Balfron Tower : From Socialist Housing to Luxury Apartments

James Wakefield, 2017


In 2009, during my first visit to Notting Hill Carnival with a can of Red Stripe in one hand and camera in the other, I noticed a building in the distance.  It was a tower block like hundreds I had seen before, but with a striking visual difference that caused an immediate emotional response that I had often felt when encountering an urban relic or space that fed into my fascination with Brutalist architecture and urban decay.  Here was a building, Trellick Tower, that showed characteristics of many since disparaged buildings of that era, yet stood out so brilliantly thanks to a simple disconnection between the main habited block and a separate service tower containing the lifts; both towers connected by walkways on every third level.  I knew then that I had to find out more about this building, but being an infrequent visitor to London, accepted that it would only be a fleeting interaction.

Trellick Tower  seen from Notting Hill Carnival, 2009 – James Wakefield

Trellick Tower seen from Notting Hill Carnival, 2009 – James Wakefield

A few years later, after spontaneously moving to London, I was one day confronted by an almost identical building as I drove out of the Blackwall Tunnel after an unsuccessful day photographing some of the areas mentioned in Owen Hatherley’s New Ruins of Modern Britain.  I took the opportunity to explore further and was confronted by an environment I was familiar with from photographing similar locations in the past; signs of decay and decline due to years of neglect and a feeling of being somewhere on the economic and social fringes of society.  The building itself, Balfron Tower, stood out defiantly in the landscape; a beacon of a social housing ideal from many decades before that had apparently suffered from the same neglect physically and politically as so many buildings of that era. 

Balfron Tower , March 2014 – James Wakefield

Balfron Tower, March 2014 – James Wakefield

By pure coincidence, just a few months after this encounter, I received an email to my Goldsmiths account inviting people to participate in Balfron Season – a month long ‘festival’ of events being held prior to an imminent renovation of the building.  I immediately responded and soon found myself partaking in a two-week exhibition with three other photographers in one of the flats in Balfron.  We agreed on a simple remit that would involve us all taking a slightly different approach to photographing the building, in my case concentrating primarily on the communal areas and corridors, presenting my work in black and white.

Poster from our September 2013 exhibition in Balfron Tower and visitors to the exhibition in Flat 89 (below)

Poster from our September 2013 exhibition in Balfron Tower and visitors to the exhibition in Flat 89 (below)

My photography exhibition was a visceral, aesthetic and largely superficial reaction to a building I actually knew very little about and marked the beginning of a complex journey as I started to dissect the origins, history and anticipated future of this iconic building.

Many of the conversations I had with visitors to our exhibition concerned the ingenuity of the building’s design, with people especially gratified by the double-aspect views of London and the bright, spacious flats.  There was, however, an undertone of uncertainty about its future, with rumours circulating about how an imminent £60m refurbishment, undoubtedly required to secure the structural and cultural integrity of the building, would affect its original intention and function as social housing.

After the exhibition had finished, I found myself becoming more intrigued about the nature of this building and how it was representative of Britain’s troubled and complex relationship with social housing.  In the context of a London residential property market that is perceived to be ‘out of control’[1] and permeates through so much discussion amongst Londoners, I was also interested in Balfron Tower’s context within that market.

In this study, I will explore how Balfron Tower was borne from the Modernist movement by a Communist leaning Hungarian architect and quickly fell out of favour in the public imagination through a multi-facet of narratives against large-scale public housing projects and concrete tower blocks.  I will then examine how, many years later, the building’s strong conceptual and structural foundations led to it being re-evaluated and recognised for its architectural significance through a Grade II listing, whilst many other blocks from the same era and genre had long failed or been demolished.  I will then examine the building’s controversial recent past and imminent future as its current owners (a non for profit Housing Association) contemplate the cost of a huge renovation bill against local pressure to retain the block as social housing. 

All of these stages within the life cycle of Balfron Tower, I will argue, constitute a constant revalorisation and reimagining of the place brand of the building.  Whilst the building has remained a material constant, the social, political, economic and cultural changes around it have contributed to multiple reinterpretations of the building’s purpose, what it symbolises and who is entitled to ownership of it.


Research Methods

Whilst my original interactions with Balfron Tower were immersive and to an extent, ethnographic, they did not provide me with sufficient insight into the history and present circumstances of the building.

First and foremost, it was important to understand the history and context in which Balfron Tower was built.  A wider understanding of social housing history and post-war planning was achieved through reading academic studies such as Council Housing and Culture (Ravetz), Architecture & The Welfare State (Swenarton), Building the Post-War World (Bullock), Ground Control (Minton) and more anecdotal titles such as Estates (Hanley), Concretopia (Grindrod), Chavs (Jones), as well as Owen Hatherley’s numerous critiques on urban planning, especially Militant Modernism.

My knowledge of the architect, Ernő Goldfinger, came from reading his biography (Warburton) and any other books I was able to get hold of dedicated to him, especially Works 1 (Architectural Association).  I have also read around other architects and planners relevant to the Modernist movement, especially Le Corbusier and Patrick Abercrombie, as well as Brutalism: Post-War British Architecture (Clement).

Balfron Tower itself is referred to only in a small number of books, and rarely in detail, so I found it necessary to look further afield, which involved visiting the vast archive at the Royal Institute of British Architects where I was able to look at the original plans and correspondence related to the building.  I also found some relevant material at the Tower Hamlets Archive and London Metropolitan Archive.

David Roberts, a doctoral student at UCL, has worked extensively around the building and recently launched a comprehensive online archive relating to it.[2]  This was useful in building a wider picture of public and press reaction to the building as well as introducing me to a number of other relevant books, especially Rising in the East (Butler, Rustin) and Mediating Modernism (Higgott).  David has also offered me direct advice and guidance throughout this research process for which I am most grateful.

Two titles that were critical in my wider understanding of the concepts explored later in this study are Place Branding (Govers & Go) and Concrete & Culture (Forty).  The most inspirational book, however, has been Remaking London (Campkin), which has been written with a distinct inter-disciplinary quality that is representative of the nature of the Masters programme that I have been engaged in at Goldsmiths.

I have been fortunate that the past year has seen a significant number of academic and cultural events related to the very issues explored in this study including one specifically on Balfron Tower hosted recently at Goldsmiths, which I discuss in detail in section V. 

My historical understanding of the building has come largely through secondary research, so rather than writing a literature review, these will be discussed and dissected in the main body of the study. 

Primary research has been achieved through my photographic work in and around Balfron Tower, as well as a two-hour interview with the Head of Creativity & Innovation at the housing association that now owns the building.

I also had the opportunity to participate in another photography exhibition in April, just a few minutes walk from Balfron Tower.  This was held in a former shoe shop in the main shopping area in Poplar over a two-week period and was frequented by a significantly higher number of local residents than the previous exhibition.  I used this as an opportunity (where possible) to informally interview people who had lived at Balfron Tower, or in its shadow, in order to further my understanding of people’s attitudes and feelings towards the building.

Poster from our April 2014 exhibition in Poplar

Poster from our April 2014 exhibition in Poplar


The Rise of British Modernism

Balfron Tower was conceived by Ernő Goldfinger (1902-1987); a Hungarian-born architect who is described as combining the Structural-Rationalism of his mentor Auguste Perret, with the social idealism of Le Corbusier, both of who played a very significant role in the formation of the Modernist architectural movement.[3]

The rapid industrialisation of Europe throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries resulted in numerous social problems, particularly visible in the inner-city working class areas.  In London these areas had experienced rapid and hasty expansion in the 1820s and one hundred years later were starting to show severe signs of dilapidation due to ineffective housing policies and neglectful landlords, aggravating problems of sanitation, rot and pest infestation.[4]

Industrialisation, however, brought with it exciting new materials and technologies that could be utilised in architecture and city planning.  The new Modernist architects rejected the ornamentalism and formalism that had preceded them and embraced radical ideas to address the pressing social needs of the new urbanised population.

