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The Ivory Tower vs. the Brutalist Tower

Those creating policy are still so far removed from what life is like on a council estate, what does this mean for the people that live there?

Illustration by Rebecca Marks

Former Chair of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, renowned and controversial conservative thinker Roger Scruton died earlier this month. Under Scruton’s command, the Commission had aimed to build new housing in a ‘traditional’ manner, no more modernist concrete brutalist blocks, giving way to cornices and volutes for a better way of living. If those in power really do want council estates to resemble a reprised version of the Georgian square, where does the future lie for neglected modernist housing blocks scattered across London?

The perfect storm brewing between developers, impecunious local authorities and their communities, is when residents are forced out by developers for privatisation - exactly what happened at Balfron Tower. Erno Goldfinger’s 1967 brutalist tower, built as post-war council housing, has been transformed into luxury private homes that went onto the market in late 2019. The (lack of) respect for the architecture is similar to that received by the inhabitants of council housing.

The dominant presence of Balfron Tower over Poplar, East London is something to behold. Its architecture encapsulates the gritty modern experience with rusticated concrete like crawling skin and a striking design that contributes to an intense atmosphere styled by Kubrick and imagined by J.G Ballard. Along with its twin Trellick Tower in West London, reminders to all of the power of architecture, and the trials and tribulations of the working class.

The gap between the ambition of social housing and the economic reality required to achieve sustainable streets in the skies has shaped a deep scar on the modern urban landscape. After years of neglect Balfron Tower was on its last legs and large-scale refurbishment was the only option. But the fundamental purpose of the building to provide social housing has been diluted completely. Can we ever look at it in the same way?

I was able to witness Balfron Tower’s new identity first-hand as an intern on The Developer magazine invited to view two new apartments on the top floor before they were put onto the market; this gave me food for thought.

Balfron Tower is no stranger to controversy. Held up by the concrete-loving cults, and the anti-brutalist example of the style’s pitfalls, I had mixed feelings about the viewing. The developer LondonNewcastle and studio EgretWest have breathed new life into Goldfinger’s building, but the moral questions loom large, this is another arrow in the heart of post-war social housing projects. The developers themselves are doing well by laying the groundwork for the regeneration of the E14 are. I was excited at the design and architectural skills to refurbish Goldfinger’s vision for the space, but saddened by the limited diversity that will inevitably be the new occupants.

One of the first stages of Balfron Tower’s regeneration, which commenced in 2011, had artists occupy the flats temporarily during the process of selling it off, giving rise to accusations of ‘art washing’ - bringing in artists inducing some value for developers to raise prices. The countless music videos filmed at the brutalist spot proves the location as rich for artistic inspiration, but this move by planning company HARCA felt duplicitous.

When I was inside Balfron Tower I couldn’t help but feel like something wasn’t quite right. Even the sales suite feels insecure at the foot of the building, a modern block that is a stark contrast to the depressed neighbouring buildings. The area is quite green despite surrounding strangling motorways. Yards and small patches of grass are light relief against the concrete backdrop. Yet these spaces are also empty and unappreciated and lacking a sense of character so important to the original conception. The social significance of the building is blurred, and now its purpose confused.

The discussions taking place at the flat viewing were concerned with the astonishing views and some architectural details, but nothing about how the building will fit-in in Poplar. The new incarnation comes with an entirely new culture and we shouldn’t shy away from discussing how this new machine works, or if it will work. French worker jacket architects, Canary Wharf businessman, a rehoused Grenfell survivor, an individual faced with a lifestyle like those portrayed in Top Boy; how can these people exist together?

Council estates are shrouded in stigma so exist in a space entirely removed, more akin to a prison complex than housing to those looking at them from the outside. We need to hear their voices and it could instill some positivity, make the estate a place where things can happen and not somewhere to escape from. If Building Better Building Beautiful starting building prettier estates, would it only be satisfying for rich people? I was at the talk where Scruton stated that Grenfell Tower wouldn’t have happened if it “wasn’t so ugly.” What a shocking misunderstanding of working class lives, the conditions they are subject to.

The return of Top Boy to our screens in September 2019 brought a renewed focus and valuable insight on council estate life, something that seems to have drifted from public consciousness. We should question whether council housing per se incubates a culture of crime, but structured support and intervention seems drowned out by the knife fights that make the city at night a fearful place to be. Little work is done to make the typical council estates hopeful environments; there is a greater focus on policing, and increasingly development projects that obliterate community. Take the transformation of King’s Cross, so perfect and modern it’s terrifying for the remaining members of the original diverse community to step-out into Coal Drops Yard and not feel alien or judged.

If there was a more honest bridge built between those living in council-estates and those who make decisions about how they are funded and supported then perhaps we wouldn’t be encountering such troublesome disruptions on our streets. Ballard might see those bridges burned down, an extinction rebellion activist would want them occupied. Has anyone asked what the people in Poplar want? From my experience in the city a building that fits seamlessly and is activated, when it gives back it works, and the design doesn’t matter. We should make an effort to understand the dynamics of the estate better and there would be no need for Scruton’s glorified return to the past, instead we can move forward and adapt to modern urban living with unbreakable and appreciated communities.


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