“Have you ever read JG Ballard?” asks Ali Sadler.
For three years in the 1970s Sadler, then a trainee nurse, lived at No 84 in Balfron Tower, the landmark concrete skyscraper in east London. Designed by Erno Goldfinger and opened in 1968, when local authorities still built council housing in earnest, Balfron arrived on the crest of a wave of high-rise developments. Towers were seen as the ideal solution to the problem of how to house people well in dense urban centres.
Thirty years later Sadler, now a children’s diabetes specialist nurse, bought a flat three doors down at number 81. Although Balfron’s apartments were now selling on the open market, Sadler says the thing she’d originally loved about it remained: the sense of community. “There were old East Enders who had lived there since the building opened, Bangladeshi families, Africans and eastern Europeans,” she said.
In 2011, however, she received a letter: her flat was to be vacated. Balfron was going to be redeveloped for the luxury market. The residents had to go.
In bringing up Ballard, Sadler is referring to High-Rise, the author’s 1975 novel set in a multi-storey building partly inspired by Balfron. It featured Antony Royal, a monstrous architect who, like Goldfinger, lived at the top of the tower he built. (Unlike Goldfinger, the fictional Royal beat up his tenants if they got too curious.) The book asked the question: what if, instead of the council tenants who lived in Balfron, such a tower was instead filled with a striving professional class and leisure activities that detached them from the world outside?
Ballard’s answer was that the proto-yuppie residents would be driven to vicious distraction by the bourgeois competitiveness fostered by their environment. Braying bourgeois mobs skulk in foyers. Dogs are eaten.
“I’ve looked at some of the stuff from the new developers,” says Sadler, “and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, it’s that book.’”
Indeed, life is mirroring art: this Saturday, the media will get an early glimpse of the new Balfron. All former residents of the 146-property building – renters and owners alike – have been moved on (bar seven leaseholders who dug in their heels). The developer, Londonewcastle, commissioned the architects Egret West and Ab Rogers (son of Sir Richard) to modernise to a “21st-century standard”, and the new residents are expected to be a panoply of professionals who will enjoy a high-spec cinema club, a music room complete with drum kit, a workshop, a library, a gym and a cooking and dining space for bigger soirees. All of the flats will be for sale, not rent.
The interiors, too, have been reshaped to 21st century standards. There is increased acoustic insulation, sprinklers, and ducts for a filtered ventilation system. The properties Goldfinger demarcated into separate rooms for living, cooking and dining are now open-plan, except for a handful of “heritage” apartments that have been given a “reverse-makeover” using carefully sourced period elements – most of the original taps, for example, were bought on eBay.
The real selling point is how faithful the redevelopment will be to the original: Goldfinger’s colour-coded floors and doors return, as do steel Crittall windows and the marble entrance hall (its replacement marble flown in from Portugal with the approval of English Heritage).
- Living spaces in Balfron Tower: left, as originally conceived, and right in the remodelled version. Photographs: courtesy of the Goldfinger family/Londonewcastle
Indeed, the true value of Balfron on the real estate market is its symbolism, because this tower encapsulates the story of London’s last 50 years better than almost any other building. Each decade of its existence captures the spirit of the age: from optimistic council estate in the 1960s to reviled brutalist bugbear in the 1970s; from right-to-buy individualist homeowning dream in the 1980s to crime hotspot in the 1990s; from being the target of commercial development in the 2000s to an artist-occupied embodiment of gentrification in the 2010s.
Balfron’s 27 storeys may have been eclipsed by higher towers, but it still stands as a huge physical and metaphorical gateway for London – between north and south, lording over the Blackwall tunnel under the Thames; between east and west London, where its sister building, the Trellick tower, looms like Isengard to its Barad-dûr; between London and the world, via the A13 road to the ports on the coast; and, more than anything, between the city’s much mythologised East End of cockney traders and pie and mash, and the modern financial domination of Canary Wharf, less than half a mile away.
Now, reflecting the way in which London’s regeneration story has shifted from individual gentrification to huge district-area facelifts, Balfron’s own facelift is the centrepiece of much wider plan. What is envisaged is nothing less than a large-scale and long-term regeneration of this entire district, an area that back when Balfron was built was accessible only by bus. Canary Wharf is coming for Poplar at last.
