The Balfron Tower: A Brutalist Masterpiece in East London

The Balfron Tower is a 27-storey residential building in Poplar, East London. It is one of the most iconic examples of brutalist architecture in the UK, and it has a fascinating history and a controversial future.

The Design of the Balfron Tower

The Balfron Tower was designed by Hungarian-born architect Ernő Goldfinger in 1963 for the London County Council. It was built between 1965 and 1967 by the Greater London Council, and it was part of the Brownfield Estate, an area of social housing between Chrisp Street Market and the A12 northern approach to the Blackwall Tunnel.

The Balfron Tower is a 27-storey residential building in Poplar, East London.
Balfron Tower, Poplar
Sebastian F, CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons

The Balfron Tower is a narrow, angular concrete construction with a distinctive “streets in the sky” design. It has 146 homes (136 flats and ten maisonettes), and each flat has a dual aspect and a large south-facing balcony. The apartments are accessed by lifts that serve every third floor and are connected to a separate service tower that contains laundry rooms and rubbish chutes.

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation inspired the Balfron Tower in Marseille, and it was intended to provide a modern and efficient living for working-class families. It also showcased Goldfinger’s architectural vision and style, which he later applied to his more famous Trellick Tower in West London.

The Residents of the Balfron Tower

The Balfron Tower was originally home to council tenants relocated from slum clearance areas in East London. Many of them were dock workers, factory workers, shopkeepers and immigrants. They formed a close-knit community that enjoyed their flats’ views, amenities and spaciousness.

However, they also faced many problems, such as poor maintenance, dampness, noise, vandalism and crime. Some also felt isolated and alienated by the tower’s design and location.

Balfron Tower, East London
Cianboy, CC BY-SA 4.0
via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most famous residents of the Balfron Tower was Ernő Goldfinger himself. He moved into flat 130 on the 25th floor for two months in 1968, along with his wife Ursula and their children. He wanted to experience life in his creation and to gather feedback from his tenants. He also hosted parties and events in his flat, inviting artists, architects and celebrities.

Goldfinger’s stay in the Balfron Tower was controversial; some saw it as a publicity stunt or a condescending gesture. However, it also resulted in some improvements to the building, such as better heating, lighting and security systems.

The Refurbishment of the Balfron Tower

The Balfron Tower has been listed since 1996 (Grade II*, initially Grade II), which means it is protected from demolition or alteration. However, it has also undergone several changes over the years, both internally and externally.

In 2007, the Balfron Tower was transferred from Tower Hamlets Council to Poplar HARCA, a housing association that decided to refurbish and convert the tower into luxury flats for private sale.

The refurbishment project aims to restore the original features and character of the tower while also upgrading it to modern standards of comfort and efficiency. The project involves replacing the windows, doors, balconies and cladding; installing new kitchens, bathrooms and fittings; improving the insulation, ventilation and fire safety; and creating new communal areas and facilities.

The refurbishment project has been controversial, as it has been seen as a form of gentrification and social cleansing. Many of the original tenants have been evicted or relocated to other areas, while the new flats are expected to sell at premium prices to wealthy buyers. Some critics have also argued that the refurbishment project has altered or erased some of the tower’s historical and architectural value.

The Legacy of the Balfron Tower

The Balfron Tower is a landmark of East London’s skyline and culture. It is a testament to Goldfinger’s architectural genius and vision, as well as to the social history and diversity of East London. It is also a source of inspiration and debate for many interested in brutalist architecture, urban planning and social housing.

Ernő Goldfinger
Ernő Goldfinger

The Balfron Tower in Films, Books, Artworks and Exhibitions

The Balfron Tower has been a source of inspiration and debate for many artists, writers, filmmakers and curators. It has been featured in various forms of media and culture, reflecting its significance and impact on the public imagination.

Some examples of how the Balfron Tower has been featured in films, books, artworks and exhibitions are:

  • High-Rise (2015): This is a film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel of the same name, which depicts a society that descends into chaos and violence within a luxury tower block. The film was partly shot in the Balfron Tower, which served as a stand-in for the fictional high-rise. The film stars Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons and Elisabeth Moss.
  • Concrete Dreams (2014): This documentary film explores the lives and stories of former council tenants who lived in the Balfron Tower. Nick Street and Rollo Jackson directed it, and it features interviews, archive footage and animations. The film also shows the process of refurbishment and regeneration of the building.
  • 2 Willow Road (2014): This exhibition was held at Ernő Goldfinger’s former home in Hampstead, now a National Trust property. The exhibition showcased artworks by contemporary artists who were inspired by Goldfinger’s architecture and design. Some artworks were displayed in Goldfinger’s flat in the Balfron Tower, recreated for the occasion.
  • Balfron Season (2014): This series of events and activities celebrated the Balfron Tower and its community. Bow Arts Trust and Poplar HARCA organised it, involving artists, residents, schools and local organisations. Some events included guided tours, workshops, performances, screenings and exhibitions.

These are just some of the examples of how the Balfron Tower has been featured in films, books, artworks and exhibitions. There are many more that have explored its history, its architecture, its residents and its legacy.

The Balfron Tower is a remarkable building that has captured the attention and imagination of many people over the years. It is a brutalist masterpiece that reflects the social and cultural changes of East London and beyond.

If you are interested in learning more about the Balfron Tower or any other aspect of brutalist architecture, please get in touch with us today!

3 thoughts on “The Balfron Tower: A Brutalist Masterpiece in East London”

  1. I disagree regarding when it was built ,as it used to be called CURRIE HOUSE ,and I delivered newspapers there in 1957 ? Please clarify

  2. Visited a flat during an Open House weekend several years ago. We were very impressed by how light it was and the layout very well planned. Clever idea to share the lift between 3 floors but not so keen on the almost tunnel-like walkway into the building’s main entrance. Definitely worth a visit!


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.