The Balfron Tower

So what do you need to know? If you like brutalist architecture (I do) you’ll know all about the renowned architect Ernő Goldfinger (I do), and if you know about Goldfinger you’ll know about his most famous buildings (I do) including the Balfron Tower (I do). If you know about the Balfron Tower you’ll have undoubtedly wanted to go and photograph its wonderful architecture (I did). If you then read about how the National Trust, for a very limited time, were opening the flat in the Balfron Tower that Goldfinger and his wife lived in for a short period to a limited number of tours, you’d probably be very excited (I was) especially when you managed to get a ticket to one of those tours (I was really excited)!

For those of you a bit less versed in brutalist architecture, here’s a bit more background …

Goldfinger, like the James Bond villain!? Yep, exactly like that Goldfinger! You can read all about his pursuits as an architect on Wikipedia, but despite his great architecture and views on social housing, fundamentally it seems he wasn’t the nicest of guys at times. One of the people he rubbed up the wrong way was Ian Fleming, and as a result when he was looking for a name for a villain he chose Goldfinger. Unsurprisingly there was a bit of a spat, lawyers were engaged, but ultimately everything was settled to the tune of Fleming covering some legal fees plus providing six copies of the book to Goldfinger! Disappointingly no large lasers were involved!

The Balfron Tower
The Balfron Tower

Back to the Balfron Tower – naturally it was designed as social housing for the then London County Council, and built by the GLC that followed, being completed in 1967. It’s got 27 storeys and stands 84 metres tall, with 146 homes. What’s immediately apparent is that its lift shaft sit in a separate service tower, along with other services including rubbish chutes, but the natural question is why are there only 8 “sky bridges” across to the main block? Basically each sky bridge crosses into a “street” on every third floor. From that street, behind each front door you are faced by one of three options. Some head upstairs to the floor above, with the two-bedroom flat spanning the whole width of the building; others similarly downstairs to another full width flat; or some stay on the same floor as the street leading to a smaller less wide one-bedroom flat. The design is space efficient, allows for a variation in flat sizes, and importantly gives more socially busy streets with tightly packed neighbouring doors. Indeed it seems when tenants first moved in they were ideally moved together with their old physical street neighbours to the same street level in the Balfron. Also there are two sections of larger four bedroomed two floor maisonettes in the Balfron – the ground floor, and floor 14 which stands out with its different design and interesting mini balconies.

View from Jolly's Green
View from Jolly’s Green

Next to the Balfron Tower sits Carradale House, lower and wider, but naturally linked by design and style by Goldfinger, and when you head across to the nearby Jolly’s Green, they appear to fit together almost as one.

Glenkerry House
Glenkerry House

Also there’s Glenkerry House, which was again designed by Goldfinger but was the last of his blocks on the estate to be built. Stylistically it shares a bit more with the Balfron’s famous bigger sister, the Trellick Tower in North Kensington, with a similar crow’s nest on the service tower, unlike the Balfron Tower whose service tower is plainer.

One thing that did slightly bother me about taking advantage of the National Trust mini-residency is that I’ve mixed feelings about the current situation at the Balfron giving rise to the opportunity. It was thankfully designated a Grade II listed building in 1996 (and Carradale House several years later), but being of its age and construction clearly comes with maintenance challenges. In 2006, Tower Hamlets Council transferred ownership of the Balfron Tower and Carradale House to a housing association called Poplar HARCA, but that transfer came with conditions about the required refurbishment of the buildings. Doing so is not a cheap undertaking, both given the listed status and the scale of the Balfron, and that asks the natural question of the economics for doing so. Poplar HARCA started first with Carradale House, which is now complete, and are continuing with a similar pattern at the Balfron. Those lucky enough to own their leases are being asked to find a significant sum towards the work which likely will be unaffordable for many (possibly £100K per flat), and those who are tenants have been given the option of moving to new housing elsewhere. I’ve also read stories of other tenants being more directly evicted, anchored around the fact that those on housing benefits have their rents paid effectively in arrears, and it’s been on the basis of those arrears that they’ve been evicted! The net is that The Balfron is being emptied of owners and tenants as they are “decanted” out, many of whom won’t or can’t return. Temporarily it’s been filled with various artists and short term guardian tenants, but once emptied finally and refurbished, the majority of now tenantless flats will be sold off privately. Needless to say that Poplar HARCA are partnering with a luxury residential developer on the project, and once done the flats will be well beyond the reach of those who they were originally intended for. I get the conundrum and the need for Poplar HARCA to fund the hugely expensive work, but dislike the flow of people forced from affordable social housing into private rentals, or increasingly out of London since they can’t afford to keep up with the gentrification of the area, given Canary Wharf just a couple of stops down the DLR.