Swiss-born Le Corbusier considered the ‘machinery of society’ to be ‘profoundly out of gear’ and saw architecture as a solution to social catastrophe and unrest.[5]  His Ville Contemporaine and La Ville Radieuse were grand utopian visions of a future metropolis, which would be achieved by demolishing the existing landscape and starting again, from a sanitised and organised city plan.

When his book ‘Towards an Architecture’ was translated into English in 1927 it was described as “a key point in the formation of a British Modern Movement” which until that point had been “resoundingly historicist and complacent”.[6]  Throughout the 1930s, numerous influential left-wing émigrés moved to England and further influenced this movement, including Erich Mendelson, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breur, Berthold Lubetkin and the subject of this study, Ernő Goldfinger.  Their material of choice was concrete.

In Concrete and Culture: A Material History, Adrian Forty explains how “Everywhere, concrete was associated with left-leaning politics”.  He describes how in Fyodor Gladkov’s novel Cement (1925), the cement, like socialism, creates a bond between a mass of loose particles: “We produce cement. Cement is a firm bond. Cement is us, comrades – the working class.”[7]

Berthold Lubetkin, a Georgian émigré, united the aesthetic and political ambitions of Modernism through works such as the Finsbury Health Centre (1935), constructed from reinforced concrete and commissioned by a socialist governed borough.  The English Heritage assessment of this now Grade I listed building explains how it displays Lubetkin’s “deeply social beliefs and the role he believed architecture could play in the creation of a new society.”[8]  His political leanings are also clearly reflected in his later residential block Lenin Court (1954), which was later renamed Bevin Court with its bust of Lenin removed, due to political controversy.

Similarly, Ernő Goldfinger completed two buildings early in his British career that affirm his political leanings of the time; the Daily Worker newspaper building in Farringdon and the Communist Party Headquarters in Covent Garden (both in 1946).[9]

Headquarters of the left wing  Daily Worker  newspaper, designed by Goldfinger and constructed in 1946

Headquarters of the left wing Daily Worker newspaper, designed by Goldfinger and constructed in 1946

Although housing reform had been top of the political agenda since the 1920s[10], there was little appetite for the radical transformations proposed by Modernism until after WW2. The immense damage caused by German bombing presented Britain with a unique opportunity to completely reshape the landscape of many cities, especially London.  This, combined with the egalitarian influence of the immediate post-war Labour government[11] and a now established town planning movement set the scene for a radical approach to post-war reconstruction.

Patrick Abercrombie’s County of London Plan (1943) and Greater London Plan (1944), although never fully implemented, were holistic and comprehensive proposals to address the pressing issues of “traffic congestion, depressed housing, inadequacy and maldistribution of open spaces, the jumble of houses and industry, and the continued sprawl of London.”[12]  Notably, Goldfinger was the person tasked with explaining the County of London Plan to the public in its first iteration, showing he was at this stage closely involved in the reshaping of London.

Diagrams from the  County of London Plan , showing zoning proposals and land use reconfigurations [13]

Diagrams from the County of London Plan, showing zoning proposals and land use reconfigurations[13]

Abercrombie’s plans made clear distinctions between industrial and residential areas and how the problems of density would be resolved through a combination of low-rise and high-rise developments.

Goldfinger had himself submitted a design for a 22-storey block of flats to his contemporaries (including Le Corbusier) in 1933 at CIAM IV (Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne) in Athens.  Fourteen years later Le Corbusier started work on one of his most famous buildings; the Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles, which would pioneer the use of béton brut (rough cast exposed concrete) that is attributed with starting the Brutalist architectural movement. [15]

Goldfinger’s  CIAM  submission (1933)

Goldfinger’s CIAM submission (1933)

Le Corbusier’s completed  Unité d'Habitation,  Marseilles (1947)

Le Corbusier’s completed Unité d'Habitation, Marseilles (1947)

By the time Britain had shaken off austerity in the early 1950s, The Festival of Britain gave the “hungry young element” [16] of the architectural profession the opportunity to showcase their new ideas (although Goldfinger was largely sidelined from this[17]) and a period of massive reconstruction and restructuring ensued through public and private enterprise, but largely under the direction of central and local government, with housing as the main focus.[18]


The Rise of Balfron Tower

In 1961, the London County Council was looking at several potential sites for construction of social housing.  Goldfinger, although now late into his career, had established himself within the British Modernist movement and entered into discussions with the LCC about a site on Rowlett Street in Poplar.  He proposed three 15-storey point blocks, but as it became clear that a high density of 170 persons per acre would be permitted, Goldfinger revised his proposal for a much larger single 26-storey block.  In a February 1963 meeting of the LCC Housing Division, ‘Mr Kaye’ of the Town Planning department commented “the 27 storey block was possibly out of scale with its surroundings” and then corrected himself saying it was “definitely out of scale with its surroundings”.[19]  A subsequent meeting deliberated the issues of building such a large block and determined “substantial advantages to the public interest would be gained by a high building” and that it would not mar the skyline or affect views.  In fact “a high sense of visual drama would be achieved while emerging from the Blackwall Tunnel”.[20]

There were, however, numerous complaints by local residents when they were notified of the planning proposals in early 1964, professing concerns regarding privacy, inadequate sunlight, construction noise and dust and the lack of children’s play facilities in the area.  The scheme, however, was approved and construction started in the same year that the London County Council transitioned into the Greater London Council in 1965.  The GLC took responsibility over the project and construction was completed in 1967.

Balfron Tower was part of a significant regeneration of East London.  This area of Poplar was the largest Comprehensive Development Area in Britain[21] and was described in 1966 as “a totally new world, dominated by the tall blocks of flats and by the lower terraces of the three- and four-storey maisonettes, standing in spacious gardens and landscaped squares.”[22]

The extent of the Goldfinger archive at the RIBA shows how absorbed the architect was in his building beyond simply its design.  In a widely reported exploit, Goldfinger and his wife moved into Balfron Tower for a brief period after it opened in 1968, paying full rent and living on the top floor.  Goldfinger presented this as a ‘sociological experiment’ that would allow him to determine any technical deficiencies which could be eliminated from future designs, but also to assess the sociological implications of rehousing families in a tower block.

Press coverage of Goldfinger’s stay at Balfron Tower – Daily Express 28 February 1968

Press coverage of Goldfinger’s stay at Balfron Tower – Daily Express 28 February 1968

Goldfinger was keen to emphasise the sun, space and greenery mantra of high-rise Modernist living and the sense of community inherent in his design, conscious that opponents of high-rise architecture questioned how communities could function vertically:

“The success of any scheme depends on the human factor - the relationship of people to each other and the frame to their daily life which the building provides … As far as possible, people from the same area were re-housed together - street by street.”[23]

Goldfinger’s stay at Balfron received a significant amount of press attention and is still often cited even in brief mentions about the building.  Commentary about his stay generally falls into two camps; those that saw it as genuine empirical research grounded in the holistic and humanist approach to his discipline, and those who derided the spectacle as a publicity stunt to further the architect’s ego and celebrity.  There are reports of him throwing ‘champagne parties’ and ultimately returning to the tranquillity of his Hampstead home after the short two-month stay, but it is also clear that he considered the experience as key in his understanding of the social and physical functioning of the building, which ultimately influenced his design of the later Trellick Tower.

One letter to The Guardian in 1968 titled ‘Architect with his head in the clouds’, questioned what possible sociological value could be gained from staying in the building for just two months.  Another letter to the newspaper had some wider criticism:

“It does seem extraordinary that we can still go on building 26-storey blocks of flats such as the Poplar one recently shown in the “Guardian.” “Warehouses for storing human beings” was a term used not so long ago by an architectural critic for a similar housing scheme. It seems apt. The regrettable thing is that designers and town-planners should have so lost sight of ordinary human values and basic common sense that they could ever have imagined that a family could have live happily in monsters such as the Poplar block.”[24]

The architectural press, however, were more generous to Goldfinger, highlighting that his decision to stay in the tower should be a lesson to the whole profession, who were largely perceived as being out of touch with the community that they serve. [25]

 “What one admires about this experiment is the intensity of thought and public response that has come out of it. It is not for nothing that Goldfinger has been made an honorary member of the Tenants’ Association. Few architects can claim that distinction.”[26]

Last year, the National Trust commissioned Wayne Hemingway to recreate Goldfinger’s flat and hosted a number of performative events based around the architect’s stay.

