Issue 03 | Architecture

High & Mighty

London, UK

Restored and modernised, Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower enters a new age of exaltation

Balfron Tower, Poplar London. Photo: RIBA Collections

In the last few years, Balfron Tower – a glowering 1960s hulk of social housing near the old East London Docks – has become the high-rise that seems to be most treasured by the capital’s architectural cognoscenti. That might be surprising, because for decades, its younger, taller, sleeker sibling in Kensington, Trellick Tower, also by Budapest-born architect ErnÖ Goldfinger, held the crown. Its famous silhouette was appropriated for mugs and Britpop videos, but this very fashionability – and the encroachment of private ownership – eroded its appeal, and the dirtier, grittier Balfron became the insider’s choice.

Like Trellick, the 27-storey Balfron houses its lifts and services in a separate tower alongside the main block, connected by a bridge on every third floor. The ensemble has a martial air, with arrow-slit windows slanting up the service tower, topped by a bulging boiler house and chunky chimneys, resulting in a fortress-like silhouette. With its bush-hammered concrete finish, it makes the perfect subject matter for the black-and-white photography of the recent brutalism revival – although, Goldfinger firmly rejected the term.

With its bush-hammered concrete finish, Balfron makes the perfect subject matter for the black-and-white photography of the recent brutalism revival – although, Goldfinger firmly rejected the term

Balfron also has literary allure. After its completion in 1967, Goldfinger and his wife Ursula moved into a top-floor apartment for eight weeks, paying rent, holding parties for residents and collating observations (“It might be an idea to have a window-box competition”). The stunt seemed calculated to grab press attention, and helped to inspire JG Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel High-Rise, but there is no doubt that Balfron was enormously important to Goldfinger. Despite being a major figure on the British architectural scene since his arrival in 1934, it was only in the 1960s that major commissions hit his drawing board. The first – the redevelopment of south London’s Elephant and Castle – proved a political football. Balfron and its surrounding estate were a shot at redemption, and one of the most prestigious commissions bestowed on a private architectural practice as social- housing construction soared in London.

Despite a taste for the finer things, Goldfinger was a committed Marxist, and had hoped to build a monumental housing scheme since the 1920s. He promptly rejected proposals for four low blocks, instead designing one of Europe’s tallest residential towers, with 146 flats ranging from one-bed apartments to more glamorous duplexes with small private gardens or distinctive “papal” balconies, visible halfway up the facade. He worked from first principles, not just in practical aspects such as placing noisy lifts and waste chutes in their own tower, but also in social ones. Between each spacious lift lobby in the service tower, communal spaces were provided, including a table-tennis room, a play space and a “jazz/pop room”. Bridges lead over to an outside “street” of 18 front doors serving three storeys of interlocking flats. This maximised light and space, but also fostered a community spirit – where possible, residents were rehoused alongside their original East End neighbours. And the building was finished to a high spec, with double glazing and bespoke fittings, while its bridges rested on neoprene to minimise sound and vibration.

Trellick Tower, Golborne Road. Image: RIBA Collections
Erno Goldfinger

Despite this – and the generosity of budgets for 1960s social housing – many of Goldfinger’s aspirations foundered. His pleas for a concierge to sit in his marble-lined lobby were ignored, and it was soon vandalised. Communal rooms were shuttered; access galleries were closed to the elements. Perhaps tellingly, Balfron and Trellick proved to be Goldfinger’s last major commissions – by the late 1960s, high-rise housing was already out of fashion, particularly after the nearby Ronan Point tower collapsed in 1968. Balfron’s pollution-stained facade became an unfortunate symbol of the decline of postwar ideals, and in 2011 it was added to English Heritage’s At Risk Register due to its deteriorating condition.

Today, the scaffolding is coming down after a major refurbishment by London practice Studio Egret West in collaboration with Ab Rogers Design. The process has not been without controversy. It is being funded by the sale of Balfron’s social housing – in the shadow of Canary Wharf, it has a highly desirable location. Although previous alterations to the Grade II-listed building (such as the removal of its cornice and chimneys) are being reversed, restoring its original silhouette, the decision to ditch the chunky white timber windows has displeased heritage bodies. The new frames – slim aluminium with a tasteful bronzed effect – are more durable and dirt-resistant, but fail to match to Balfron’s heroic qualities.