Garages underneath
Garages underneath

A final slightly “lighter” bit of background – another reason I love the Balfron is because of it featuring in one of my favourite films – 28 Days Later. It’s where Frank and Hannah’s flat is. You get to see plenty of the Balfron in the film, including the roof where they try to collect water, plus naturally inside one of the flats during which if you look closely you can see Goldfinger’s specially designed skinny light switches. When everybody ultimately leaves the flat, Frank drives his taxi out of the garages underneath and you get a great view up from beneath the tower’s entrance.

Chrisp Street market and clock tower
Chrisp Street market and clock tower

So, on my allotted day at my allotted time I rocked up at Langdon Park DLR station, where the small assembled group were met by a couple of National Trust guides. After a quick look at a bronze statue of local boxing legend Teddy Baldock and a bit of social history about the area, we headed back across the DLR line and walked down to the Chrisp Street market. The market was designed by Frederick Gibberd as part of the ‘living architecture’ element of the 1951 Festival of Britain and was the first purpose-built pedestrian shopping area in the UK. Of particular interest to me was the modernist clock tower, though sadly you can no longer go up it.

Naturally by this point I was itching to get the Balfron. There were a couple of rules regarding photography which had me gritting my teeth a little. To respect the privacy of the residents – no pictures too close to the tower and no pictures in the communal spaces, though once we were in the flat we could take as many pictures as we wanted. We actually entered the service tower through a door on the lower ground floor, instead of the normal resident’s entrance over the “bridge”. After a squeeze to fit us all into the rather narrow lift we were whisked to the 24th floor, and suddenly I was walking across a sky bridge and along the blue tiled street (each was tiled in different colours) to a flat’s door at the end.

Goldfinger and his wife Ursula only lived in flat 130 for two months in 1968. A blend of him personally testing out the architecture whilst also promoting the desirability of high rise living, seemingly he and Ursula held champagne soirees to gather feedback and promote community cohesion. You can imagine slightly confused council tenants being summoned to meet the imposing and probably pompous Goldfinger, who despite his claimed lifelong Marxism enjoyed the trappings of his successes and his wife’s trust fund with handmade shoes and expensive tailoring, and being expected to make polite conversation whilst uncomfortably nursing a glass of fizz. The whole exercise resulted in rather mixed comments from his peers, before Goldfinger promptly headed back to the comfort of his self-designed Hampstead home.

Up to the 25th floor
Up to the 25th floor

Flat 130 is a large end flat, benefitting from a balcony on the end (narrow) face of the tower and windows on three sides. Upon entering the door it was straight up the stairs to the 25th floor and into the world of 1968. The flat has been decorated and dressed with period contents by designer Wayne Hemingway (he of the Big Breakfast for those of you versed in 1990s morning entertainment) and his daughter Tilly, and immediately I was greeted by suitable music playing on a record player. Thereafter it was a bit of a blur since we only had about 15 minutes and there were so many details to see and photograph!

A Beatles fan!
A Beatles fan!

What I will say is that I absolutely loved it, the views were spectacular even if the sound of the Blackwall tunnel traffic way below the balcony isn’t the most relaxing, and the girl’s bedroom decorated in Beatles memorabilia felt particularly poignant given my oft quoted fact that my late father was at school with John Lennon. I may not quite be a child of the 1960s, but I’m close enough that much felt familiar from my childhood. Needless to say I was the last person shepherded out of the flat, and then took advantage of the opportunity of being on my lonesome to quickly grab some cheeky shots on my way back to the lift.

I hope you enjoy the rest of my pictures from my visit below!

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My first day and a half with the new Google Inbox app

I’m always tinkering with new tools to make my day-to-day work and personal “workflow” as efficient as possible. That I spend way too long on said tinkering rather than just getting on with things is not lost on me! It’s not lost on Mrs ® Andy either, who always bemoans “don’t put it on your so-and-so list, just do it!”

Quickly on the point of my so-and-so list, whilst I’m not a formal devotee of the GTD methodology, being a bear of little brain (or at least little memory these days) I do absolutely follow its core tenet of having a system for recording items I need to do, using it always, and trusting it to “know” what I need to do. The tool I’ve used for a number of years to do that is Trello, and I’d commend it anybody who prefers a visual Kanban-style of keeping lists of thing.

Many of my other fundamental tools are Google based. As an aside, I probably really should work for Google since I’m a long running fan/user, but have previously decided I couldn’t deal with being mostly London-based and with lots of campus activities meaning I’d see the boys too little. We have several shared Google calendars that hold things like family appointments and also my work location and travel plans. The app I use personally on desktop and mobile to access those calendars is Sunrise. Personal email wise it’s equally long been Google Mail for me (hence why I don’t call it Gmail but will hereon in this post), though over the years I’ve tried various apps on top like Mailbox and Boomerang, but neither worked well with my use of labels, adding labels of their own. When Google announced its own new app for email on Wednesday, called confusingly Inbox, I naturally immediately requested an invite!