Wayne Hemingway’s re-interpretation of Goldfinger’s flat in Balfron Tower, 2014

Wayne Hemingway’s re-interpretation of Goldfinger’s flat in Balfron Tower, 2014



The Fall of British Modernism

“The gains were very real; the great housing estates were often an undoubted improvement on pre-war living conditions. And ideologically they were a conspicuous architectural statement that a new world was being born. Behind the physical change lay the implication that a social and economic change was also taking place. There was a strong conviction that physical reconstruction was in itself a means of achieving social reconstruction.  ‘Architecture or Revolution’, Le Corbusier had said. ‘Revolution can be avoided.’”[27]

In Rising in the East, Bill Risebero explains how the physical reconstruction of certain areas of London had a dramatic impact on almost every aspect of the physical and lived environment, but this was not the whole story.  A new physical landscape was no substitution for social revolution and however radical the architecture, the political, economic and class framework remained much as it did before; bound by the constraints of capital accumulation in a Capitalist economy.  Furthermore, the pursuit of the welfare state had led to a constantly accelerating inflationary cycle combined with increased expectations amongst the population.[28]

The huge pressures placed on local authorities to modernise their housing stock led to the rise of new, cheaper and largely untested methods of construction including prefabricated building and large panel systems (LPS).  LPS was mechanical reproduction’s answer to fast, cheap and modern housing through the factory production of large concrete panels that were transported to site for placement by unskilled labour with the assistance of cranes.[29] By the mid 60s there were over two-hundred industrialised housing systems competing for housing authorities attention in Britain[30] and government made them compulsory for large-scale projects, incentivising building projects over five storeys. [31]

Forty describes how for politicians, the temptation to surmount the ever-moving target of public expectations, system building provided “sudden, wide-scale evidence of social transformation”. [32]  However, the competitive nature of the market resulted in cost cutting and a decline in quality control, leading to an event that Owen Hatherley describes as representing the death knell of Modernism in the UK:

“Charles Jencks famously declared Modernism dead on the demolition of Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St Louis, while in Britain it tends to have been dated to the collapse of the shoddy, prole-stacking Ronan Point tower block in East London, in 1968.”[33]

Just one day after Goldfinger and his wife moved out of Balfron Tower[34], a mile and half away in Newham, there was a catastrophe that would finally slow the unabashed pursuit of tower-block social architecture in Britain.

Described as one of the “biggest stories of this big news year”[35], the sudden collapse of Ronan Point, a two-month old 22-storey LPS block, was caused by a minor gas explosion when a resident on the eighteenth floor lit her stove.  A later inquiry found that a pressure of just 1.4psi would be required to remove the external walls and trigger a progressive collapse.[36]  In the case of Ronan Point, this meant a total collapse of an entire wing of the building and the death of four people.  The subsequent investigations made it clear that this was an avoidable tragedy caused by a combination of shoddy workmanship and fallible construction methods.  Each panel had been fastened with just two bolts and where cement should have been used to seal panels together, voids were instead stuffed with newspaper or left empty.

The collapse of Ronan Point in Newham, 1968

The collapse of Ronan Point in Newham, 1968

“It quickly became a national scare, with the finger of blame pointing at the construction firm, the local council and ultimately the government for encouraging the boom in system-built high-rise flats.”[37]

Forty explains how the use of concrete construction in the West was primarily ideological, used by social democratic governments to maintain electoral advantage by giving the impression that things were moving forward.  By the time of the Ronan Point disaster, there were over 30’000 dwellings around the country that had been built using similar systems and quickly flaws in other methods started to materialise, adding to the public narrative against Modernism’s ‘architectural revolution’.

“More than any other single episode, the collapse of Ronan Point disabused British people of expectations that concrete might change the quality of life for the better.  Whatever confidence there had earlier been in concrete fabrication evaporated, and the use of prefabricated systems went into rapid decline thereafter.”[38]

Although many blocks and estates were built to aid slum clearance and were met with initial positive response from their tenants, their questioning by the public and denunciation in the media contributed to a spiral of decline as those who were more economically secure moved elsewhere, creating hard to let areas.  This combined with an unrelenting pressure on social housing meant tenures were increasingly made up of vulnerable and impoverished families, leading to a reduction in rental income for local authorities and inhibiting their ability to invest in general maintenance and repairs. [39]

The physical and social decline in public housing ensued beyond the 1970s and was aggravated by sociological studies such as Alice Coleman’s Utopia on Trial and Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space, which I have analysed in a previous essay.  Both of these studies blamed the architecture and design of Modernist estates for their social problems, largely ignoring other factors such as poor management, under-maintenance and underinvestment, yet both were influential in feeding into the imaginary of decline and further political disinvestment from social housing.

When Margaret Thatcher came into power in 1979, her government pursued a radical economic and privatisation agenda, which ultimately led to the state taking a step back from social housing provision.  Her flagship Right to Buy policy allowed council tenants to buy their properties at a massive discount and in the first fifteen years, 1.6 million homes were bought from councils. [40] Local authorities, however, were prevented from replacing the stock they had sold, with government believing market forces would fill the gap.[41]

The ideological rejection and political disinvestment from council housing has led to a situation where “public housing is now seen as housing of last resort.”[42]  When Thatcher came to power, council housing still provided for a wide demographic, with one-third of tenants being on above average incomes.  By 1995, 95% of those housed by local authorities were on some form of means-tested benefits.[43]  Since then, successive governments have attached diminishing value to the state provision of housing (and modernist tower and slab blocks in particular). [44]

Sarah Buckingham, a conservation officer at Tower Hamlets describes how this has happened in conjunction with a wider critique of Modernist public housing, which was created in the belief that it would be positive for society, but was in fact “instrumental in dispersing localised, close knit communities” with “insecurity and discontent often manifested through an unfriendly and vandalised environment.”[45]


The Fall of Balfron Tower

For Goldfinger, the timing of the rapid rejection of tower-block architecture and the material so inextricably linked to it, concrete, was unfortunate.  Unlike the system built blocks, Goldfinger’s towers were built to a much higher standard using forming and in-situ concrete, but their Modernist ‘arrogance’, monumentality of scale and exposed concrete aesthetic made them guilty by association.

They were also, it seems, not immune from the social deterioration that had begun to plague other estates.  Just one year after opening, in 1969, The Guardian reported that decline was already setting in at Balfron Tower:

“In this world of asphalt, noise, railings, and gloomy subways Erno Goldfinger, the distinguished private architect, has chosen to pack most of the dwellings into tall concrete towers that are already stained with rust. The first tower, although perversely beautiful, conjures up thoughts of prisons and pill-boxes. Here, too, vandalism is setting in.”[46]

This article contributes to an imaginary of decline that was now firmly embedded within public discourses about Modernist council estates and high-rise architecture.  Seven years later, this extended into the realm of literature when J G Ballard released High Rise; a dystopian novel about societal breakdown set in a high-rise building.  Ballard reputedly based the building in his novel on Balfron Tower, with the antagonist architect, Anthony Royal, representative of Goldfinger.[47]

The book starts out with much promise to the residents, the tower offering all the conveniences of modern life whilst being conspicuously isolated from the outside world.  It rapidly degenerates into feral chaos, with tenants dividing themselves into the lower, middle and upper classes, in the lower, middle and upper floors respectively, reverting to animalistic tendencies, forgoing all the social conventions of modern society and further isolating themselves from the outside world.