- A dining area available to new residents for larger-scale entertaining, created in a space that was once the tower’s boiler room. Photograph: Londonewcastle
The architects and developers are acutely aware of the tension inherent in such a plan, and have taken pains to emphasise their commitment to community. “It was really important… that this was a building again, community-forming,” says Londonewcastle’s head of development, Baerbel Schuett. “It’s owner-occupier. It’s not going to be taken to any kind of far-east show. It is sold here in London.”
It is nevertheless being sold to a particular clientele. One bedroom flats start at £365,000. In the marketing materials, the proximity of Canary Wharf is a major selling point.
“It’s a shame,” says Sadler. “I just feel like we all benefit from mixing up together, and I think what they are producing is something that will end up being exclusive.”
I was given an early look at the still-to-be-finished building, and was shown inside a large dining space that used to be the boiler room, located inside Balfron’s distinctive thin concrete tower, which is connected to the main residential block by “streets in the sky” walkways (Goldfinger’s solution for distancing the apartments from mechanical noise). Among the gathered crowd were representatives from the architects, Ab Rogers and Egret West, who enthusiastically projected their vision of future residents filling the room with dinner guests.
I am assured that the concierge will manage the bookings for the dining area, avoiding the kind of edgy bourgeois encounters that Ballard envisaged.
Poplar: stuck in the middle
You could say Balfron died as soon as it was born.
Goldfinger, a modernist architect from Hungary, was a Marxist who began designing the tower in 1963 as part of the wider Brownfield estate of council houses. Balfron was built to a ‘scissor plan’ – a way of interlocking flats to maximise space – and the design was generous: every apartment had dual aspect windows, welcoming sunrise to their bedrooms and sunset to their living rooms. The elegant yet imposing, burly yet intricate tower itself took the breath away, whether you liked it or not.
When it opened in 1968, it was one of the tallest towers in Europe; Goldfinger and his wife moved into a flat on the 24th floor for two months, gleaning feedback from tenants by putting on lavish champagne parties.
- Erno Goldfinger and his wife Ursula on the balcony of their flat in Balfron Tower. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
The almost immediate response from its vocal critics, however, was that in his feverish devotion to brutalism, Goldfinger had created a monster. “The first tower, although perversely beautiful, conjures up thoughts of prisons and pill-boxes,” wrote Terence Bendixson in the Guardian in 1969. “Here, too, vandalism is setting in.” The timing was equally terrible: two days after Goldfinger’s opening press conference in May 1968, the Ronan Point tower block in nearby Canning Town collapsed, undermining the supposed futurism of high-rise living.
In 1978, the East London Advertiser reported that Balfron residents felt isolated in the tower. Fifty-nine-year-old Harold Byford, who lived alone, said he felt like a “battery chicken in a box”. Parents bemoaned a lack of playing space and the impossibility of children mixing between floors. In the 1990s it developed a bad drug problem, and by 2002 it was providing a gritty, shopping trolley-strewn stage for the zombie horror 28 Days Later. Ian Fleming hated Goldfinger so much that he named a Bond villain after him.
“Don’t get me wrong,” says Steve Stride as we climb to the roof of a nearby high-rise building last month to have a look at Balfron: a tower of scaffolding and sheeting as concrete is sandblasted and lifts made faster. “A lot of people love [Balfron]. I take them round: ‘Oh, isn’t this fantastic? It’s brutalist architecture!’ … Well you’re welcome to it.”
Stride is the CEO of the powerful but little understood organisation that was behind the decision to turn Balfron into a luxury development: the Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association, better know as Poplar Harca.
Harca was once a small housing association, set up by Tower Hamlets in 1996 with the explicit intention of reviving the area. But it has grown in stature as the plan to reshape Poplar has mushroomed, and it now has a hold on Poplar that feels rare in a London borough. Harca owns one third of Poplar’s land and 75% of its housing stock as well as 16 community facilities, 13 community gardens and some roads and green spaces. And its remit to regenerate Poplar now includes not just Balfron but the regeneration of the whole Brownfield estate, as well as Aberfeldy estate and Chrisp Street Market.
- In 1969, Terence Bendixson wrote of Balfron tower that it was ‘perversely beautiful’ but ‘conjures up thoughts of prisons and pill-boxes’. Photograph: Riba Collections
Moreover, it is also trying to reshape the entire economy of this piece of cockney London. It wants to bring the rag trade back to the district by building a “fashion hub”, Poplar Works – a collaborative venture with the Trampery, a social enterprise for creatives, and London College of Fashion – that will turn old garages into more than 40 low-cost studios and workshops for early-stage fashion businesses.