Inbox isn’t totally ground breaking, but instead it’s a slick combination of a number of previously seen concepts working perfectly alongside/on top of your Gmail account. Neither Inbox or traditional Gmail conflict with each other and overall they’re totally in sync. Importantly the same labels existing in both, though the impact of those labels is different. Ultimately they’re both built by the Gmail team so you should consider them to be different views of the same data.

At Inbox’s heart is the idea of a various automatic smart labels that can then bundle all so labelled content together in your Inbox inbox – standard ones include things like Finance, Purchases, Promos and a final catchall Updates. Expand a particular bundle and deal with it more coherently. Neat tricks around bundles include setting when they show up in your Inbox inbox (I’ll stop soon), so for certain lower priority bundles you might chose that they appear at the top once a day/week, keeping the lower priority noise out of your inbox until when you can quickly process them in bulk. Bulk operations work nicely since you can apply a single operation to a whole bundle.  Picking up on the approach of Boomerang, you can also snooze emails so that they reappear at your chosen point in time, or indeed location on the mobile app version. Likewise you can set yourself reminders which appear in your inbox, tied to particular emails or in general, and you can snooze those too. For emails that you want to remain anchored in your inbox you can pin them, and you can switch the view to only show pinned emails if you want.

So after a day and half what do I reckon?

  • Well the starter for ten is that I’m smitten! The fact that I can use Gmail and Inbox simultaneously remains important, but I’m already happy using Inbox as my primary email app. The UI is clean and modern on both web and Android.
  • The automatic labelling and related bundling is already hitting the mark. It lets me see the things that are more important immediately, and then I can deal with the lower priority bundles later.
  • You can add your own new bundles to the inbox, but it’s not obvious how to do so! You can add a label to an email easily (equivalent to a Gmail move) and create a new label whilst doing so, but that new label doesn’t then appear as a bundle. For the automatic labels you can select their settings and chose whether they appear as a bundle or not. Likewise all your existing labels show up as “unbundled labels”, but when you select their settings there’s no option for making them appear as a bundle. In the end I worked out that you need add at least one new filter/rule to “Automatically add messages” using the Inbox settings UI for a particular label, and only then does the option appear to make that label bundled in your Inbox.
  • Once I’d discovered the above, the neat trick is to group your existing Gmail labels into less granular Inbox labels by adding filter/rules which using the “includes” condition to search for “label:<labelname>”. Hence my Gmail filters sort things into lower order labels, and Inbox neatly uses those to bundle together at level above.
  • Core Gmail shortcut keys work but it took me a while to realize! I don’t know if I changed mine from defaults at some point, but my Gmail is set for up/down to move through the list; on Inbox it’s left/right. Once I’d discovered that I realized I could select things by keyboard and then others eg. ‘x’, ‘o’, ‘u’, ‘#’ work as expected.
  • The Google preference that we archive everything rather than deleting still overrides, and that’s the one thing I don’t like. The core action in Inbox is to mark emails as “done”, which is synonymous with “archive” in reality. On the Android client swipe right will only mark things as “done” and you can’t change that. I receive too much opted-in marketing/spam plus regular short term emails that I don’t need to keep and so still delete a significant proportion of my emails. On the web app it’s not so bad especially with shortcut keys, but on the Android app it’s a real pain having to either open an email to read and then selecting trash from the menu, or long pressing on the inbox to select before you can again chose trash from the menu. Personally I’d like to see a short swipe to be “done” and a continued longer swipe to be “trash” in the Android app.

I’m sure there’s plenty more for me to find out yet, and time will tell, but the “shiny shiny” nature of Inbox plus the fact that I’m sure there’ll be loads to come has grabbed me for now!


Urgghhh … it’s a think piece on the importance of humanity

Fear not, I don’t normally post such things, and typically just bore people with reviews of music that most will hate and pictures of brutalist buildings that many dislike, but here’s a think piece! Furthermore it’s a think piece on what I consider one of my most fundamentally important ideals!

Just ask Mrs ® Andy or my boys, and they’ll tell you that I’m always going on about how humanity is the most important thing we’ve got and how we mustn’t ever forget that! When too many around the world are trying to kill each other for believing in different imaginary friends, or others are finding humour in suffering and consider grisly pictures of awful deaths funny, or people are complaining about how we shouldn’t be spending money trying to save other people around the world based on some view that they’re not as important as “our own”, I feel so sad! We all need to understand the value of humanity (in both its collective and qualitative senses) and look after it so much better! Overall an ageing hippy message of being nice to each other, and looking after each other, and trying to make things better, and living life in positive terms, rather than considering life such a low value disposable thing!