J.G. Ballard’s  High Rise  (1975)

J.G. Ballard’s High Rise (1975)

The architect lives on the top floor where he is able to keep an eye on his social ‘experiment’.  It is difficult not to think of Goldfinger in Ballard’s description:

“As always, his expression was an uneasy mixture of arrogance and defensiveness, as if he was all too aware of the built-in flaws of this huge building he had helped to design, but was determined to stare-out any criticism.”[48]

Ballard’s book is a complex, extreme and brutal interpretation of high-rise living, where the residents of the building succumb to a reckless exploration of their psychopathic desires.[49]  Although Ballard himself described his use of the building in the novel as an “extreme metaphor”, it is indicative of a time when high-rise architecture was perceived so negatively.  Ballard’s book was released during council housing’s peak in 1975, but in her extensive study Council Housing and Culture, Alison Ravetz describes how it experienced a rapid decline soon after, “to the point where its early idealism was completely forgotten and it was viewed more in the light of dystopia than utopia”.[50]

By 1978 an article in the East London Advertiser pinpointed Balfron Tower as representing the “worst in high-rise design” with the four-hundred-odd residents being in agreement with head of housing policy at the GLC that high-rise living can be a “ghastly and isolating experience”.  The article goes on to describe the lack of community in the building, which contributed to neglect and criminality:

“Fifty-nine-year-old Harold Byford, who has lived alone at the top for two years, says he feels like a ‘battery chicken in a box’ in his flat…. Such a ‘keep yourself to yourself’ attitude has made Balfron Towers easy pickings for vandals and thieves. Mr Byford has twice been burgled.”[51]

As further social and political disinvestment ensued, both Balfron and Trellick Tower experienced a sustained period of decline, exacerbated by the issues so common amongst estates of the same era; neglect by local authorities and the bunching together of the highest risk and most vulnerable tenants.  Lynsey Hanley describes in her book Estates how successive decline has fed into the wider public imaginary of such places:

“The phrase ‘council estate’ is a sort of psycho-social bruise: everyone winces when they hear it. It makes us think of dead ends (in terms of lives as well as roads), stereotypes, the absence of escape routes. It makes us think of bad design, identical front doors, windswept grass verges, and the kind of misplaced optimism which, in Britain especially, gives the individualistically inclined an easy way to kick social-democratic values.”[52]


Linking decline to the Brutalist aesthetic

In Remaking London, Ben Campkin describes how ‘brutalist’ and ‘brutal modernist architecture’ has become associated with ugliness, dirt and contamination through a persistent and multi-faceted range of narratives.  Using Elephant & Castle in south London as an example, which underwent a similar degree of post-war reconstruction as Poplar, he describes how the ‘ugliness’ of the area “has been communicated through an iconography of anomaly, disfigurement and monstrosity… elaborated through descriptions of the area’s dirtiness, deprivation and material degradation”.[53] 

Interestingly, Campkin focuses on one particular building in Elephant & Castle that is attributed to having contributed to the ‘ugly’ perception that area prior to the building’s renovation in the mid-1990s – Alexander Fleming House, designed by Ernő Goldfinger and completed in 1967.    Described by Stephen Bayley in 1988 as “being more at home in Moscow or Leningrad”,[54] this network of five sprawling Constructivist buildings of “dramatic spatial and volumetric complexity”[55] was initially used by the Ministry of Health, becoming infamous for reports of Sick Building Syndrome with occupants reporting health problems from being in the building, without being able to identify a specific illness or cause.

Alexander Fleming House , Elephant & Castle

Alexander Fleming House, Elephant & Castle

In 1988, the Environment Minister Virginia Bottomley, who had worked in the building as Health Secretary, refused an application for the building to be listed, officially stating: “Few think that Alexander Fleming House has proved a satisfactory building, either to look at or to work in. We are listing only the most outstanding modern buildings where there is a broad consensus about their quality.”[56]

According to Campkin, privately she is alleged to have said, “We don’t want to list that – it’s concrete, it’s Communist!”.[57]  Coming from a MP whose Conservative government had pursued a radical neo-liberal agenda with a strong disinvestment from social housing, this comment is indicative of a rejection of the socialist foundations of Modernist architecture.

Goldfinger also constructed a cinema next to Alexander Fleming House.  A spokesman for the developers that had responsibility over both buildings throughout the 80s and 90s said: “I find this mania for buildings nobody wants standing round beyond my understanding.  It could have been designed by the people who designed Hitler’s concrete bunker.”[58]

These allusions to foreignness, communism, Nazism and a war aesthetic are unequivocal responses to the style and origins of this architecture.  Goldfinger’s biographer describes how, towards the end of the last century, for many, exposed concrete incited connotations of “the bunker, the pillbox, the tank trap and the gun implacement, if not of the grimy multi-storey car park and the graffiti covered walkways of poorly-constructed shopping centres and tenement blocks”.[59]

Goldfinger’s Cinema at Elephant & Castle (1965-1988)

Goldfinger’s Cinema at Elephant & Castle (1965-1988)

Ultimately, just one year after Goldfinger’s death in 1987, the developer got their way when, upon hearing that the cinema may be listed, immediately demolished it.  Alexander Fleming House, however, was saved from demolition mainly due to procrastination and converted to apartments in 1997, rebranded as Metro Central Heights.  Although Goldfinger’s former colleague James Dunnett described the conversion as “ham-fisted” and others regarded the changes as an insult to Goldfinger’s intelligence[60], this episode is indicative of the complex and contentious relationship between the British public and Modernist buildings. 

Alexander Fleming House  repurposed and reimagined as  Metro Central Heights ; painted white and given blue cladding to soften its ‘offensive’ Modernist and Constructivist heritage

Alexander Fleming House repurposed and reimagined as Metro Central Heights; painted white and given blue cladding to soften its ‘offensive’ Modernist and Constructivist heritage

Part of the discomfort associated with the Modernist ‘international style’ has been linked to its violent break from British traditionalism and perception as ‘foreign’.  There can also be aspects of a design which may make it appealing to the architectural profession, but may have in fact contributed to its dysfunction as a building, with Buckingham describing how “at best, these qualities may render it unpopular, and, at worst, may be the instruments of its significant functional failure.”[61]

The characteristic aspects of Modernism; monumentality of scale, Spartan plainness and visual repetition have also been attributed to “common perceptions of an unfriendly, unreadable, indeed impersonal environment.”[62]

Goldfinger did not state a desire to create works of ugliness, but did recognise the potential of ‘thrilling architecture’ with ‘subconscious impact’.[63]  Dunnett describes how the sheer scale and drama of Goldfinger’s residential towers are “exciting, but unnerving”, going on to explain how his choice of elements of a “distinctly minatory character” are seemingly inspired from the artefacts of war.[64] 

The ambiguous nature of concrete which Forty describes as ‘modern, yet unmodern’, ‘natural, yet unnatural’, combined with Modernism’s association with communism, foreignness, urban decay and failed social reform can be problematic for the common man, especially within the context of an aesthetic that is intimidating, complex, unreadable and war-like.

Dunnett, writing in 1983, acknowledged the challenging and dichotomous nature of Goldfinger’s work:

“I can only offer a subjective response to an architecture that can seem both beautiful and terrifying in its implications…. In Goldfinger’s hands the millennial utopian vision has acquired an air of menace, the ideal has been pushed to its very limits.”[65]

Metro Central Heights finally received acknowledgment of its architectural heritage and perpetual protection from demolition in 2013.



Rescuing Balfron Tower

Owen Hatherley describes how architectural Modernism, by its very nature, was a reaction against the traditions that preceded it and had no interest in classification as an art-historical style. [66]  Today, this poses a problem as we grapple with the dichotomy of what should be preserved from a genre that facilitated fundamental social change on such a massive scale in post-war Britain, but is largely perceived by the wider public as a failure in political and aesthetic terms.

