Balfron Tower, street level view

The second part of my Open House London runnaround was a visit to Balfron Tower in Poplar, East London. I was originally planning a viewing at Trellick Tower, on the opposite side of town in the affluent W10 postcode but it was obviously booked out the very minute reservations started to take place on the website. The alternative then was to go and check its predecessor in far less glamorous surroundings instead.

It is impossible to ignore the complex of building’s presence in contrast to other estates around it. Despite its derelict look the whole Brownfield Estate pays testimony to the poignancy of some architects who got involved in the rebuilding of East London during the decades following WWII. The complex, containing three buildings: Carradale House, Glenkerry House and Balfron Tower were conceived by Ernö Goldfinger, perhaps mostly known by his Bond’s namesake villain (it’s said that Ernö and Ian Flemming were disaffected neighbours which lead to the later indiscreetly teasing his friend with a such a honourable tribute).

The flat I visited was on the 24th floor with amazing views of, errr, Canary Wharf. Like 20 or so other artists, the flat was allocated to a painter who benefitted from Bow Arts Trust initiative to fill the empty premises with creatives aiming at, (1) helping these individuals continue their art practice by offering living-work spaces at a very low rent, (2) preventing the infiltration of rogue elements and particularly squatters. I must say, the view of Canary Warf was breathtaking, not to mention the amount of light filling the living room. It was a smart move by the local authorities I thought, one that promotes the reinvigoration of areas lacking in productive activities and contribute to positive change in poor, disenfranchised neighbourhoods. However, this can also mean a first step towards gentrification, I sensed. According to Open-City organisers, Tower Hamlets Council is planning a total refurbishment of the building meaning, relocating artists and, pushing the vast majority of residents out. It is clear that the architectural value of the complex along with their proximity to the financial district of Canary Warf make for an extremely profitable opportunity. For better or worse that’s the London way.

The funny thing though was the perplexed gazes we, visitors, received from residents walking in and out of the building. It is a fact that a lot of people in the city don’t actually like (or comprehend) this concept of architecture. Modernism, frequently dubbed ‘brutalist’ in the UK, is a far-fetched ideal for most of the people, be it at an aesthetic or functional levels. Thus the odd look fired at us while we were waiting to enter the premises. Just to prove my point, as I was resuming my visit with a few more shots of the facade a local resident on her mid-forties, along with her sturdy English bulldog, approached me and in a puzzled tone of voice asked: ‘why arh ye lads so fascina-ed by thiz buil-ings? Ta’in pi-tchas en aw. I think they arh pree-ey f***ing ugly, mate!!’

Ah, the joys of East London…