cocktail called a Slippery Nipple, consisting of Sambuca, Bailey’s and Grenadine. You could have a jug of Slippery Nipple for £12.50. Another sign forbade anybody wearing a hat to enter the pub. You knew there was some insight into human behaviour behind this, and that it had been won the hard way.
Re-branding exercise, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2008.
‘If Dickens were alive today he’d be down here all the time,’ said David as car came crawling noisily down the Road with only two of its tyres inflated. David then attempted, with windmilling arms, to direct the dazed-looking driver to a nearby sprawling depot called Madhouse Tyres.
As he did so, I reflected that the Old Kent Road does have the look of suburban LA or Chicago – that rangy wildness – and it occurred to me that this is what happens to British streetscapes when middle class vigilance is reduced and planning controls relaxed: they begin to look American.
Chinese Elvis restaurant, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2002.
David pointed out East Street, which goes off the Old Kent Road. Its market features in the opening credits of ‘Only Fools and Horses’, in which Rodney and Del Boy inhabit a tower block inevitably called Nelson Mandela House. David took me to Mandela Way, which intersects with Old Kent Road, and where there is a small patch of green space occupied by a tank that has been painted pink and decorated repeatedly with the stencilled word ‘Scab’. ‘If this was North London,’ I marvelled, ‘there would be letters in the Hampstead and Highgate Express every week until it was taken away.’ ‘Really?’ said David, snapping away, ‘it’s been here for years.’*
Tank, Mandela Way. © David Secombe 2004.
In the streets off Old Kent Road, you never know what you’ll find: a battered looking Georgian house with an ice cream van parked in the front drive and a lone security camera staring at it; a tiny house with a sign saying ‘This property is protected by guard dogs’ – that’s dogs, plural; sudden bombsites with rampant buddleia, the scars of the Second World War still seemingly fresh. There are also surprising runs of pristine Georgian and Victorian houses with obviously middle class occupants.
Almshouses, Asylum Road, SE15. © David Secombe 2008.
You could argue that Old Kent Road is going upmarket. The famous old Dun Cow pub is now the Dun Cow Surgery, and the Thomas A Becket, the even more famous boxing pub, built on one of the many sites where the Canterbury pilgrims took liquid refreshment, is now an estate agency, a sign of the times to an extent almost ridiculous. ‘You’d think there’d be a plaque acknowledging what it used to be,’ I said to David. But he frowned and shook his head, ‘That’s one of the great things about the Old Kent Road,’ he said, as we trudged on, ‘a profound lack of sentimentality.’
© Andrew Martin. This article originally appeared in Andrew’s Class Conscious column for The New Statesman in 2004.
(*The tank is a Soviet T-34 placed on Mandela Way as a protest by a disgruntled property developer following the rejection of a planning application.)
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
Late August ’87 by Stephen Watts:
Thunder on the Greenland Dock.
A few kids. Wet sand. Fishing.
All of us feel the vatic lack.
Girders. Cranes. New roads.
Bright sciatic colours. Cans.
Concrete. Cables. Coiled wire.
Flesh still curt to our bone.
Autumn thunder on the Greenland
Dock. Suddenly – houses rearing up.
That pall of human indifference.
Heart of the heart ripped out.
Yellow air. Pipes of cloud.
A sky that’s been lifted from Bihar.
Houses with archways of walled wood.
Our lives. A crushed heat of air.
Cranes. Wet sand. Girders.
The kids laugh. And then scatter.
Dear body. The poor in their lack.
The rich in their whorl of languor.
© Stephen Watts
Bill Pearson writes:
I moved to New Cross Gate over the Easter weekend, 1981. My only previous experience of living in the big city had been a few years at Kingston upon Thames, very different in all respects to inner city south-east London. Exploring the new area I discovered empty, desolate docks and rundown industrial areas that reminded me of my homeland in the North of England. It was the early days of Thatcherism, before the Falklands War, before the inner city riots, and before the Miners’ Strike, when Thatcher was still the most unpopular Prime Minister there had ever been.
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
My local Desolation Row was Surrey Docks – re-generated as Surrey Quays – but on walking and cycling trips I discovered the run down warehouses of Shad Thames (which still smelled of the spices they had once stored), Limehouse Basin, Wapping and the Isle of Dogs, which looked like a war zone. I remember rummaging around a warehouse in Wapping one day and hearing a roaring noise on the floor below. I rushed along to see what it was and discovered that the place had been set on fire by some local kids.
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
The absent other in all of these photographs was Mr. Charles Fox. A Battersea Dogs Home graduate, selected for his fetching smile, his hairy ears and his endearing determination to escape from the Home by digging through the concrete floor. His name was chosen because nobody in our shared house was prepared to have the utility bills under their names, so Charlie the dog ended up taking responsibility for everything. He never seemed to mind. At the Post Office I would occasionally be asked, “are you Mr Fox?” – and when people from the utilities phoned up wanting to speak to Mr Fox and we would invariably say “He’s unable to speak at the moment”.
