Brutal attack on Bow’s Balfron Tower pop-up

Designer Tilly Hemingway at Balfron Tower Bow autumn 2014 ©

THE NATIONAL TRUST pop-up in a flat at the top of the concrete Balfron Tower has not gone quite as its organisers might have expected.

National newspapers initially puffed handsomely the announcement of a show-and-tell 27 floors above Poplar.

Once a few scribblers had trekked out to the nest of flats at the gates of the Blackwall Tunnel, the tone changed. The exercise was instead attacked by critics from the Right and the Left.

In The Times, for example, a Thatcheristic Oliver Moody said the Balfron was designed by a “permanently irascible” Hungarian Marxist called Ernö Goldfinger, a brutalist who dazzled local authorities in the 1960s with blueprints for soaring and cheap tower blocks.

“Finished in 1968,” noted Moody, “Balfron Tower is everything Britain hates about its postwar architecture.”

Yet the pop-up was a good idea. The towers were not just magnificent in their weirdness but a badly needed history lesson.

Wayne and Tilly Hemingway-decorated flat at Balfron Tower in BowLondon autumn 2014 ©
Wonder walk: at the Balfron

Moody went on: “The lost civilisation that made these concrete mausoleums died out only 30 years ago.”

Almost four million houses were destroyed in the Second World War, and after it, Britain fell into “a brutalist blockfest”, in which a [so-called] slum street was cleared every month.

Moody pointed out that today’s politicians promised 200,000 new houses a year; in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s era local authorities often built more than 350,000 a year.

The Times columnist concluded that Britain should learn to love its high-rises so people could muse on the architectural mistakes of the Sixties, the “age of cheap modernism”.

In The Guardian Oliver Wainwright, a trained architect, launched an attack on the decanting of local people in the face of “a kind of live gentrification jamboree”, including the Wayne and daughter Tilly Hemingway-decorated flat in 1968 style (apart from, Loving Dalston noticed, the inclusion of a book referring to famous figures of 1969).

Marcel Baettig CEO Bow Arts in Balfron Tower London autumn 2014 ©
Bow Arts boss Marcel Baettig

Artist-tenants, ranted Wainwright, had performed their usual role as “kamikaze agents” of real-estate price rises. A six-year “carnival” was climaxing with the Balfron Season run by Bow Arts Trust, Poplar Harca, a housing association, and the Legacy List, “spawn” of an Olympic arts vehicle.

Wainwright said that in more affluent Kensington, only 36 of the 217 flats in Goldfinger’s companion piece, Trellick Tower, were in private hands, “whereas the Balfron’s 146 flats will soon be entirely privately owned”.

Bow Arts has invited Wainwright to a discussion entitled Cultural Regeneration or Gentrification? Tickets are free but have all been allocated.

David Altheer 041014

* Cultural Regeneration or Gentrification?, the Nunnery, 181 Bow Road E3 2SJ, Tues 14 Oct 2014, 2014, 7pm.

* Balfron Tower and Goldfinger flat tours (75 mins), St Leonards Road E14 0QT, Sun 5 Oct 2014 and Wed 8-Sun 12 Oct 2014, 11am, noon, 1pm, 2pm, 3pm, 4pm. Free: booking essential. 

* Main picture: Tilly Hemingway looks towards Docklands. All pix ©

* Backstory: National Trust goes Cockney, ennit? 

* Tip for new owners of Balfron flats: beware the service charge.

* If you lack an online subscription to The Times, you can ask ask at your nearest library for a copy, online or in print, of the Oliver Moody article.

Wayne and Tilly Hemingway-decorated flat at Balfron Tower in BowLondon autumn 2014 ©
Bright and light… all a kitchen needed in 1968: display flat at top of the tower

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