We're all to blame for the gentrification of Erno Goldfinger's brutalist Balfron Tower, says Owen Hatherley, so stop getting angry at the architects.
What is it about modernist architecture that people want to preserve? There have been increasing efforts in recent years by bored critics and historians to treat, say, brutalism as an architecture like any other, a sort of Vanbrugh-esque ferroconcrete baroque. However there simply is baggage here that you will seldom find in other forms and periods.
This is one reason why, when particular brutalist buildings do get preserved, changes are deemed necessary in order for them to succeed in the property market, especially when the buildings in question are council housing.
In a cosmetic sense, these changes can be relatively small, like the middle-class chainstore thoroughfare inserted into the Brunswick Centre, or the painting of Keeling House and the addition of some carefully hidden penthouses and a big fence. They can also be extremely aggressive, as in the near-total rebuilding of one part of Park Hill in Studio Egret West and Hawkins/Brown's disastrous redesign.
In visual terms, what Studio Egret West has done to the fenestration of Erno Goldfinger's Balfron Tower sits somewhere between.
The social and moral damage was already done, and is irreparable
The new opaque windows, with their faintly 80s speculative office block look, are naff for sure. But unlike at Park Hill, they will be easily overwhelmed by the otherwise unaffected massive integrity of Goldfinger's building. The social and moral damage was already done, and is irreparable.
It is hard to parse the enormity of what was done at Balfron Tower. Housing Associations are now the custodians of most of the non-market housing that exists in Britain, but nothing better shows their degeneration into an arm of the development industry than Poplar Harca's breathtakingly cynical treatment of that tower and its residents.
There is a lot of nonsense talked about gentrification, but if you want a pure description of how it works in practice – how the bodies meant to protect us from rampant capitalism work to reinforce it, and the role of art and architecture within that – Balfron is the place to turn.
Step one, residents are induced to opt in a ballot to go from renting from the council to renting from a charitable quango by telling them their building will be renovated if they do. Step two, upon realising that renovating a listed building is hard to do cheaply, decide that selling the newly fashionable building off can "offset" the cost of the renovation of other social housing in the area. Step three, move in artists to have cheap studios in said building during the process of "decanting", so that affluent people start to visit and become familiar with an area that otherwise they might feel uncomfortable in. Step four, sell to the highest bidder.
If you want a pure description of how gentrification works in practice, Balfron is the place to turn
It's not done out of evil or malevolence or even greed. Struggling councils and charities increasingly see these actions as their only option in order to survive, but they invariably make the problems worse, leaving us with more expensive market housing, and less non-market housing.
The irony with respect to Balfron Tower is that this happened to a building which was conceived in every respect as non-market housing, by an architect with explicit socialist commitments. Famously, Goldfinger moved for a time into the building in order to gauge what its working-class tenants liked and didn't like about it, applying these insights to the design of the subsequent Trellick Tower.
Balfron can look bracing, and it's easy to mock the architect and his wife, the Crosse and Blackwell heiress, living for a few months in a tower block before going back home to Hampstead, but they were serious about what they were doing, and the impressive spaces and finishes that Goldfinger brought to council housing were not just about doing a job well, but about giving council tenants buildings of the highest standard. A poorer society thought it could afford this.
The building originally faced a declining dock; it now faces a financial district awash with money. Yet it's now that Balfron Tower is allegedly beyond public means.
Given that this is the context, it's hard to get too upset about Studio Egret West's poor choice of fenestration. Given how bumptious most of their work is – there are few more consummately Regeneration Circa 2005 buildings than their lumbering and gesturing spec housing in Clapham and Bath – they have always been a bizarre choice for designers to tackle the high seriousness of Park Hill or Balfron.
The outrage it elicited on social media comes, I suspect, from a sense of double failure
One reason, I suspect, that they do get selected for these jobs is that they're architects who specialise in hiding old things behind shiny new things – their Stratford Shoal, a wiggly value-engineered sculpture hiding the dull late-brutalist Stratford Centre is a hilariously unpleasant case in point, and their turning part of Park Hill into a 2005 Manchester canalside apartment block another.
There are plenty of far superior recent examples of brutalist renovations in London, from AHMM's subtle and characterful changes to the Barbican to Haworth Tompkins' work at the National Theatre, and there is the lower budget but still very decent repair job on Preston Bus Station. But I can't list any good recent renovations of brutalist council housing in Britain. There aren't any, because that would involve council housing being treated as well as any other form of building, and that won't do.
Even so, by Egret standards the shift in aesthetic at Balfron is mild. The outrage it elicited on social media comes, I suspect, from a sense of double failure.
OK, so we couldn't stop Balfron Tower from being privatised and turned into luxury flats, in fact we probably helped it along, by turning brutalism into a coffee-table fetish object. But surely at least we could have had an exemplary restoration project, showing what could really be done with a lot of money and a fine block of brutalist housing?
Well, in the end we got neither – and we deserve neither.
Main image of Balfron Tower is courtesy of Getty Images.