Firstly, it is important to note that whilst it took Goldfinger a long time to be accepted into the establishment and his major projects were completed at a time when the narrative was turning against the Modernist style, his works are “now valued, not as curiosities, but as good architecture.”[67]  In Mediating Modernism, Andrew Higgott explains how in the 1960s, it was believed that the 19th century had produced generally bad architecture and this view threatened buildings which we would today consider sacrosanct.  The passage of time and reflection has had the same effect on Goldfinger’s buildings and both Balfron and Trellick Tower received protection from English Heritage in the form of listed status, in 1996 and 1998 respectively, with the listing profile of Balfron citing the pre-eminence of the architect, the quality of the construction and the impact of the aesthetic:

“[He] proved that such blocks could be well planned and beautifully finished, revealing Goldfinger as a master in the production of finely textured and long-lasting concrete masses.”[68]

A 2007 assessment from the architectural firm charged with the conservation of the estate goes on to describe Balfron and its surrounding estate as a pioneering example of dense urban redevelopment, exhibiting a standard of discipline untypical of the genre.[69]  The reversal in perception of Balfron Tower, however did not occur in conjunction with any improvements in the maintenance or general wellbeing of the building.  In fact, Balfron has experienced a continual spiral of decline since that first newspaper report of 1969.

In the later stages of the 1979-1997 Conservative government, after continued disinvestment from social housing, a number of Housing Associations were setup with the intention of relieving remaining housing stock from local councils.  One such organisation is Poplar HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association), setup by Tower Hamlets council in 1998 as an independent, non-for-profit social landlord.  A few months ago, I interviewed Paul Augarde who is the Head of Creativity & Innovation at the organisation.  He explained how in year 2000, the Labour government introduced the Decent Homes Standard which outlined the minimum requirements for existing and future housing stock.  Many councils couldn’t achieve the statutory requirements to retrofit their existing stock, and in the case of Tower Hamlets, a large amount of housing was transferred to Poplar Harca via stock transfers, with tenants being balloted first.

Balfron Tower was a special case, owing to its listed status and Tower Hamlets told Poplar Harca that they would have to renovate the building if they were given ownership of it.

In 2006, Poplar Harca put forward their vision to residents of Balfron Tower in an eleven-minute video, citing many structural, cosmetic and social issues with the block, which would be resolved if residents agreed to a stock transfer.  Those who wanted to leave Balfron would be rehoused locally in modern new housing and the costly refurbishment works would be funded by selling off those ‘decanted’ flats onto the open market.  Those that wished to stay in Balfron Tower, would be able to do so.  Poplar Harca presented this as giving “real choice to the residents”:

“This option means no resident will lose their home involuntarily and will give families who choose the home that they want.”[70]

This was reiterated in further correspondence to residents, with initial consultation indicating that approximately half of residents in Balfron Tower (and the nearby Carradale House) would prefer to move out.[71]  The stock transfer was approved by 79% of residents (from a 64% turnout)[72] of the East India Estate in 2007.  However, a number of stumbling blocks affected Poplar Harca’s ability to deliver on their promises.  The ‘global financial downturn’ of 2007 and a rejection of a planning application for new buildings on the estate led them to admit in 2009:

“Poplar Harca has been looking at alternative solutions and funding models to ensure they are able to achieve the promises made in the offer document.”[73]

As of August 2015, refurbishment work is yet to commence and after being pressured numerous times on the issue as to whether social tenants will be able to return to the building, an answer that has been given on more than one occasion is “it is possible but, but not probable, that some may return”.[74]

The general consensus from those involved in the building (and not associated with Poplar Harca) is that it seems highly unlikely that there will be any social housing provision in the building once the refurbishment works are completed.   The cost of the refurbishment (estimated at £60m) and Poplar Harca’s need to balance their books in order to get the maximum return on investment in the housing that they build, does not seem compatible with the very high costs that will be incurred from renovating Balfron Tower.  This, however, has caused significant controversy in the local area as it is in direct contradiction of what they were told when they voted for the stock transfer and goes against the original intentions of the architect.


Rehabilitating the Brutalist aesthetic

Shortly after the stock transfer in 2007, Poplar Harca collaborated with local arts organisation Bow Arts to offer subsidised tenancies to artists under a ‘live/work scheme’, which would allow “artists and creative workers to access truly affordable space to live and work in”.[75]

In March I attended a seminar at Goldsmiths entitled The Work of Art in the Age of Urban Cannibalism, hosted by Alberto Duman.  Focussing specifically on the recent history of Balfron Tower, Duman is concerned with how the live/work scheme and related cultural events have facilitated the building’s transition from public asset to private real-estate “through the management of intermediate urban actors”

A number of artists who lived in Balfron Tower as part of the scheme were present on the panel, including the first artist to move into the building in 2008 – Ruth Solomons.  She described how the ‘first phase’ of artists came into a building that was very dilapidated, with many flats suffering from unrepaired leaks, holes in the ceiling, mould and cockroaches.  It was the artist’s responsibility to make their flats liveable, in exchange for highly subsidised rent and the opportunity to live in an iconic and inspirational building, albeit on a precarious tenancy that could be terminated at any time.

The basis of the seminar was to explore how this scheme had facilitated ‘culture led regeneration’, with Duman using the metaphor of ‘urban cannibalisation’ to describe a city eating itself:

“Balfron Tower is East London’s offering to itself in multiple ways - social, economic, cultural, architectural and artistic.  The totemic symbolic power of the Balfron is that to be the sacrificial offering where significant transformation across all these spheres become grounded.”

This process of bringing artists into an area to facilitate regeneration has been termed artwashing and has been covered previously in studies on gentrification.  The Atlantic City Lab ran an article on this process at Balfron, describing how it acts like a kind of detergent.[76]  Artists regenerate a run down area by highlighting its creative potential and generating publicity through their work and actions.  This is a liminal process as by the time the perception of that area has been satisfactorily ‘regenerated’, prices go up and artists can no longer afford to live there.

The live/work scheme peaked in 2010, with around one hundred artists resident in the building.   Another artist on the panel believed that there was a strategic policy in place to get as many resident artists in as possible, as commodities “providing services of gentrification to the housing association”.

In anticipation of the building being refurbished, the live/work scheme was progressively reduced and in late 2014 Bow Arts hosted Balfron Season, “a month-long programme of arts and culture to celebrate the life of the building and the people who have lived there”.  The number and variety of projects, exhibitions and events over this period was extraordinary.  As well as independent artists it involved a number of high profile cultural agents, including The Legacy List, National Heritage, National Trust and the British Council.

Event programme from  Balfron Season , 2014

Event programme from Balfron Season, 2014

There were also a number of other high profile events throughout 2014 including an immersive performance of Macbeth, which received press coverage in The Guardian, Time Out, The Evening Standard and others.  The previously mentioned National Trust restoration of Goldfinger’s flat by Wayne Hemingway also received significant coverage; as did an artist’s plan to drop a piano from the roof of the tower, which was cancelled after protests from local residents.[77]

My participation in Balfron Season was as part of a four-person photographic exhibition, held in one of the flats in the building over a two-week period, and coincided with Open House London weekend, where iconic buildings around the city are opened up to members of the public.  I conversed with many visitors to our exhibition who all had overwhelmingly positive comments about the building and the architect.  It was only when one person expressed negativity, describing Goldfinger as ‘arrogant’, that I was reminded that the people most likely to visit Balfron Tower in these circumstances were most probably architecture aficionados and not necessarily representative of the wider public attitudes towards this genre of architecture. 

What is apparent, however, is that Balfron Tower, Trellick Tower and the wider Brutalist genre have been receiving more attention and admiration in recent years.  The ‘industrial-chic’ aesthetic and resurgent interest in our industrial past has become “a fashionable and popular subject”[78] and both of Goldfinger’s towers, especially Trellick, have benefitted from a long tradition of being featured in popular culture through music videos, films and art.

The experience of learning more about Balfron Tower and this suggested process of ‘artwashing’, however, have led me to question whether I was complicit in the process of aiding the transition of the building from public asset to private real-estate. 

Although I still reserve judgment on the motives behind the live/work scheme and the intensity of art based projects around the building, it has made me consider how Balfron has effectively been rebranded since artists moved in back in 2008. The artists have effectively facilitated a total rebrand of the building through a variety of newsworthy projects.  These have brought the building into the realm of the public consciousness, revalorising it from its degenerated state as a failed ‘concrete monstrosity’ in preparation for its renovation into luxury property.