Balfron Interior

Inside, this window choice seems more sensible, helping ensure today’s exacting acoustic, thermal and energy standards are met – cars roar down into the Blackwall Tunnel just below – and the increased glazing maximises spectacular views and light, while integrating the balcony into the living space. Six “heritage” flats retain their original layouts (and taps), including the one in which Goldfinger stayed. Elsewhere, adjustments take account of today’s performance standards and modern lifestyles, including smaller families and young couples. There are more generous bathrooms, for example, and a wall between the kitchen and sitting room has been removed, creating a large, light-filled open-plan space with dual- aspect windows. (There has been rather strange criticism of this alteration, with the implication that Balfron should be preserved in perpetuity as a 1960s re-enactment society.)

Half of the interiors were overseen by Ab Rogers, half by Studio Egret West. There are minor variations in layout, but their approach to finishes is more diverse. Both respect Goldfinger’s preferences in such matters as the slimline light switches in the metal door frames, but Rogers has plumped for what he calls a more colourful “modern take on brutalism” with blue linoleum and dark grey cabinetry in the kitchen, and oversized tiles and a surprising red ceiling in the bathroom.

The building symbolises the ideology of 1960s architects – they thought a lot about social engineering, and considered how people could move from a traditional street into a building like Balfron, providing extensive facilities but arranged vertically

Brian Mallon, who lead the project for Studio Egret West, says that its palette “was very much driven by the 1960s heritage, respecting Goldfinger’s intentions while not actually replicating his materials” – thus there is a preference for raw, natural surfaces, including glimpses of raw concrete, terrazzo for the bathroom floors and walls, and cork flooring for the bedrooms. Despite these differences, Rogers feels that the two practices share the same underlying intentions: “Both of us are trying to expose the Goldfinger bones and to celebrate them.” Show apartments designed by Ab Rogers and London practice 2LG Studio are being launched this month.

Externally, the bold colours of Goldfinger’s access corridors have been reinstated and amplified – the original tile company has been tracked down – as has the marble lobby with its plate-glass door, complete with a new concierge desk “so you feel that you are entering the world of Goldfinger”, as Rogers puts it. The communal rooms in the service tower are finally being brought back to life as “third spaces”, including a yoga studio, a workshop, a music room and even a small cinema. “You have to make some sacrifices to live in a London flat, and they provide facilities that you just wouldn’t have room for,” says Mallon. “It’s something quite unique about the building, and symbolises the ideology of 1960s architects – they thought a lot about social engineering, and considered how people could move from a traditional street into a building like Balfron, providing extensive facilities but arranged vertically.”

Balfron Tower living room by Ab Rogers Design. Image: courtesy of Londonewcastle

The most eye-catching new facility is the boiler room at the top – now a double-height dining room bookable at reception, with a kitchen above, and its roof accessible for post-prandial star-gazing. Each space has its own palette of materials and colours, focusing on foam and cork in the music room, OSB in the workshop, and sapele – a hardwood much favoured by Goldfinger – for kitchen cabinets. “It really goes back to part of ErnÖ’s original thinking around the experience,” says Rogers. “Every one of these rooms is designed with both function and the building’s DNA in mind, keeping the original spirit of Balfron engaged.”

The roof of the main tower boasts an enclosed garden, and down below, Balfron’s rugged concrete surroundings are being softened, with fences and bins removed, and planting, lighting and benches added. “We felt that we needed to be bolder here, as the exterior was quite uninviting,” says Mallon. “We’re removing as much clutter and fencing as possible without taking away from the existing fabric, and introducing a layer of soft landscaping to take the harsh edges off.” The playground, with its rather frightening “watchtower” slide, is also being brought up to date, while Balfron Kitchen – a restaurant and store in an old estate shop – is being set up to act as a bridge between the area’s various communities.

All in all, it’s a huge endeavour, and certainly not without risk, but there’s no doubt that the newly grime-free Balfron will stand as magnificent testament to Goldfinger’s talent.