The National Trust opens
130 Balfron Tower
1–12 October 2014
If, like me, you’ve never stumbled across Poplar in East London by accident, here’s a very good reason to jump aboard the DLR and visit Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower. The National Trust, who already manage Goldfinger’s covetable house in Willow Road, Hampstead, are opening the doors of number 130 in the Brutalist tower for two weeks from 1 October 2014.
The Balfron Tower, which is about to undergo major refurbishment, was Goldfinger’s first attempt at high-rise social housing. Standing at 27 storeys high and completed in 1967 it replaced the slum housing of the area. The building is made up of two towers — one where the lift shaft sits, containing laundry rooms, rubbish chutes and the boiler room, and the other the main residential tower. They are joined by eight bridge-like walkways, this design was later replicated in Goldfinger’s better known and taller Trelick Tower in West London.
Soon after the building became occupied, Goldfinger along with his wife Ursula moved into number 130 for two months, part publicity stunt and part research, the Goldfingers opened their doors to the neighbours hosting several drinks parties as a way of getting to know everyone and to quiz the tenants about what they thought of the flats. Goldfinger wanted to know of any problems in the design so that he could make improvements in his later buildings, for example there were complaints about how long you would have to wait for one of the two lifts to arrive, so he incorporated 3 lifts in the later Trellick Tower.
Balfron was Listed Grade II in 1996, but the estate suffered from a lack of maintenance and social problems throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which also reflected in the condition of the building fabric and associated landscaping. In December 2007, following a ballot of residents in 2006, Tower Hamlets Council transferred its ownership of Balfron Tower and the surrounding Brownfield Estate to the housing association Poplar HARCA.
The opening of the flat is part of Balfron Season, a programme of events presented by Bow Arts in association with Poplar HARCA, taking place in and around the Balfron Tower. The National Trust have stripped backed Goldfinger’s former home on the 26th floor and re-instated original fittings where possible such a cute slim light switches and the kitchen cupboards. The three bedroom flat feels generous and sturdy, each bedroom big enough for a double bed, there’s a large balcony off the living room with ridiculous views, the kitchen is compact but big enough for a table. It’s been furnished by designers Wayne and Tilly Hemingway in ‘the style of a 1968 period flat’, which is a little too Austin Powers for my liking (surely 60s homes didn’t have furnishing from just their own period, might they not have had granny’s unwanted wardrobe, or Auntie Vi’s old kitchen table?) Maybe I’m being a party pooper — did I mention there’s a sun lounger on the balcony with the A12 rumbling below you— but it is a chance to view Goldfinger’s vision of high rise social housing before the developers get all ‘Keeling House’ on it.
The tours will meet at Langdon Park DLR station and pass by 1950s Festival of Britain architecture and Chrisp Street Market. They will include a discussion on the development of post-war social housing and continue to the Balfron Tower. They will be led by a new team of National Trust volunteers who have an interest in Modernism, social housing and the local area.
Tickets are available to book from www.nationaltrust.org.uk/london.
Tours last approximately 75 minutes with 10 people per tour, priced £12 (£10 for students with valid ID). A specially-written guidebook to post-war Poplar, Balfron Tower, and the recreation of Flat 130 has been written and is being printed for the opening.