In filmic terms, ironically the only time humanity pull together and act as one team is when we’re threatened by some alien invading force, which made some comments from pop-star-Physicist Brian Cox resonate even more today. Now despite being a Physicist myself, albeit not a pop-star one, I only caught a few minutes in passing of Brian’s latest episode of Human Universe since I tend not to watch such things, but what I did see was him reasoning on the number of Earth-like planets in the galaxy as part of considering the existence of alien life (to invade us natch). I didn’t see where his reasoning got to, but did instead read an interview with him today on one of my favourite sites, VICE. It wouldn’t be a VICE article without the obligatory drug related questions, but amongst the more profound questions Brian’s responses resonated very strongly with me. In particular …

You suggest in the series that we’re alone in our galaxy – that we’re the only intelligent, space-faring civilisation alive right now.
When I was young I always wanted to meet aliens. But now, if you ask, “Where does the evidence point at the moment?” Then it seems like civilisations may be extremely rare, and that we are the only one alive right now in our galaxy. I find that thought terrifying.

I find it slightly depressing as well. So what does that mean for us as a society?
If we begin to suspect that we are very, very rare indeed, then we are very, very lucky. So we should start behaving differently. We should look after ourselves better than we do, because right now, we as a species don’t have a particularly universal perspective on our own existence. I think we’re rather myopic usually.

So not only is humanity the most important thing we’ve got, but it’s important at a galactic scale, and maybe even at a universal scale! Well maybe not at a universal scale, since everything invariable tends to zero amongst 350 billion galaxies, but the idea that amongst the 300 billion stars in our galaxy we might be the only civilisation alive at the moment does make us really rather special and important! An endangered species at galactic scale! Hence, rather than waiting for that alien invasion to occur (which it won’t because even at galactic scale everything is freaking impossible distances away and furthermore getting further away at an ever increasing rate that even light can’t keep up with) why don’t we start valuing humanity now and as both Brian and I say, start looking after all of ourselves and each other better!?

Illuminati – The Core

In lieu of the various posts I’ve got in draft about books I’ve finished recently and importantly my visit to the Balfron Tower, here’s a quick music post instead. Another of the Top 50 albums list from Prog Metal Zone, this is a slice of rather awesomely complex progressive jazzy death metal from the band Illuminati from Romania. I knew I was going to love it within about 15 seconds! Just like the other Illuminati of folklore, these guys seem to be very well connected since there are guest contributions from a remarkable list of people from notable progressive metal bands, including members of Atheist, Voivod, Cynic and Pestilence!

Sylosis – Mercy

Sylosis have just released their first new song in a while, Mercy, ahead of their new album which is due out in January. To say I’m excited is an understatement! Take a listen if you like brutal progressive metal very much at the thrash end of the speedo played by a band who are always technically spot on!

Sylosis are actually one of these bands that I happened upon when they supported another band I saw live. That headline act was DevilDriver, and I’m not going to lie – I now rank Sylosis and another of the supports, Bleed from Within, well above DevilDriver in my list of favourite bands. Bleed from Within were below Sylosis on the bill, and then interestingly the drummer from Bleed from Within subbed-in for the drummer in Sylosis owing to his unavailability, with less than 24 hours notice! He nailed the drum part, and has since joined Sylosis officially, whilst also remaining in Bleed from Within too.

Anyhow, this rather boring post is about to get worse, with me going a bit fanboi about the lead singer/guitarist of Sylosis, Josh Middleton. You know the sort … artistically talented in numerous ways! I consider him one of the fastest and most accurate guitarists out there, and his ability to play hugely complex things absolutely perfectly live without even appearing to try is second to none! I did find his recent video about how to play fast cleanly rather frustrating though … basically practice lots very carefully and really focus on cleanness. He’s an artist and illustrator too, doing various bands’ stuff, and that transfers into a clothing business too. Yep … I do have one of his t-shirts! Seems like he’s a clean living vegan, posts cat pictures on Instagram and he always comes across as a nice guy in interviews. Maybe I should hate him in a fit of jealousy whilst I play my guitar crappily!?

Intronaut – all their stuff is awesome but here’s just one favourite

Autumn is upon us! It’s cold, wet and miserable! As part of me spending a bunch of days enjoying Intronaut’s albums, here’s a literal black cloud! Awesome tune and, like many of my favourites, with great dynamic range from really heavy to almost dainty at times, with lovely fretless bass from Joe Lester and Danny Walker’s drums powerfully complex as ever. The bit from 4 minutes is a particular sweet spot for me. Shame it’s in some bonkers B-tuning I’ll never detune even my Viper-1000 down to.