In Place Branding, Govers & Go highlight how the way places are branded has changed dramatically in recent years from the supply (projecting of identity) as well as the demand (perceiving of images) perspective.[79] They describe how news and popular culture “may be the only image formation agents capable of changing an area’s image dramatically in a short period of time”.[80]

Whilst I am still unresolved as to whether there was an intention by Poplar Harca and Bow Arts to exploit Balfron Season and related cultural events to improve the image of the building and the local area, the author of the popular social housing history blog Municipal Dreams is unequivocal in his view:

“It was hard not to see a total process here - nothing that could be viewed as ‘regeneration’ except in its most attenuated and twisted form … The resident artists, the Balfron Arts Season and National Trust tours are, at minimum, complicit in this; at worst, they are its agents.”[81]


Rebranding Balfron Tower

After some lengthy consideration about the format of the complementary visual project to this study, I concluded that it should encapsulate the concepts discussed in my written piece; specifically how the perception of Balfron Tower has shifted so dramatically over the past five decades.  I felt this could not be achieved through my typical photographic approach, especially as Balfron Tower has been the subject of so much visual representation in recent years by many talented artists.

Balfron Tower photographed in 2010 by Simon Terrill in participation with residents of the building

Balfron Tower photographed in 2010 by Simon Terrill in participation with residents of the building

 The imminent refurbishment of the building seems to me to be the most dramatic reimagining of the building’s identity in its history and is representative of other situations in London whereby social tenants are being forced out of areas as they become gentrified.

An advertisement from Deloitte in 2013 advertising Balfron Tower as a commercial refurbishment opportunity, showing an aerial representation the building from a non-typical angle, ensuring that Canary Wharf is prominent in the landscape

An advertisement from Deloitte in 2013 advertising Balfron Tower as a commercial refurbishment opportunity, showing an aerial representation the building from a non-typical angle, ensuring that Canary Wharf is prominent in the landscape

In 2013, Poplar Harca hired Deloitte to help find a development partner for the refurbishment of the building.  Marketed as an “iconic residential refurbishment opportunity”, the following year it was announced that a joint venture had been setup between Poplar Harca, United House Developments and Londonewcastle to ‘regenerate’ the building with the appointment of Studio Egret West as the leading architects and Ab Rogers working on the interior design.[82]  All of these partners are private companies working exclusively in the private sector.

Interestingly, a press release by United House Developments stated that the joint venture was “dedicated to regenerating Balfron Tower’s 146 apartments in a manner that is in keeping with Goldfinger’s original vision for the space with Poplar Harca celebrating that it will “enable millions of pounds to be invested back into our community and the wider Poplar area… which will impact on this area of east London for generations to come”.  There is no mention in the press release, however, that the building was conceived as social housing, or perhaps more significantly, that no social housing is likely to exist in the building after the redevelopment.

I became interested in how the effective privatisation of this building would affect the narratives that are communicated about it.  An obvious example of this is how United House Developments, in their very first communication, have stated that their regeneration will be in keeping with Goldfinger’s “original vision for the space”.  However, I believe that the privatisation and revalorisation of Balfron Tower in this manner are in direct contradiction with Goldfinger’s socialist background and the basis under which he conceived the building.

Govers & Go outline the complexities associated with branding places that “have personalities already moulded and constrained by history and preconceptions”.[83]  In the case of Balfron Tower and other private housing developments it has become clear to me that the process of branding and marketing a building for the highest capital gain inevitably leads to a redaction and erasure of particular facts relating to the history of that building which would be considered detrimental to its marketability.

In 1997, after Alexander Fleming House was converted into a residential complex and rebranded Metro Central Heights, the estate agent Knight Frank went about marketing it to young metropolitan professionals by emphasising the fact it was affordable, gated and central.  Campkin describes how the physical facelift and subsequent marketing of the building represented a “narcissistic turning away from ugliness: an act of masking and separation from the stigmatised area, and from the building’s controversies”.[84]

Excerpt from the brochure marketing  Metro Central Heights,  1998

Excerpt from the brochure marketing Metro Central Heights, 1998

I became interested in this process of re-branding, especially in the context of how Balfron Tower will be marketed after its redevelopment.  For my visual project, I decided to create a fictional estate agent’s brochure that would imagine how the building might be marketed to potential investors and buyers.

I was reminded by a residential development I had seen a number of times on Hackney Road, East London called Mettle & Poise.  This development had stuck in my mind because the branding seemed out of place with the economic and social make up of its locality, so I studied the marketing brochure for the development to find out more.


The brochure was in fact nothing like what I had expected, being structured in a magazine format with an ‘editor’, ‘guest features’ and lifestyle imagery throughout.  After studying it further, it became apparent that lifestyle and location were given much more coverage than detail about the actual apartments, with no fewer than 24 pages dedicated to this.  Significant emphasis was placed on bars, pubs, gastronomy and shopping including features such as “My top five old man pubs”.


The narrative running throughout the brochure takes a jocular tone, constantly referencing East London’s ‘chequered past’, with the pub feature using expressions such as ‘quirky’, ‘offbeat’, ‘rough around the edges’, ‘old man underbelly’, ‘unpretentious’, ‘quietly confident’ and ‘gangster pub’ to accentuate the imaginary of this part of East London as being an edgy, exciting and unpredictable, complemented by images of trendy and affluent urbanites with a confident outlook.

It is interesting to compare this to the Metro Central Heights brochure from eighteen years previously which appears to target a similar demographic.  Comparing the two shows a clear evolution in property marketing over that period, with significant monetary investment made in creating a visual and written narrative around the development that encapsulates a lifestyle which a potential buyer would see as desirable, and a potential investor would see as conducive to the future prosperity of the area.

As I have already alluded to, however, marketing such as this often excludes aspects of a building’s history or circumstances that may be detrimental to the marketing of it.  In the case of Mettle & Poise, this is demonstrated through reluctance to talk about the history of the building, which since 1874 had been the site of the Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital.

The  Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital  [85]

The Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital[85]

A computer generated image of its conversion into luxury apartments as  Mettle & Poise   [86]

A computer generated image of its conversion into luxury apartments as Mettle & Poise [86]

Although the text associated with the computer generated image states the “striking façade of Mettle & Poise will remain relatively unchanged from its previous life, in order to retain the charm and character so many have fallen in love with”, it fails to enlighten the reader as to what that previous life was.  The building’s previous incarnation as a children’s hospital is only mentioned once in the final section of the brochure via an interview with the project’s ‘development director’ and this is only in the context of how the aesthetic of the original façade will be retained.

Considering so much emphasis is placed on locality, history and the ‘East London’ imaginary, it is interesting that the developers have decided to overlook such a significant aspect of this building’s history.  This redaction is perhaps a repeat of the “narcisstic turning away from ugliness” that Campkin described about the rebrand of Metro Central Heights.  The developer has emphasised the aesthetic qualities of the building’s façade whilst ignoring an aspect that may make potential buyers uncomfortable; the fact that it was a hospital for sick children and presumably the site of many deaths and distressing incidents.  A brief internet search for the hospital brings up a Time Out article from last year describing it as one of the ‘spookiest locations’ in London: “There are few buildings in the capital as instantly bone-chilling”.[87]

This process of dehistoricisation can be seen as contributing to an architectural palimpsest whereby a building’s history is overwritten.  In the case of the children’s hospital, this creates a conflict in the collective memory of the building as its different histories become entangled.  In 2013 a doctor who worked at the hospital spoke of it as a “landmark of deep significance for generations of east enders”[88] and questioned the nature of the redevelopment that would result in a large proportion of it being demolished.  She wrote a history of the hospital and its tradition of care “in the hope that this will not be erased”.

I used Mettle & Poise and brochures from half a dozen other residential developments around London to influence my consideration of how Balfron Tower may be marketed to potential buyers and investors once its redevelopment is completed.  With the assistance of a graphic designer, I have created a brochure that places a strong emphasis on the iconic status of the building and its architect, recognising that such attributes would likely make the building more marketable to those interested in its heritage and aesthetic individuality. 


