An east London tower block that was once condemned as ‘Britain’s ugliest building’ has now been renovated, The Guardian reports. The Balfron Tower in Poplar, a former rubbish-strewn sink estate, is now converted into fashionable flats that are being bought by the wealthy bankers of Canary Wharf.
The building is equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, including a gym, library, and music room, and it may finally achieve the vision of the architect Ernö Goldfinger. The Hungarian was a Marxist, and in 1963 when he designed the building, he claimed that it should facilitate the relationships between people as they went about their daily life.
The results were mixed, to say the least. The Brutalist concrete tower was compared to a prison and a pillbox, and its atmosphere was described as hostile, alienating, and even terrifying. The residents were from displaced slum clearance streets, and an effort was made to house people from the same streets together, on the same or adjacent floors.
The original design did include communal rooms for recreation and social space, and at first, most of the residents reported a positive experience. However, by the 1980s, the building was suffering from a lack of investment and neglect by the local council.
It became a target for vandalism, crime, and drug dealing, and the communal rooms were filled up with rubbish. It was the opposite of the people-centred living space that the architect had envisaged.
By 2014, the final stamp of horror was bestowed when it was used as a film set for the apocalyptic zombie movie 28 Days Later. Yet now, eight years later, London’s fashionable and wealthy residents are lining up to buy the renovated flats for substantial sums. The agents have reported that 1,200 potential buyers have registered their interest.
The question of the displaced former council tenants is a very controversial point. Some were living in substandard, overcrowded conditions, and were happy to leave. However, others enjoyed high rise living, and felt as though they were being swept under the carpet to make way for a money-spinning regeneration project.
All of this raises a very interesting question about Brutalist architecture, and what we deem to be desirable places to live. One the one hand, the Balfron Tower is a Grade II* listed building, and yet it has been described as ugly, charmless, aggressive, and dystopian. Is the difference down to décor, taste, changing fashions, investment levels, or something deeper?
The so called ‘streets in the sky’, which seemed to provide a Utopian answer to the problem of overcrowded slum terraced housing in post-war Britain, have largely failed in their ambitions. Most of the problems have arisen through a lack of investment and proper maintenance, such as broken lifts, poor ventilation, and graffiti and vandalism.
When the buildings are truly optimised for human living, as Goldfinger envisioned, maybe they can fulfil their function. However, the question remains as to whether they can house the very people who they were originally designed for, or just a handful of London’s elites.