London’s brutalist Balfron Tower is brought back to life
Completed in 1967, the Balfron Tower, as well as the low-rise Carradale House alongside it, remains one of the best-known works of the legendary modernist provocateur Ernö Goldfinger. Located on the northern approach to the Blackwall Tunnel, in London’s Poplar, it’s often seen as the East End’s equivalent of Trellick Tower, and both share a silhouette and certain details. But while the Trellick’s fortunes ebbed and flowed before becoming fashionable quarters, the Balfron never got the same love and attention.
For decades, the bold concrete visions of the 1960s and 1970s were for aficionados only. In recent years, brutalism has been celebrated in crisp black and white photography and rendered in seductive graphics, yet all too often the reality lagged far behind. A chronic lack of maintenance, plus the experimental nature of concrete construction, might have given these rain-streaked monoliths a certain raw edginess, but up close, only the true fetishist could get excited. Finally, though, the rehabilitation is getting structural.
When it came to rebuilding the Balfron, there was undeniable controversy. Opposition from local interest groups focused on how the block’s original quota of affordable housing would be gone for ever. Its sale to a housing association in 2007 was on the understanding that some tenants could choose to stay if they wished while a hefty refurbishment took place. But by 2014, when developer Londonewcastle took on the onerous responsibility of updating the structure, Carradale House was given over to social housing and the Balfron was designated entirely for private sale.
An impression of how an apartment in the revamped Balfron Tower might look. Interiors: Amy Heffernan. Photography: Leandro Farina
Architects Studio Egret West (SEW) and Ab Rogers Design (ARD) have overseen the update, with Brody Associates creating signage and graphic identity. There’s also a partnership with artist Ryan Gander, who has developed a set of doormats, door numbers and doorbell sounds, all based on original Goldfinger documents.
The Hungarian-born architect’s original design aimed to create self-contained communities in the sky. A separate service tower not only defined the building, but gave residents a place for laundry and hobbies, including a designated ‘jazz/pop’ room. When they came to revamp the building, SEW and ARD began by giving updated functions to the service tower, including a communal kitchen and dining room for events that can’t be held in a two-bedroom flat, together with a workshop, cinema, library, gym and yoga room, as well as a generous communal roof terrace.
While the building has been stripped back to the structure, the basic layout remains, with long service corridors leading to single and two-storey flats. SEW and ARD divided the units up between them, creating open-plan layouts that connect kitchen and living spaces while completely redoing the services and finishes. The palette of materials was painstakingly compiled following research in Goldfinger’s (substantial) archives. One of each of the original six flat typologies will be preserved as carefully recreated ‘heritage’ flats for future generations. The rest of the 140 flats will adopt a more contemporary approach.
The Trellick Tower, 1966-1972, by Ernö Goldfinger is the archetypal symbol of London Brutalism. See more London brutalism here
London’s brutalist classics are now considered as integral to the city’s heritage as the Georgian square or a Christopher Wren church. The Barbican’s Blake Tower, the former YMCA designed by estate architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon in 1969, is another example of the burgeoning commercial clout of brutalist fetishism. Now repurposed by Conran and Partners as a 17-storey building of 74 private apartments, the concrete provided what project director Simon Kincaid describes as ‘a remarkably rich starting point’.
The architects have left exposed concrete in the apartments, an unthinkable design decision barely a decade ago. Richard Seifert’s Centre Point has also undergone an image-boosting overhaul and recalibration, with its neo-pop brutalist façade containing a clutch of extremely high-end apartments. The nearby Economist Building, designed by brutalist pioneers Alison and Peter Smithson in 1964, is also getting a new lease of life courtesy of DSDHA. Where commerce meets culture, change is inevitably not far behind. Careful design has ensured all these buildings will bring the best of the past into the present. §
As originally featured in the July 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*232)