Poplar, Stride says, has long been “stuck in the middle” between booming examples of London regeneration and he is glad it is finally receiving a piece of the action. The regeneration is fuelled by Harca’s quasi-Robin Hood business model, which seeks to generate as much value as possible from its assets. This means, for example, selling Balfron and building new private high-end flats at Chrisp Street Market, then using the money generated for social housing, upgrades to the area and helping new businesses set up, such as London’s first Haitian cafe.
From our vantage point on the roof, Stride gestures past Balfron to the totems of London’s eastern facelift: Canary Wharf, the O2, the vast new housing developments at Canning Town. “There is lots of regeneration going on,” he says. “Stratford is completely transformed of course, while we are the second most deprived area.” In particular, he says, he wants a more genuine connection between Canary Wharf, with its bankers and high-end restaurants, and more working-class Poplar. “What we are saying is: bring the jobs and the changes that you’re benefiting from – we want it here as well!”
Balfron is the jewel in the crown, the centrepiece of this vision. The decision to sell it means Harca can help do all the simple things that make a working-class neighbourhood respectable, he says, such as cleaner streets and more parks, which will make residents feel safe and proud when walking through the area. He also said the cost of upkeep was prohibitive, that elderly people and families with kids suffer when they live so high up, and that crime was an issue, although steps had been taken to combat it. “We’ve got a very good antisocial behaviour team and [resident-funded] police team, so the people who were throwing things out of their windows, we were able to get rid of them,” he says.
Those apparently less salubrious residents aside, Harca made it a priority to rehouse – or “decant”, in their parlance – all the former Balfron residents nearby. It claims that 95% of former residents were rehoused within Tower Hamlets (81% in Harca properties), and that approximately 35% of families were moved into a bigger property; 6% were downsized and the rest remained in comparable properties. New, lower-rise flats were built specifically for the former Balfron residents, and those residents who wanted to remain living in a brutalist block were moved into neighbouring Carradale, another Goldfinger-designed tower – their flats were bought by Harca using money from the government’s Decent Homes programme.
“Is this all gentrified?,” Stride asks, gesturing to the new low-rises flats. “This is all social rent and the quality is fantastic. Low-cost home ownership there. There’s no way you can say that is gentrified. Then you’ve got that tower in the corner. Then the rest is social rent. It’s beautiful.”
Colin Woollard, a Brownfield resident for 14 years and member of the estate board, which was involved in the regeneration, says Harca has facilitated four new parks and a school on the estate. “What we have had, over the last 10 years, is a total refurbishment [of the housing],” he said. “We only had an upstairs toilet, and I’ve got a disabled child, so we got a downstairs toilet [put in]. [We have had] new kitchens – they are trying to bring up a nice standard of living.”
Woollard, like Stride, doesn’t much like Balfron. “I’d rather demolish it, to be truthful … It was good for that time, but as the decades passed it was a paradise for drug deals and an assembly point for gangs and stuff like that.”
- The sale of Balfron provided Harca with money for more social housing and upgrades to public space in the area. Photograph: Sam Mellish/In Pictures via Getty Images
For those who have to leave their homes in Balfron, supposedly to make the maths work for the improvement of the rest of the neighbourhood, the thinking is that high-rise living has never been for everyone. Indeed, many rightly criticise earlier practices of housing people in towers who may not have wanted to live so high. And yet, not only did many people live happily in Balfron for decades, but now many others will pay top whack to live in it.
That Balfron is being readied for the luxury market, says John Boughton, the author of Municipal Dreams, a book on the story of UK council housing, “is a backhanded compliment for the fact that actually it was just very good housing.”
Indeed, Balfron wasn’t always vilified. For several decades it was considered by many to be a decent place to live. Sadler says it was only in the 1980s, after Margaret Thatcher abandoned the Greater London Council – the governing body of London that had overseen Balfron – that it began to go downhill, as the local council, Tower Hamlets, shouldered the burden.
But Balfron had long been lauded as a design success by the cultural establishment. It was listed in 1998, and acted as a post-industrial reference point to music videos by grime acts and indie bands.
