In the 1960s, Balfron Tower was built in the Poplar neighborhood in the East End of London to house the city’s poor. Today, the building is being re-purposed as high-end housing for professionals. The project will take three years and cost a reported £40 million (US$51.7 million). This fall 2019, buyers were given their first glimpse of how the Brutalist landmark is being brought into the 21st century.
Prices start at £365,000 (US$472,054) for a 450-square-foot (42 square meters), one-bedroom home. The most expensive, three-bedroom apartments are priced at about £800,000 (US$1.03 million). Baerbel Schuett, development director at Londonewcastle, the firm doing the renovation, believes the homes will appeal to buyers with a love of mid-century architecture.
“It is not just a normal new build,” she said.
Balfron Tower was designed by the Hungarian architect Ernő Goldfinger and was completed in 1967. It features rows of “streets in the sky,” which are open walkways linking a narrow elevator tower to the main part of the building. The tower has tiled communal hallways, with a different color used for each level, and with each unit having a private balcony and concrete planters.
Like much of London’s post-war social housing, Balfron Tower suffered from neglect and lack of maintenance. “The flats were quite damp, and cockroaches lived behind the concrete panels in the kitchen and bathroom, and every so often they would come out,” says Laura Chen, a former resident. “If both the elevators broke down at the same time, which they sometimes did, it meant walking up 21 flights of stairs.”
In his original design, Goldfinger devised six different apartment layouts. At the request of Historic England, Britain’s leading conservation watchdog, the developers have preserved examples of each type of apartment, while modernizing the rest with an open-plan layout.
The interiors have been designed by two different firms, including Studio Egret West, an architectural practice with a track record of revamping Brutalist buildings, and Ab Rogers Design, a firm known for its use of bold primary colors.
Mr. Rogers thinks Balfron Tower is “one of the pillars of modernism.”
“We are playing with Goldfinger’s ghost, making the building relevant for today,” he said.
Rogers took down walls when it was built, fire regulations demanded separate kitchens and living rooms, and used much larger panes of glass in the floor-to-ceiling windows than those available in the 1960s. He also installed more storage.
Both teams of designers have used an era-appropriate palette of materials in the apartments. Mr. Rogers chose grey linoleum floors while Brian Mallon, associate director of Studio Egret West, opted for retro-style cork flooring in the bedrooms, terrazzo tiles in the kitchen and bathroom, and plywood doors for the upper kitchen cupboards.
Rogers’ trademark is bright colors, but, because the apartments are compact, he chose “a super pure and clean” design. This means white walls, grey floors and kitchen cabinet doors, and a lighter-grey, stone-composite worktop, although he could not resist a bright red bathroom ceiling “to give you something to look when you are lying in the bath.”
One thing that nobody wanted to change was Goldfinger’s innovative approach to the building’s public spaces. The color-coded corridors which Chen admired will be renovated with new tiles from the same manufacturer.
In the elevator tower, there are also communal rooms for residents. Goldfinger provided a library, music room, and hobby room, and these ideas will be revived. But his laundry room is no longer necessary and instead, residents will get a yoga room and gym, a screening room and a dining room with its own kitchen and roof terrace.
As well as renovating Balfron, Londonewcastle will be upgrading the grassed areas around the building, adding new planting and seating, and a ground-floor cafe. But it will not mess with one of Goldfinger’s most famous ideas for Balfron Tower, the uniquely Brutalist children’s playground, which comes complete with a concrete slide.
Ms. Schuett accepts that the project will appeal more to London-based architects and “creatives” than to buyers from China and the Far East. “But someone looking to really experience London will buy here,” she said.
The area around Balfron, Poplar, was formerly a Victorian slum and was largely rebuilt with housing projects after World War II. It is still one of the most deprived parts of London, despite its location a mile from Canary Wharf, the city’s thriving business and financial district. Regeneration of the area has started, and there is a construction pipeline of around 3,000 new apartments. But, with few local amenities, those who do buy at Balfron Tower will need both a love of Brutalist design and a pioneering spirit.
Mr. Goldfinger designed some of London’s first skyscrapers, including Balfron Tower, which was amongst Europe’s tallest buildings in the late 1960s. He also inspired J.G Ballard’s 1975 novel “High-Rise,” about residents of a building, modeled on Balfron Tower, driven to violence.
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