The National Trust are running tours of a Brutalist masterpiece in east London. The stock warnings on their website as you book – picnic hampers are usually allowed, but check before your visit – reveal that this isn’t your typical NT territory.
We are advised to meet outside a cafe in Poplar called Starlight. Unexpectedly early, we blundered in for tea, and were accosted by a very enthusiastic middle class young man.
“Are you here for the TedX?”
No, I explain. We’re off to tour the Balfron Tower, and are looking for a cuppa.
He passes us on to a woman who will furnish us with more information.
“Have you heard of the Ted talks on the internet?”
“It’s like that. It’s a way of meeting up offline and exchanging ideas. Anyone can apply to set up a Tedx, so this is Tedx East End. We’ve got talks and workshops, and it’s going on all day. Would you like to take part?”
“I’m sorry, I still don’t understand. What is Tedx for? Are you trying to raise awareness about local issues? Is it about social housing?” I still had Balfron on my mind.
“No, we’re about ideas, and making spaces so that they can be shared. So today’s our discovery day…”
“So you’re like a campaign group? Is it political?”
“No, we’re not a political organisation.”
I explained I was on a tour, but erroneously promised to come back later. Why was an avowedly apolitical organisation arranging arts, crafts and talks in a cafe in one of the poorest parts of East London?
Thoroughly confused, but with a small polystyrene cup of weak (but free!) tea, I blundered back outside, and met the person who had told me about the tour, who I knew from the non-real world of the internet. She had taken it before, and said the young volunteer guide – who had clearly learned her facts fairly recently – was incessantly corrected by the group, which consisted of stern middle aged architects. My internet friend felt bad about this, so stuck to the front and told the guide she was doing really well.
Our own guides were more confident and our group less bolshy. We were given a postwar history of the area, taken to see a modernist clock tower in the local market, then we were on our way to the main event. One of our guides, Stephen, a lovely man who is blogging an attempt to walk every London postcode, told me about the new town he grew up in – Crawley – and architectural changes to the place that had left it mess. I told him about Coventry, and the Cathedral Lanes shopping centre.
“That sounds like a shame.”
We arrived at the Balfron, via the other, lesser blocks that formed part of the same development. As we squeezed into the lift, someone asked what was going to happen to the Tower after it was refurbished. The main guide was a bit vague here, and said the plan hadn’t been finalised.
“It’s going to be sold off for private flats,” I said.
The guide nodded.
“Gentrification,” said a woman who hadn’t spoken before. Silence. The word hung in the air as we rose.
The flat we were visiting was the one occupied by Ernö Goldfinger, the architect, who lived there for a few months after its completion, inviting new tenants to come ’round to provide feedback over champagne. Derided as a publicity stunt at the time, he did incorporate some suggestions into his plans for Trellick Tower, so I’m going to give the man the benefit of the doubt.
The flat had been turned into an ersatz imagination of what it would have been like in 1968, after the Goldfingers had moved out and the first social tenants had moved in. One room was a shrine to the Beatles, though a lot of the Beatles stuff was “more 1964, 65,” as Stephen dryly pointed out. I found it a bit twee, fake heritage for an imagined past. But the flat itself was fantastic: good dimensions, a great balcony and wonderful, hypnotic views of the entrance to the Blackwall tunnel, Robin Hood Gardens, and the rapacious vampire squid monster of the Canary Wharf complex. If that’s your kind of thing.
Here’s my main beef with the tour, which is probably an unfair criticism, given the National Trust are not a political organisation. But I’m going to make it anyway.
You cannot view Balfron Tower without the wider context, which is the social cleansing of London. You can’t build a fake tribute to the optimism is a young working class family of the late 1960s without pointing out that today’s equivalent family wouldn’t have a chance of living in a similar socially rented flat today.
The heritage industry stops working once you start going backwards. You can’t go ‘look at the quaint way these people lived’ when the political consensus is that these people now deserve nothing.
Balfron Tower will be sold and filled with the rich. It is currently populated by artists and young, well-meaning middle class flat minders, selected by a local arts group and a social enterprise accordingly. I’m sure individuals in both groups have mixed feelings about their role in the recalibrating of the tower’s purpose, but given how high rents are I can’t blame either group for being involved. We meet one young artist as we leave, a neighbour to the ersatz-flat – she says it’s wonderful living there, and is hopeful the project will be delayed and that she will get to live there a bit longer.
We move back along the street in the sky and pile in to the lift back to reality. Half way down, the lift stops and the door opens to reveal a Byronic young man, with dark curls and a long sweeping black jacket. He’s clutching an empty bottle of red wine. He takes the packed metal box of day trippers in his stride, and moves the wine bottle out of sight.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get the next one.”
As residents have battled their displacement, their plight has been framed against a backdrop of arts events, in a kind of live gentrification jamboree. There have been pop-up galleries and impromptu supper clubs, 24-hour theatre performances and a weekend branded as a “vertical carnival,” concluding with an architectural symposium on the roof – from which one artist also proposed to hurl a piano, before her plan was damned as an act of crass lunacy. All the usual actors of regeneration have been paraded through the building, the artist-tenants performing their valiant role as the kamikaze agents of real estate “value uplift”, enjoying a last hurrah on the deck of the brutalist Titanic.
We get to talking about the changes the area has seen in the last few years. The flats in the Balfron Tower, once emptied but prior to their refurbishment, have been used to host “artists’ live/work studios” by Bow Arts, but are also being farmed out to ‘property guardians’, and, lately, being used as temporary accommodation for homeless from outside of Tower Hamlets. “But more than Bow Arts, in my block is guardians. And that’s like basically paying to squat. You get no rights, you get a work contract. And there’s absolutely loads of them. People hate them, but I think that they’re just in the same position as everyone else. Why would you want to live like that? And you can be out in 24 hours. There was a guy in my block who was a guardian, and someone complained he had his music too loud, and he got a 24 hour notice the next day. So living like that, they don’t care about the block, and I don’t blame them either, you’re not going to put down roots in the community.”