Balfron Tower – and a Pop(u)lar tour

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Over the last month or so, the National Trust have been running something in E14 which is a little different from their usual stuff. And I was lucky enough to be part of this as a volunteer helper.

Just near to where the Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach crosses the A13 East India Dock Road is a remarkable block of flats called Balfron Tower. Designed by Erno Goldfinger with a distinctive separate tower for the lifts, it is symbolic of the optimism of the 1960s when everything seemed possible.This is heroic architecture that sought to offer the best of design to the masses and to offer people escape from the slums that still existed in 1960s Britain.

It was undoubtedly a great improvement on what had been here before in terms of housing but it never really fulfilled its potential as there was never the money to maintain it properly or to provide the concierge and security it needed.

And it did not help that soon after the Balfron Tower was occupied in 1968, there was a gas explosion in a block called Ronan Point which took out one corner of the block and killed 5 people. That building was made of prefabricated panels bolted together, although it was concluded that the builders had failed to put in all the necessary bolts, so the building was not as strong as it should have been. The Goldfinger buildings were made of poured concrete – literally made on site using giant molds of wooden shuttering. So they were much stronger and would not have collapsed like Ronan Point did.

But the tide turned against tower blocks because of this and the antisocial behaviour that occurred in and around the blocks, which made them unattractive as places to live if you had the choice.

Forbidding though this tower undoubtedly is, it is impressive and was recognised as worth keeping by being Grade II listed in 1996. But it is looking a bit sad and much work needs to be done on it. It is going to be refurbished at some point but at the moment is still occupied, although many flats are let short term to local artists through Bow Arts.

Erno Goldfinger (1902 – 1987) was born in Budapest. He studied in Paris but came to London with his wife, aspiring artists and Crosse and Blackwell heiress, Ursula Blackwell. He designed a number of these Brutalist buildings, including Alexander Fleming House (originally offices for the Ministry of Health),  a number of buildings on the Brownfield Estate in Poplar, the tallest of which is Balfron Tower, and Balfron’s slightly younger and taller sister, the Trellick Tower by the Westway .

But his first building in London was a terrace of three houses in Willow Road, Hampstead, completed in 1939 and now owned and managed by the National Trust. This was where he lived for the rest of his life – although he and his wife did spend some two months in early 1968 living in Flat 130 of Balfron Tower to hear about how it was to live in the building for the new residents.

The National Trust opening at Balfron Tower was part of a programme of events presented by Bow Arts in association with the local housing association Poplar HARCA, taking place in and around the Grade II listed Tower.

For this opening, the interior of Flat 130 has been furnished by designers, Wayne and Tilly Hemingway, in the style of a 1968 period flat. It is supposed to be what a family might have moved in with in 1968, so it is not entirely 1968 as they would have brought things from earlier periods, so there is some earlier 1960s stuff and some 1950s things too.

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So the National Trust recruited some volunteers to lead tours, and I was fortunate to be one of these volunteers. The tours sold out in a couple of days and so the National Trust negotiated 6 more days over the last two weekends of October.

The tours started at Langdon Park DLR station and the first part gave an insight into the area and its redevelopment. There was a maximum of 10 people per tour and volunteers worked in pairs doing three tours in a day. My last shift was with the lovely Dalia, seen here near the DLR station by the statue of Teddy Baldock, a local boxer of the 1920s and 1930s known as the Pride of Poplar.

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Then here I am telling the story of Erno Goldfinger and the buildings he was responsible for on the Brownfield Estate.

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The tour entered the tower via the lower ground floor and we went up in the lift to the 24th floor.

We made our way across the bridge into the main tower and along the corridor the Flat 130 which is at the far southern end of the block.

I should have explained that Balfron tower is in effect nine streets stacked one about the other and on most levels the flats are ranged either at the corridor level or one floor up or one floor down. This means that there seem to be too many doors on the corridor, and it also means that the flat with the door next to yours may actually be above or below yours. For example Flat 130 is one floor up on the 25th floor but Flat 131 is one floor down on the 23rd Floor but their front doors are side by side on the 24th floor.

All of the flats have a direct view west to the City.

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And the ones which are one floor down or up go right across the floor under or over the corridor and have a view east over the River Lea. And if you look at an angle northwards, you can see the Olympic Park and Aquatic Centre and Orbit Tower, although it proved impossible to get a picture of that from the flat.

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The ones at the southern end of the corridor (such as Flat 130) also have a view south towards Canary Wharf, the O2 arena, Greenwich and Shooter’s Hill. And every flat has a balcony open to the air – with a built in planter just inside the balustrade, which in Flat 130 had been nicely planted up

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Just to the right of the Blackwall Tunnel approach you can see Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens from the 1970s, which was a lower rise but dense development facing a garden and away from the roads. I understand this estate is going to be redeveloped, as it was not deemed special enough to be listed, even though it is just as interesting as Balfron Tower.

 

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The views change as the day moves on and of course the western view towards the City must get dramatic sunsets. I was not there at the right time to witness one but I did see this wonderful Turneresque sky.

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The last tours are today, Sunday 26 October and that will be the end of the National Trust foray into Poplar.

But they did throw a lovely little party last night for us volunteers, with pie and mash and drinks. Here is a picture of Leigh and Tina on the balcony with Canary Wharf behind (It’s the light that made it blurry not my unsteady hand!)

And here I am with Leigh.

We even had a Goldfinger themed quiz. We were split into 4 teams and sent to one of the rooms in flat 130. We were told the theme for the question and had to nominate one of our number to go into the hall to hear the question and write down the answer. That person returned with the next theme and we had to nominate who would answer that question.There were 20 questions in all, related to Goldfinger and Balfron. (I wonder if there is a TV game show format in this, obviously not limited to Goldfinger questions!)

I was in a team with Sean and Zoe and we were sent to the bedroom decked out with a young boy’s stuff. It had no chairs and the bed was broken, so we could not sit down. We chose the name “Please do not sit on the bed” as our team name, as it seemed better than “the Little Boy’s Room”.

Anyhow we won!!! And we each got a prize. Mine was a cushion covered with vintage fabric, but I was not allowed to take it, as the flat had one more day of tours. But here’s a picture.

The winners

Well it was a great experience, and fun to do. And thanks Katherine and Rosh for the great organisation.

So National Trust what next???

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