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
Charlie and myself covered a lot of miles on our walks. Sometimes I would carry my Canon AE1 and sometimes I would take my Bolex movie camera and sometimes I wouldn’t take either because I couldn’t afford any film. On these urban forays, I often encountered a fellow rambler who turned out to be another newcomer to south-east London, a political exile from Soweto who had wound up living on the Pepys Estate in Deptford. Not that I knew this at the time: I only learned the identity of Chief Dawethi a quarter-century later, when Chief and I found ourselves sharing an office. Sharing our reminiscences of living in south-east London in the early 1980s, we discovered that we were the ghosts on each other’s travels. I mentioned that I took a lot of photographs back then, and it was Chief’s suggestion that people might be interested in those images, as the area had since changed beyond recognition. Chief’s insight encouraged me to dig out the negatives and study them with fresh eyes.
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
Looking at them now, they appear as remnants of a lost world. ‘There is nothing more recent than the distant past’. It seemed unthinkable in the early 1980s that the purlieus of east London could ever become desirable, let alone exclusive. Yet the areas seen in these pictures is today the playground of those who profited from the sale of England; those inhabitants of the soulless apartments that are ruining the London skyline. Even Chief’s old stamping ground, the Pepys Estate, is home to Aragon Tower, one of the most up-scale of all gentrification projects, a block of high-rise council flats sold off and transformed into luxury riverside dwellings for the few that can afford them.
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
What of Mr Charles Fox? He moved away to York with one of my housemates. We reasoned that he would have a much better life there than on the mean streets of south-east London. I saw him a few times after he moved and he seemed far happier in the North.
Text © Bill Pearson 2013.
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
Heart Of The City by Stephen Watts:
Grey sky. Fifteen cranes swing
between the road and the river.
A darkened ribcage of girders is
Fleshed out with granite slivers.
Slow bursts of cars stream past
and lead rises up to our rooftops.
It eats the aortas of our babies.
Wee kids who spiral at hopscotch.
We have savage material hearts.
Mine hangs just under my shoulder.
There are reds, yellows and ochres
if I think of colour in some order.
It hangs and pumps at my ribcage
as if a blue bag were slung there.
Full with wet fish & blae-berries.
Words – jump off my tongue here.
It is good to dream as dreaming
makes lucid our human potential …
The spiral of blood in our bodies.
Just where it pumps by my nipple.
Sunflowers. Asters. Fuchsia.
Whatever their colours they seem
held by tight and straitened stalks.
The sun will crash from its beam.
Too close to the savaged heart.
We live in the heart of this city.
Cranes that swing out on the dark
measure our hearts without pity.
© Stephen Watts.
The Archway Cafe. © Dylan Collard.
David Secombe writes:
The genius of photography is the commemoration of the ephemeral; this is the reason why some of us are beady on the subject of digital photography, as it represents the commemoration of the ephemeral by means of the even-more-ephemeral. No such qualms arise from this week’s images by Dylan Collard, which were made using defiantly old-school methods. For his photos documenting the Holloway Road, Dylan lugged his massive Gandolfi ‘field’ camera (a device the size of a large hatbox, bolted to a hefty tripod) up and down that windswept, Stalinist boulevard to record scenes as quotidian as one could imagine.
In today’s photo, the proprietor (it can be no-one else) of the Archway Cafe poses for the camera in a way that we believe – we know – to be characteristic. Of course, he is having us on; he is playing the part of a surly cafe owner for our benefit, he knows that he is being memorialised for posterity – and Dylan’s limpid image preserves the shrewd glance of this short-order chef as if in amber.
Yet, if current trends continue, this commonplace scene is likely to disappear within a few years. The formica and the plastic condiment bottles already look like period pieces in this context, where they are employed as functional items rather than archly retro decor. This is not a cafe for budding screenwriters with their MacBook Pros, or middle-class mums with Range Rover-sized prams and Orla Kiely infants, but it can only be a matter of time. The hipster-friendly make-over of the Holloway Road is upon us with the inevitability of a melting ice shelf. And perhaps that is why our man in the Archway Cafe is so watchful, he might be keeping an eye out for the wrecking hordes: the girls with oversized glasses, cut-off shorts and day-glo leggings, the thin young men with buttoned-up plaid shirts, skinny jeans and implausibly bushy boybeards … an army of destruction as potent as any in history.
… for The London Column.
Up My Street is Dylan Collard‘s project documenting shops between Kentish Town and Archway. His exhibition The Twelfth Man is currently showing at Exposure Gallery, 22-23 Little Portland Street, London W1. Dylan is represented by the Vue agency.