I was lucky enough to visit Balfron Tower this week, to see the latest innovation in the National Trust’s London programme. Balfron Tower is a hi-rise that dominates the landscape near Poplar in East London – or at least it did, before it was dwarfed in turn by the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. Balfron was designed by the architect Ernő Goldfinger, whose modernist home in Hampstead is owned and displayed by the National Trust.
Goldfinger was a controversial enough figure in his day – so much so indeed that Ian Fleming (a near neighbour in Hampstead) used his name for one of his villains in the James Bond books. But Goldfinger was nothing if not an enthusiastic pioneer of new ways of thinking about life, buildings and the spaces around them. The 27-storey Balfron Tower, with its ‘streets in the sky’ connected from a single service tower, was a distinctive social vision aimed at providing a solution to post-war housing needs. It adjoins the equally visionary Lansbury Estate, named after the socialist George Lansbury, which had its origins as part of the Festival of Britain (1951).
Balfron Tower is now a building on the cusp of a new future. Its current residents are mostly artists and architects, who live there as the ‘guardians’ of the place. Soon, they will be leaving, as the place is taken over by Londonewcastle for refurbishment of the Grade II-listed flats.
Before it does, the Trust stepped in to show off one of the apartments in its 1960s hey day – the very apartment, in fact, that Goldinger himself moved into in 1968 in order to test the liveability of the place. The designer Wayne Hemingway and his daughter Tilly were invited to dress the flat at number 130 as if it was 1968 again, and a family were living there. There are echoes of the Domestic Wing at Anglesey Abbey therefore, in the recreation of a 1960s interior that will be familiar to many. From the winceyette bedspreads to the posters of the Beatles and other pop stars of their day, the place was dressed with a lovely attention to detail. (Although I did wonder if the clean-shaven Beatles on the bedroom posters were a few years out of date for 1968?)
There is also an excellent guidebook, featuring the best ever cover I have ever seen on one of our guides. Inside, an attempt is made to link Goldfinger’s work with that of our founder, Octavia Hill, given that both shared a concern for the open green spaces between buildings. In truth, I think Octavia would have been appalled by the brutal modernism of Balfron Tower, but it is an interesting thought nonetheless that Goldfinger was in some way the heir to the housing endeavours that Octavia Hill had been pursuing in London a century earlier.
A more solid link between Poplar and the National Trust however comes with the figure of George Lansbury, the Suffolk-born radical socialist who became so closely associated with the east end, serving as councillor for Poplar and then Labour MP for Bow and Bromley. Lansbury’s public campaigns for social justice gave rise to the term ‘Poplarism’ as meaning the local defence of the less privileged against the demands of the centre. Lansbury went on to become the Commissioner for Works (in other words, heritage minister) in the National Government of 1929-31, and later Leader of the Labour Party. (The Hyde Park lido on the Serpentine was known as Lansbury’s Pond, since it dates from his time in ministerial office.)
Lansbury, grandfather of the actress Angela Lansbury, knew Octavia Hill. The two of them sat on the Poor Law commission of 1905-09 (Lansbury would have been in his 40s at the time, Octavia in her 70s). They were on opposite sides, since Lansbury signed the Webbs’ minority report that heralded the beginnings of state welfarism, whereas Octavia signed the majority report in favour of reforms to the existing Poor Law system. Lansbury went on to serve as vice-President of the National Trust in the 1930s, and was closely involved in the saving of Sutton House, a story told by Patrick Wright.
So, although 130 Balfron Tower might be a time-limited ‘pop-up’, there are more links between Poplar and the National Trust than might first be the case.
PS Ageing hipsters will have noticed that the title of this blog comes from the Underworld album Dubnobasswithmyheadman, which marks its 20th anniversary this year. In a recent Guardian interview, Karl Hyde relates how the album was influenced by his late night walks around London, and was intimately informed therefore by the psychogeography of the city. “To me this album was Romford, Soho, Canary Wharf, the A13 corridor, the transition from a changing suburbia.” The perfect soundtrack to the Balfron experience?