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.
Southmere Lake and Binsey Walk, Thamesmead. © George Plemper 1976.
In late 1972 I made the journey to Leicester Square to see A Clockwork Orange. As with all Kubrick’s
films I thought the film was visually stunning and I loved the use of music throughout. The physical
and sexual violence seemed to me more theatrical than factual and I was astonished to hear a year
later the film had been banned.
All thoughts of the film had long gone when I crossed the footbridge across Yarnton Way
to Riverside School, Thamesmead in 1976. I had no idea I was entering a scene from Kubrick’s vision
of a desolate and violent Britain. My aims were simple; I was going to use the camera to show my
pupils that they were great, to show them that we were all worthwhile.
From A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain by Owen Hatherley:
It’s impossible to praise the original Thamesmead without caveats. There were never enough facilities, the transport links to the centre were always appalling, and the development was always shockingly urban for its outer-suburban context. Regardless, it is something special, a truly unique place. It always was, and remains so in its current, amputated form.
Unlike its successors, it’s flood-proof and still architecturally cohesive, after decades of abuse. Around Southmere lake you can see, just about, how with some decent upkeep and with tenants being given the choice rather than being dumped here, this could have been a fantastic place … This is basically a working-class Barbican, and if it were in EC1 rather than SE28 the price of a flat would be astronomical. Today it feels beaten and downcast, and it only ever gets into the news through vaguely racist stories about the Nigerian fraudsters apparently based here; but its architectural imagination, civic coherence and thoughtful detail, its nature reserves and wild birds, have everything that the ‘luxury flats’ lack.
Southmere Lake and Binsey Walk today. © David Secombe 2013.
Where Alex walked … watch him pitch his droogs into the cold, cold waters of Southmere Lake here.
Elderly resident, Pepys Estate, Deptford, 1970. Photo Tony Ray-Jones © RIBA Library Photographs Collection.
Owen Hatherley writes:
Like a lot of council estates that have been subjected to the ministrations of ‘regeneration’, there are certain myths about the Pepys Estate. Each has a grain of truth, each covers up what ought to be a larger, more overwhelming truth.
My own experience of the place is fairly limited. I recall walking there from a flat in the centre of Deptford to hand in my form for the council waiting list; on a few other occasions I would wander over to use the bridge that connected the estate to Deptford Park, just for the fun of it, for the fact of its mere existence. The place seemed quiet during the day; I only saw it at night as the N1 bus looped around it. So I can’t offer much insight into what it was ever like to live there, but I have watched the material transformations of the place over the last decade or so, and watched the media discourse around it spin its web.
The Pepys is often presented as a monolithic, monstrous estate that was a failure from day one. Which is interesting, as the place marked one of the earliest council schemes to preserve as well as demolish – the little enclaves of Georgian nauticalia that mark the estate’s edges were part of the scheme, renovated and let by the council as an integral element, by now surely long since lost to Right to Buy. The rest of it is, or rather was, a series of jagged, mid-rise blocks connected by walkways, enclosing three towers and a large open space, with the bridges eventually leading to a park on the other side of Evelyn Street. In the middle is a community building with a bizarre, expressionist roofline seemingly partly based on oast houses (but then, so is Bluewater).
What is undoubtedly true is that parts of it were badly made – the lifts were apparently prone to breakdown from extremely early on. The draughty blocks were clad in plasticky white material at some point in the 1980s. Yet what happened when the place got ‘regenerated’ is by far the most dramatic aspect. The open space went, with low-rise flats to be sold to ‘key workers’ and on the open market taking an already highly dense area and making it more so. This accordingly makes it more ‘mixed’, ‘vibrant’ and ‘urban’, as professionals now live alongside – well, not quite alongside, but at least near to, council tenants.
The bridge over Evelyn Street went also, with remarkably clumsy ‘eco-flats’ (you can tell this, because the extra layer of curved glass on the façades a few feet from the actual windows could surely have no other possible functional justification) built where it met the park. This ‘recreated a street pattern’ in the area according to planning ideologists; or it defaced an area of public space. As you wish.
The new blocks are regeneration hence good, the old are council housing hence bad. Yet the council flats are much larger, and look much more robustly built, of concrete and stock brick – the newer flats are clad in the ubiquitous thin layer of brick or attached slatted wood, materials which have shown an unfortunate tendency to fall off. The major story is with one of the three towers – the one nearest to the river, naturally – which was completely cleansed of undesirables and sold instead as Z Apartments, luxury riverside living. It became a brief cause celebre via class war reality TV show The Tower.
All this, in theory, funds the regeneration, meaning in this case the cleaning and patching up, of the older buildings, or alternatively to their phased, currently seemingly stalled, demolition. None of the new buildings in the Pepys Estate – or anywhere else in London – have been council housing, though its regeneration has entailed several once council flats going private. The waiting list, nationally, is reckoned to be five million.
… for The London Column. © Owen Hatherley 2011.
The Dome seen from the Blackwall Tunnel southern approach. Photo © David Secombe 2004.