Brutalism became de rigeueur; concrete was cool.
“OK, so we couldn’t stop Balfron Tower from being privatised and turned into luxury flats,” wrote author Owen Hatherley, one of Harca’s most vocal critics. “[I]n fact we probably helped it along, by turning brutalism into a coffee-table fetish object.”
- Balfron Tower was listed in 1998.
That process was crystallised in 2011: Harca invited artists to temporarily occupy the empty flats in a “guardianship” scheme in collaboration with Bow Arts Trust as the building was being emptied of its tenants. The artist Wane Hemingway made over Goldfinger’s old flat, No 130, with retro stylings; Turner nominee Catherine Yass’s “Piano Falling” would have seen her drop a piano from the 26th floor as a “swan song” for Balfron, before it was called off after a petition from local residents. An artist moved next door to Sadler’s sons, who were living in the family flat. “He’d come and knock on the door and want a chat. He was doing some project on extra terrestrials.”
For many, however, the scheme turned Balfron into a shorthand for “artwashing”: the practice of developers inviting artists to live in an area, giving it a vibrancy that raises property prices. One guardian, Rab Harling, entered Balfron in 2011 as an artist, and began a photography project to document the interior worlds of the flats. “I wanted to turn the building inside out,” he said. Instead, he began to learn more about the tenants compelled to leave the tower. He recorded some of their complaints in a short documentary that included claims from former residents of Balfron that they signed an agreement which stated that they could come back after refurbishment, only to be sent a letter by Harca a few months later reversing the decision. “I know a few people, a lot of the old people, wanted to go back,” one resident, Cindy, who lived there for 25 years, says in the film. “I think they lie to you.” Gavin, another former resident who was told he could stay, says his fortunes changed when housed in the tower in the 90s. “I was homeless and I was really thankful for a place … now it’s going to the richest of society.”
Harca’s own regeneration consultation documents promised that “no resident will lose their home involuntarily”. In response to the claims made in the film, a Harca spokeperson said: “We know that some residents wanted to return to Balfron – it had been their home for a long time. However, speaking with those same residents now, most of whom are settled in next-door in Goldfinger’s Carradale House, given the option they would now stay where they are.”
Harling, for his part, says he now feels that his presence as an artist was manipulated to encourage the social cleansing of the area, a strategy he describes as: “Get the artists in there, push the property prices up, this is our flagship. This is jewel in the crown of the entire area, which is about to be developed all the way up to the River Lea” (where another 30,000 new housing units are being built).
In 2013 Harling was evicted. He has since been homeless but continues to campaign against “class cleansing” on his Twitter account, Balfron Social Club, which was denounced by the director of the V&A, Tristram Hunt, as “keyboard warriors and artwash agitators”.
Yet it isn’t only keyboard warriors who have criticised Harca’s approach. The former Labour and now independent peer Lord Cashman made a stand against Harca’s Balfron plans in November 2015: “There has been incredibly poor communication with, and an incredibly poor attitude towards, tenants and leaseholders from the current landlord Poplar Harca over the decant and refurbishment, with changing plans, the insidious decanting of tenants, years of delay and an eventual declaration that Balfron Tower would be 100% privatised,” he said. “Tower Hamlets has always prided itself on being a diverse and inclusive borough. Might I suggest that social cleansing in this way is the antithesis of that?”
‘Regenerated or degenerated?’
Stride takes me to a well-used, open-faced DLR station. “I used to bring government ministers here,” he says. “This was a narrow alleyway, people getting mugged … a caged barbed wire bridge, it was awful. There was this massive issue about accessibility: because of the railways the rivers, the canals, the motorways, [the district] gets very easily divided.” He says Tower Hamlets had promised a station in the early 80s, but London Transport reneged on it. Harca organised the community, says Stride. “[They said] people won’t use it, and it will delay the train times between Stratford and Canary Wharf. So that was a red rag to a bull. And we won. They now say it’s the best station on the whole network … if you were here late at night you’d feel comfortable.” It now has 120,000 users a month. “That type of intervention, that’s what regeneration should be about.”
“Regenerated, or degenerated?” retorts Lorraine Paul when I ask her about Harca’s plans for Chrisp Street market, where she runs Ivy’s cafe. Ivy’s has served pease pudding, faggots and saveloys here since it was built by Sir Frederick Gibberd over the site of the old market and opened as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951.