A large proportion of the brochure is dedicated to the building’s locality.  Balfron Tower is situated in Tower Hamlets which is the third most deprived borough in London[89] and one of the most ethnically diverse, however, I have purposely focused on only the most positive aspects of the local area, including an imminent £100m regeneration of the nearby Chrisp Street Market, and emphasis on nearby leisure attractions including the o2 Arena, Olympic Park and Westfield Shopping Centre.  The overall aim is to emphasise that this is a well-located part of London with significant investment occurring in the locality across a variety of sectors.

I have also dedicated a section to business, in anticipation that potential buyers and investors into the building are likely to have links to the financial centre at nearby Canary Wharf.  Information about London City Airport and the new Crossrail link also imply connectivity; the latter suggesting that property prices will rise along the route due to improved transport times to the rest of London.  A double-spread showing two views from the building; ‘View West’ and ‘View South’ pinpoint the most relevant landmarks and emphasise their proximity, whilst a double-spread map identifies all the nearby DLR and underground links.


I have used my own images where possible in the above sections, but there are some instances where it was necessary to use historical images (of Goldfinger), computer generated images (of Chrisp Street Market and Crossrail) and other’s images of landmarks to illustrate the locations I was unable to visit myself.  All images shot by others are clearly indicated in the brochure and constitute 14 of the images, with the remaining 34 images shot by myself.

The final section of the brochure is dedicated to the apartments including shots of the interiors and floor plans which I mapped using an app on my phone called MagicPlan.

The shots of the building are representative of its current form, prior to its refurbishment and with evident traces of its former inhabitants.  Some rooms are completely empty, whilst others show abandoned belongings and furniture.  This combined with the narrative text creates a tension as it becomes obvious that the images do not represent the buildings future imaginary, but rather evidence of its recent past.  In the context of the palimpsest, the socialist past and capitalist future of the building are in conflict with each other.

The brochure is marketed under the fictional estate agent Modern Estates, alluding to the dichotomous and charged nature of the word estate, which in the context of council housing references the failures I have previously discussed, but in the context of private capital can mean a large residential property.

There is purposely no reference in this brochure that Balfron Tower was built as social housing or that Goldfinger was a socialist.  There is no reference to the fact that in order to facilitate the refurbishment, the block has had to be relinquished of the majority (if not all) of its social tenants.  These factors would hinder the marketability of the building, so have not been included.  There are some references to the building’s chequered past and extended period of decline, but only in the context of a successful ‘rescue’ by the developers and subsequent regeneration. 

This reimagining of Balfron Tower signifies the period in its lifetime where it will transition from public asset to private capital and in so doing, will be shed of the negative connotations of its history through a process of rebranding.



The Modernist movement influenced the British architectural profession in the 1930s through the translation of Le Corbusier’s seminal work Towards an Architecture and arrival of numerous émigrés who had strong socialist backgrounds, which informed the approach to their discipline.  Their material of choice, concrete, was intrinsically linked to the Modern movement, but also left-leaning politics.

The era of optimism and egalitarianism that shaped the post-war years allowed Modernist principles to be applied to the ambitious reconstruction of vast swathes of bombed-out areas of London and the rest of the country.  Later, new construction technologies such as system building offered politicians the capability of sudden, wide-scale evidence of social transformation, but were exposed for their shoddiness after the widely publicised tragedy at Ronan Point.

Ernő Goldfinger combined the social idealism of Le Corbusier with the Structural-Rationalism of Perret to conceive buildings with an austere aesthetic and meticulous attention to detail.  The first of his large-scale works, Balfron Tower, was completed at a time when the narrative against Modernist architecture and large-scale social housing projects had begun to turn, exacerbated by the disaster at Ronan Point.

The political neglect and disinvestment that ensued in social housing from the late 60s onwards contributed to the social decline at Balfron Tower and other estates, whilst an imaginary of decline became embedded in the public consciousness as such locations were questioned for their intentions and failed realisations of the social transformation that they offered.  The pursuit of a neo-liberal political framework has led to a move away from the socialist principles that informed the post-war reconstruction.  This combined with an almost total rejection of   Communism within British mainstream thinking, the challenging aesthetic of Brutalist architecture and continued political and media narratives against social housing have contributed to the perception of Modernist council estates as ‘failures’.

Goldfinger’s architecture, however, has been re-evaluated for its architectural merit, resulting in a new appreciation of his work and listed status being granted to all his surviving buildings, including Balfron Tower.  This occurred with a renewed interest in the ‘industrial aesthetic’ and industrial past.  These shifts in perception of Balfron Tower and the wider Brutalist aesthetic, however, did not improve the physical or social conditions of the building, due to the overbearing costs of maintenance and refurbishment whilst it has remained a public asset.

The stock transfer to Poplar Harca housing association in 2006 came with the promise of a full refurbishment of Balfron Tower and an assurance to social tenants that they would have a right of return, however, the 2007 financial crisis, amongst other factors were attributed to making the scheme unaffordable and to date the redevelopment works have not commenced, with the housing association stating that allowing social tenants to return after the works was “possible, but not probable”.

A ‘live/work’ scheme offered to artists since 2008 and a significant number of cultural and artistic led events at the building have generated a significant amount of publicity and helped rejuvenate the perception of the building and wider area within the public consciousness.  This, however, has come with accusations of ‘artwashing’, with questions raised over the intentions of the scheme and how it will contribute to the gentrification of the area.

The imminent redevelopment into a (most likely) entirely private development by luxury property developers will affect the narratives communicated about the building as the stakeholders seek to maximise the marketability and capital gain from it.  This will result in a rewriting of the building’s history and a redaction of particular attributes that are key aspects of its social history, as demonstrated in the redevelopments of Alexander Fleming House and the Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital.

This process of selectivity will likely focus on the most positive aspects of the building’s locality and amenity ignoring controversial aspects of the building’s history, such as the fact that it was built as social housing, by a socialist architect, with social tenants decanted from the building and unable to return.

Balfron Tower is about to complete its journey of revalorisation from functional utilitarian housing to reconstituted architectural monument.  Conceived from a war aesthetic, it has been unable to defend itself from the primacy of corporate capitalism.  Built by the state, neglected by the state and at one time representative of its failure, it has been forced to capitulate to private capital, in order to safeguard its future physical integrity, but to the detriment of its socialist foundations.



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LONDON COUNTY COUNCIL. Rowlett Street Housing, Poplar – Notes of Meeting at the Housing Division, held 1 February 1963. RIBA Architectural Archive, Kensington, London

GOLDFINGER E. Press Report. 13 May 1968. RIBA Architectural Archive, Kensington, London

THE GUARDIAN. Letters to the Editor, 17 February 1968

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SHARP D. The Architect’s Journal. Goldfinger on the ground, 17 July 1968

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McGRATH R. Reconstructing High Rise. May 2004.

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DUNNETT J. Erno Goldfinger.

HISTORIC ENGLAND. List Entry: Balfron Tower. March 1996.

AVANTI ARCHITECTS. Brownfield Estate Conservation Management Plan. 2007.

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POPLAR HARCA. East India Estates Offer. 2006.

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TOWER HAMLETS. Freedom of Information Request. 2009.

POPLAR HARCA: Letter to resident of Balfron Tower. 2010.

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BENSON R. Why Industrial Chic is back in fashion. The Guardian. 19 January 2013.

MUNICIPAL DREAMS. Social Housing as Heritage: Thoughts on the National Trust and Balfron Tower. October 2013.

UNITED HOUSE DEVELOPMENTS. Joint Venture Created to Regenerate Balfron Tower.  17 December 2014.

SPITALFIELDS LIFE. Rembering the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children. 21 October 2013.

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[1] DORLING, D.  June 2015. Renting your way to poverty: welcome to the future of housing [Online] [Accessed: August 2015]

[2] ROBERTS, D. 2015. Balfron Tower: A Building Archive. [Accessed June-August 2015]

[3] CLEMENT A. Brutalism: Post-War British Architecture. Crowood 2011. p9.

