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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!