From A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain*, Owen Hatherley 2010:
This place was a Blairite tabula rasa. Faced with an area the size of a small town, freshly decontaminated and waiting to have all manner of ideas laid down upon it, what did they create – or rather, what did the companies and corporations that they subsidized create? A couple of areas of luxury housing (typically, with fairly minisucule apartments) a couple of shopping centres, several car parks, and now a gigantic Entertainment Complex to finally get those car parks filled. Amusingly, given that the area was once so keen to trumpet its eco credentials (a supermarket partly run on wind power), it has since become another of London’s locked traffic grids, as well it might having the Blackwall Tunnel nearby. Blairites, and neoliberals in general, have always posited some sort of ‘force of Conservatism’, some entrenched opposition either from the remnants of organized Labour or woolly traditionalists, that prevents their vision from being realized. Here, there was nothing but blasted wasteland when they got hold of it. Yet a more astounding failure of vision is difficult to imagine. If there is a vision here, it’s of a transplant of America at its worst – gated communities, entertainment hangars and malls criss-crossed by carbon-spewing roads; a vision of a future alienated, blankly consumerist, class ridden and anomic. The ‘corrosive humours’ turned out to be more difficult to erase than might have been imagined.
* published by Verso. © Owen Hatherley 2011.
Bugsby’s Way, SE10. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
In 2006, the Millennium Dome was bought by the magnate Philip Anschutz who planned to open ‘Britain’s first Supercasino’ and an entertainment complex within it, whilst the phone company O2 paid for it to be rebranded ’The O2’.
From A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain* by Owen Hatherley, 2010:
I attended Open House here in 2006, hoping to be able to see inside this fabulously enormous, hubristic space, able to fit several football pitches inside it, Canary Wharf laid flat, amongst other dubious statistical feats. The reality was rather more disappointing, as Anschutz employees showed nonplussed architecture buffs nothing but the small space where the Casino was being constructed – to no avail, as the Supercasino permission was given to New Emerging Manchester instead, until the plans for these gambling cathedrals were cancelled by Gordon Brown upon taking power. Nonetheless, the Dome was reopened in June 2006, its ceremonial opening a concert by bafflingly enduring hair metal act Bon Jovi.
Around the time the Dome was reopened as the O2, the renovated Royal Festival Hall had also just opened upriver to much fanfare. This fragment of the 1951 exhibition appears as the upscale, upriver entertainment centre, with the Dome as the prolefeed easterly equivalent. Inside, the newly reopened Dome resembles an Arizona shopping mall, only sheathed in greying Teflon. The whole area is ‘themed’ in a Grand Theft Auto art deco, and I wonder what Richard Rogers and Mike Davies think about what happened to their building. A ‘chill-out zone’ consists of a tent filled with iPods. Decorated guitars and fibreglass palm trees punctuate the ‘streets’, while outside a billboard proclaims a little history of entertainment – 1951 Frank Sinatra, 1983 ‘Metallica invents Speed Metal’, 1995 Blur vs Oasis – emblazoned on a series of gurning crowds.
* published by Verso. © Owen Hatherley 2010.
Bicycle hoops, Greenwich Peninsula. Photo © David Secombe 2004.
From A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain* by Owen Hatherley, 2010:
Within a few years, the area had taken on a definite identity, albeit not the one that was in the original brochure, and for most of the 2000s this was the place London forgot; a desolate landscape, one that was fascinatingly wrong, given the ecological and social-democratic ideas that had initially been thrown around in relation to it. A holding pen for Canary Wharf, yet somehow so much weirder than the usual Thames-side developments they inhabit. Alongside Erskine’s buildings – a staggered skyline of rendered concrete towers that would clearly be more at home in Malmö – was a nature reserve and a beach full of discarded shopping trolleys. The views were of industry either abandoned or clinging on, and pervaded by the sickly-sweet smell of the Tate & Lyle works. People were seldom seen, and the highways for cars en route to the Dome were utterly empty. Something resembling a dual hangar housed the ‘David Beckham Football Academy’ while concrete grain silos that would make Corbusier weep in admiration surveyed the area like sentries.
While this place was clearly a resounding failure on any social measure, it was a compellingly alien interzone in London’s cityscape. Neighbouring areas might be wracked by seething poverty and violence, but this enclave gave off a post-apocalyptic calm.
* published by Verso. © Owen Hatherley 2011
Greenwich Peninsula, SE10. Photo © David Secombe 2002.
From A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain*, Owen Hatherley, 2010:
The Greenwich Meridian just upriver made it an obvious centre for the Millennium Celebrations in 1999, so Major’s terminal Tory government drew up plans that were swiftly adopted by New Labour when they came to power in 1997. This time, though, the then vaunted Vision Thing would be key. Mike Davies at the Richard Rogers partnership, as it was then known, devised a PVC Tent that looked akin to a squashed version of the neighbouring gasholders, with yellow supports stretching themselves out like an industrial crown. The form was borrowed from an earlier, abortive master plan for the Royal Docks on the other side of the Thames, where several smaller tents were planned before the last recession. Initially devised as temporary, the tent’s PVC was demoted to Teflon when Green campaigners complained of ‘Waste’, landing them with a semi-permanent structure they would subsequently loudly abhor. Inside would be an exhibition divided into zones on culture, science, the body. When Blair’s government won the first Labour Landslide since Clement Attlee’s in 1945, some compared this Millennium Dome to the 1951 Festival of Britain, a parade of Modernist design and popular futurism mounted on the South Bank of the Thames. ‘Three dimensional socialist propaganda’ as it was called by Churchill, who hated and demolished it, leaving nothing after a Tory re-election but the Royal Festival hall, which would be encased in Portland stone in the 1960s to harmonize with the conservative restoration architecture of the Shell Centre.
Predictably, but no less sadly for that, things did not pan out that way. The Dome’s exhibition turned out to house a vast McDonalds and array of corporate advertainment, holding it up to a public ridicule that has only recently subsided.
* published by Verso. © Owen Hatherley 2011.