[4] CAMPKIN B. Remaking London. Kindle Edition Tauris 2015. Location 484.

[5] LE CORBUSIER Towards a New Architecture. Frances Lincoln 2008. p269.

[6] CLEMENT A. op.cit. p12.

[7] FORTY A. Concrete and Culture. Reaktion 2012. p147.

[8] HISTORIC ENGLAND. List Entry Summary: Finsbury Health Centre. [Accessed July 2015]

[9] DUNNETT J; STAMP G.  Goldfinger: Works 1. Architecture Association. 1983. p85.

[10] HANLEY L. Estates: An Intimate History. Kindle Edition Granta 2012. p.60.

[11] CORDELL T. Utopia London. Film 2010. 23mins.

[12] ABERCROMBIE P. The County of London Plan. Penguin 1945. p8.

[13] Ibid. p79 & 28.

[14] Ibid. p25

[15] FRAMPTON K. Le Corbusier. Thames & Hudson 2001. p.157.

[16] CLEMENT. Op Cit. p9.

[17] WARBURTON N. Erno Goldfinger – The Life of an Architect. 2006. p130.

[18] BULLOCK N. Building the Post-War World. Routledge 2002. p277.

[19] LONDON COUNTY COUNCIL. Rowlett Street Housing, Poplar – Notes of Meeting at the Housing Division, held 1 February 1963. RIBA Architectural Archive, Kensington, London

[20] LONDON COUNTY COUNCIL. Rowlett Street Housing, Poplar – Town Planning Joint Housing Sub-Committee – Development of site for residential purposes, held 26 June 1963. RIBA Architectural Archive, Kensington, London

[21] BUTLER T.  Rising in the East? RISBERO B: The Architecture of East London. Lawrence & Wishart 1996. p215.

[22] HALL P. The World Cities. Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1966.

[23] GOLDFINGER E. Press Report. 13 May 1968. RIBA Architectural Archive, Kensington, London

[24] THE GUARDIAN. Letters to the Editor, 17 February 1968 [Accessed July 2015]

[25] THE ARCHITECT & BUILDING NEWS. Out of Touch. 6 March 1968 [Accessed July 2015]

[26] SHARP D. The Architect’s Journal. Goldfinger on the ground, 17 July 1968 [Accessed July 2015]

[27] BUTLER. op.cit. p220.

[28] FORTY. op.cit. p159.

[29] WEBB S. Large Panel Systems Exposed. [Accessed August 2015]

[30] BUTLER. op.cit. p221.

[31] GRINDROD J. Concretopia. Kindle Edition Old Street 2013. Location 3567.

[32] FORTY. op.cit. p159.

[33] HATERLEY O. Militant Modernism. Kindle Edition Zero 2008. Location 190.

[34] GRINDROD. op.cit. Location 5220.

[35] GRINDROD. op.cit. Location 5220.

[36] WEBB. op.cit.

[37] GRINDROD. op. cit. Location 5255.

[38] FORTY. op. cit. p164.

[39] BUCKINGHAM S. Points (and slabs) of interest. March 2000. [Accessed August 2015]

[40] HANLEY. op cit. Location 2032.

[41] CORDELL. op cit. 1h06m.

[42] MINTON A, Ground Control. Kindle Edition Penguin 2009. Location 2402.

[43] HANLEY. op cit. Location 2032.

[44] CAMPKIN B. Remaking London. Kindle Edition Palgrave Macmillan 2015. Location 1518.

[45] BUCKINGHAM. op cit.

[46] BENDIXSON T. Box Mania. The Guardian, January 24 1969. [Accessed August 2015]

[47] RIBA BOOK SHOP. High Rise. [Accessed August 2015]

[48] BALLARD JG. High Rise. Kindle Edition Harper 2006. Page 29.

[49] McGRATH R. Reconstructing High Rise. May 2004. [Accessed August 2015]

[50] RAVETZ A. Council Housing & Culture: The History of a Social Experiment. Kindle Edition Routledge 2005. Location 216.

[51] ROALMAN S. East London Advertiser. 21 July 1978. [Accessed August 2015]

[52] HANLEY. op. cit. Location 51.

[53] CAMPKIN. op. cit. Location 1149.

[54] BUILDING SIGHTS. Series 1:5. Alexander Fleming House. BBC. 1988.

[55] DUNNETT J. Erno Goldfinger. [Accessed August 2015]

[56] CAMPKIN. op. cit. Location 1200.

[57] CAMPKIN. op. cit. Location 1230.

[58] WARBURTON. op. cit. p182.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.

[61] BUCKINGHAM. op. cit.

[62] Ibid.

[63] CAMPKIN. op. cit. Location 1283.

[64] DUNNETT J; STAMP G.  Goldfinger: Works 1. Architecture Association. 1983. p7.

[65] Ibid.

[66] HATHERLEY. op. cit. Location 65.

[67] HIGGOTT A. Mediating Modernism. Taylor & Francis. 2007. p86.

[68] HISTORIC ENGLAND. List Entry: Balfron Tower. March 1996. [Accessed August 2015]

[69] AVANTI ARCHITECTS. Brownfield Estate Conservation Management Plan. 2007. [Accessed August 2015]

[70] POPLAR HARCA. Balfron Tower Redevelopment Video. 2006. [Accessed June 2015]

[71] POPLAR HARCA. East India Estates Offer. 2006. [Accessed June 2015]

[72] POPLAR HARCA: Carradale House Listed Building Application. July 2010. [Accessed July 2015]

[73] TOWER HAMLETS. Freedom of Information Request. 2009. [Accessed July 2015]

[74] POPLAR HARCA: Letter to resident of Balfron Tower. 2010. [Accessed July 2015]

[75] BOW ARTS. Live/Work Accommodation. [Accessed August 2015]

[76] ATLANTIC CITY LAB. The Pernicious Realities of Artwashing. 24 June 2014. [Accessed June 2015]

[77] BROOKS-POLLOCK T. Artist's plan to drop a piano off 27-storey tower doesn't go down well with residents. Evening Standard. 10 July 2014. [Accessed August 2015]

[78] BENSON R. Why Industrial Chic is back in fashion. The Guardian. 19 January 2013. [Accessed August 2015]

[79] GOVERS R; GO F.  Place Branding. Kindle Edition Palgrave Macmillan 2009. Location 274.

[80] Ibid. Location 3431.

[81] MUNICIPAL DREAMS. Social Housing as Heritage: Thoughts on the National Trust and Balfron Tower. October 2013. [Accessed June 2015]

[82] UNITED HOUSE DEVELOPMENTS. Joint Venture Created to Regenerate Balfron Tower.  17 December 2014. [Accessed May 2015]

[83] GOVERS. op. cit. Location 522.

[84] CAMPKIN. op. cit. Location 1309.

[85] SPITALFIELDS LIFE. Rembering the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children. 21 October 2013. [Accessed August 2015]

[86] METTLE & POISE. Brochure. p5.

[87] TIME OUT. Ten seriously spooky locations in London. 20 October 2014. [Accessed August 2015]

[88] SPITALFIELDS LIFE. op. cit.

[89] HILL D. London's poorest boroughs once again prepare to make the biggest cuts. 23 February 2015. [Accessed August 2015]


Further Reading

KOREN L.  Concrete.  Phaidon 2012

JANSON A., KROHN C., Le Corbusier, Unite D'habitation, Marseille. Axel Menges 2008

LE CORBUSIER. The City of Tomorrow and its Planning.  Dover 1987

HUGHES R. The Shock of the New. Thames & Hudson 1991

HATHERLEY O. A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. 2010.

HATHERLEY O.  A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain. 2012.

GLYNN S.  Where the Other Half Lives.  Pluto 2009

COLLINS M.  The Likes of us.  Granta 2004

TALLON A.  Urban Regeneration in the UK. 2010

NORBERG-SCHULZ C.  Principles of Modern Architecture.  Andreas Papadakis 2000

HERMENSEN C.  Manifestoes & Transformations in the Early Modernist City. Ashgate 2010