RIBA Library Photographs Collection
By Jeremy Tracey
Balfron Tower: Trellick Tower’s older sibling
On sitting down to write this piece on Balfron Tower, I realised that I was drinking coffee from a mug featuring an image of its sister, Trellick Tower. Both were designed in a similar sculptural style by modernist architect Erno Goldfinger, yet Balfron Tower has always lived, metaphorically speaking, in the shadow of its younger and taller sibling. Trellick Tower’s journey to iconic status is well documented. Completed in 1972, at the end of the great post-war experiment in high-rise living, Trellick Tower came to symbolise the ills of crime ridden and poorly maintained social housing. Prominent on the West London skyline, its Brutalist bush hammered reinforced concrete frame stood defiantly against critics. A Grade II* listing in 1998 represented a turning point in its fortunes.
All interior photographs courtesy National Trust/Ed Haynes
Balfron Tower: from Goldfinger to Hemingway
Meanwhile, away from the West London cognoscenti, Balfron Tower has slumbered on in Poplar, East London. Now, on the verge of a restoration project which will be financed through the sale of the flats into private ownership, the tower is enjoying its moment in the limelight. As the culmination of ‘Balfron Season’, a festival of activity arranged by Bow Arts, the National Trust opened a flat to the public in a fortnight-long Pop-up event. With 1968 period interiors wonderfully styled by Tilly Hemingway, daughter of designer Wayne Hemingway, the flat was the one that Erno Goldfinger and his wife Ursula chose to occupy for two months in 1968 in order to test the building and meet the residents. Designed by Erno Goldfinger in 1963 for the London County Council, Balfron Tower was built from 1965 to 1967. The separation of the service tower, which houses the lift, from the living accommodation gives the building a distinctive profile, and its finely textured concrete finish and subtle attention to detail resulted in its Grade II listing in 1996.
Balfron Tower: the Pop-Up party
I had the good fortune (thank-you MidCentury Magazine) of attending the National Trust Pop-up event launch party, where I had a chance to meet Mike Goldfinger, the son of Erno Goldfinger, who remembered bringing his children along to visit their grandparents in the tower. The timing of my visit was rather apropos as I was in the midst of reading John Grindrod’s Concretopia, an excellent book about post-war British architecture. A particularly resonant fact revealed in its pages was that the day after the Goldfingers moved out of Balfron, a system-built tower block less than two miles away partially collapsed, killing four people. That tower was Ronan Point and its structural failure fundamentally changed attitudes to high-rise social housing in Britain.
Balfron Tower: a future secured
Walking back from the party, I pondered on what Le Corbusier would have thought of East London, as it once again transforms itself in London’s latest housing boom. Another iconic Brutalist estate, Robin Hood Gardens, completed in 1972 by Alison and Peter Smithson, is about to be demolished in a major redevelopment. I wonder if one of my grandchildren will attend a National Trust sponsored Pop-up event in 46 years time in one of the flats that are to be built on the site?
If you fancy living in your own mid century home, fantasy or reality, check out Jeremy Tracey’s website thehouseoftomorrow.co.uk for some serious inspiration.
For more images of Balfron Tower and Erno Goldfinger’s work, visit ribapix.com
If you’ve enjoyed this piece, see Mid Century Modernism: The new ‘new’? and Post-war architecture in Britain: the Spirit of Optimism
For information on design agency Hemingway Design, click here
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