- Chrisp Street market still has its characteristic pie and mash shops, but residents wonder if they survive the area’s regeneration. Photograph: Simon Balson/Alamy
Chrisp Street market still clings on to its old character – its pie and mash shops, independent hardware stores and pubs – while integrating some of the newer elements: the Haitian coffee shop, an Idea Store (as libraries are now called), and a co-working space run by the London Small Business Centre, called Chrisp Street Exchange. The Lansbury Estate and other buildings built during the Festival of Britain will be spared. But the artist impressions Stride shows me of what the new parts of Chrisp Street will look like seem cookie-cutter, resembling any recently regenerated square or quarter of London once deemed unfashionable or dangerous – although a pie and mash shop has been allowed to remain.
Paul doesn’t think Ivy’s will survive. The original building will be demolished next year as part of the regeneration and will not be replaced for another three years. During that time, the cafe will be moved to a new spot behind some barriers while the building work proceeds. The noise and dust will put off the customers, she predicts. Beyond that, she fears for the heart of the market.
“I don’t like what’s happening in this area any more. You ruin the East End. Just standardising every area to have a coffee shop, a wine bar, getting rid of all these markets that existed for years and years.”
She believes the neglected condition of the market under Harca is intentional.
“You’re not gonna sell for £1.5m when you look down on this shithole, are you? There’s millions of mice and rats underneath this ground. The floor is collapsing because they live underneath and all the tiles keep collapsing down because they are digging tunnels.”
- The Chrisp Street Market as it currently is; newer elements such as a Haitian cafe have been incorporated already, but the regeneration project will mean wider changes. Photograph: Pat Tuson/Alamy
Harca deny that they have neglected the market. “We’ve been working hard to sustain the market with events, publicity and investment,” insists a spokesperson. “The reason for the regeneration is because local people recognise that a significant intervention is necessary to protect the long-term future of the area – bringing new homes, jobs and energy to a much-loved community hub.”
Paul’s home on the nearby Teviot estate is being knocked down and rebuilt, following a resident vote in May that saw 86% of residents vote for expansion. Residents have been told they will be able to return after being decanted. Paul is moving to the Isle of Wight.
Stride says his hero is George Lansbury, the architect of “Poplarism”, the 1920s movement demanding poor relief be shared equally across all London boroughs. Poplar back then was a poster child for urban poverty after the shipping industry declined, and Lansbury, whose rise contains echoes of Jeremy Corbyn’s, argued for direct action.
Stride says he is “sympathetic to a more radical approach”, but suggests his hands are tied: even if Harca had wanted to renovate Balfron to include social housing, they would not have been given government funding to do so.
Ab Rogers, one of the architects, echoes that. He says he wishes he had the kind of backing that Goldfinger did. “Of course, I think all of us, without doubt [wish that],” he said. “Never are we further from it than now.”
He argues that the right-to-buy policy, which allowed council tenants to buy their property, “had a huge amount to answer for as well, because any social housing that is good gets bought out.”
The only solution, he says, is for the UK government to “build a significant social housing programme – building in significant ways through real long-term solutions, not wrapping up old buildings in really bad cladding that then catches on fire.”
- The proximity of Canary Wharf to Balfron Tower is a selling point for the new development. Photograph: Ben Pipe Photography/Getty Images
In the meantime, Balfron will be lived in only by those who can afford it, likely to be employees in Canary Wharf or the City of London, people who pay their service charges without a fuss and presumably won’t throw things out of the window. The implication is that Goldfinger’s aspirant architecture is somehow a bit much for lower earners: the luxification of the tower suggests the windows let too much light in, its design is too desirably functional, its spaces are too full of promise and endeavour to be considered for universal consumption.
I take a queasy ride on the workman’s lift to the Balfron roof, where there is a breathtaking 360-degree view of London. Goldfinger’s original working chimneys and ventilation shafts are gone; in their place will be a wild (but landscaped) meadow-style garden, with shrubs and hardy perennials – low-maintenance foliage that can withstand a battering from the weather. Goldfinger once said of his tower that “it will help bring the countryside to London”, a statement that spoke to the way the architect felt his buildings could open the city up to their residents. Balfron’s new walled garden, on the other hand, speaks of a privatised city folding in on itself.
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