London festival of architecture: Balfron Tower

Posted on July 2, 2014 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments

balfron tower


The month-long London festival of architecture this year was full of interesting tours and activities. I took the opportunity and book myself onto a tour to visit the iconic Grade II listed Balfron Tower in East London by British Hungarian architect, Ernő Goldfinger. (believe it or not, Ian Fleming did name his villain after him and had to pay the architect compensation when he threatened to sue).

The 27-storey residential building in Poplar was built between 1965-67 for London County Council as part of the Brownfield Estate. It was once the tallest residential building in Europe and stood as a monument to idealism in social housing. The architect later added two more buildings, Carradale House and Glenkerry House on the same estate to complement the original tower. However, his brutalist style was not very popular with the public nor many of his peers at the time, and it was only in recent years that people started to appreciate his designs. A year after Balfron Tower was built, Goldfinger used it as a model and built a similar 31-floor Trellick Tower (which is also Grade II listed) on Golborne Road in West London completed in 1972.


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When I was younger, I remember passing by the Trellick Tower while traveling to/from the airport on the A40, and I did think it was a bit of an eyesore because it looked rather dull, dirty and completely out of place. However, I was always intrigued by it and often wondered what it was like inside... Over the years, my perspective regarding brutalist architecture has changed and I finally began to appreciate the 'beauty' of these imposing and grey structures. Apart from the photographs, I have never seen the Balfron Tower in person (I have never even heard of Poplar before the tour), so I was quite excited to be able to visit such an iconic building.

The building is now vacant because it is about to be refurbished as part of the wider regeneration project for the surrounding Brownfield Estate by Poplar HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association). The refurbishment of Carradale House is completed recently, and now Poplar HARCA is working with PRP architecture and English Heritage to restore the tower.


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Our tour was led by two Ralph and Michael from London Urban Visits, who took us up to the top floor to visit a one-bedroom flat followed by a three-bedroom maisonette. The first flat is bright with decent sized rooms, but the best thing about it is the spectacular view of London from its living room and balcony. The maisonette is surprisingly spacious and the rooms are very well proportioned, unlike the ones in many new residential buildings these days. Even before the refurbishment, I can see the appeal of these flats because they are very well designed and extremely functional. Personally I would not mind even living in the smaller one-bedroom flat because it does not feel 'small' to me.


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The breathtaking view of London from the top...


We were also told that a housing scheme run by the Bow Arts Trust has offered some artists temporary residence in the emptied flats until renovation officially begins. Simon Terrill is one of the artist living there now and you can check out his work here. Another cultural event that is taking place at the tower this summer is the production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth by theatre company Rift. The play will last from 8pm until 8am the next day, so audience will have to stay overnight in the tower (Unfortunately this event is completely sold out now)!

Refurbishment may appear to be good news to the previous residents but in reality, the refurbished flats will be sold off privately when they are completed. The social housing was initially built for the less privileged people in the society but now they are being evicted to pave way for the wealthier people. How ironic is this? Yet this is not an isolated case in London, is this the Government's idea of a 'BIG society' (i.e. big profits come before the welfare of the citizens)?


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Main & 2nd row left: Carradale House; 2nd row middle & bottom left: Glenkerry House; 2nd row right: Chrisp Street Market clock tower; Bottom right: Poplar DLR station


London has always been a multicultural and diverse city where the rich would live amongst the poor, it is not like Paris where the wealthy would concentrate in the centre whilst the poor live in the suburbs or banlieues. With a few exceptions, these suburbs are where most low-income foreigners or immigrants live, and now they also considered as troubled areas with riots, high crime and unemployment rates. Yet London is now becoming more like Paris, gentrification in parts of the city esp. in the east end means the lower income group are constantly being evicted out of their neighbourhood. Most of the new housing being built in the city are luxury apartments targeting at foreign investors rather than social housing for the low income group, and Boris' so-called 'affordable' housing in reality is only affordable for some... e.g. people will need to earn more than £44,000 a year to rent a 2-bedroom council flat in Southwark.

Social and wealth segregation is becoming more obvious in London, and sadly, this is not the London I grew up in and I do not want to this city becoming a 'bourgeois' Paris. Any sort of segregation whether it is social, wealth, ethnic or religion will be problematic as inequality of wealth widens and discrimination deepens. I dread to see what London will be like in the future if this segregation continues...


This post was posted in London, Architecture, British design, Social issues, Design, Modernist & Art Deco and was tagged with London, architecture, Brutalism, London festival of architecture, social housing