Ernő Goldfinger’s 1963 Balfron Tower in London’s East End epitomises both the visual stigma that social housing still has in Britain, and the enormous enthusiasm and re-appreciation seen around these once neglected modernist monuments. The Balfron Project, a large-scale photographic event that culminated in an exhibition and symposium at the beginning of 2011, is the latest expression of a city learning to love its more recent urban archaeology.
Australian-born artist and Balfron resident Simon Terrill staged the project mainly in an attempt to record this concrete goliath from a new perspective; one where the inhabitants express their lives and sense of place within the tower. Residents of the tower were invited to participate by choosing how they wished to represent themselves within the larger picture. "There is a great tension,” explains Terrill “between the mainly external admirers of the Tower (artists, architects, aesthetes) who tend to fetishise modernism and those who live and breathe the building.”
The project highlighted the contradictions and divergent opinions of the residents themselves, as Terrill continued: “so many people who live here seem to simultaneously love and loathe this building”. Either way, the Balfron Project’s finished outcome, a vast photo record of the floodlit Tower and its residents acts as a “momento” rather than a cold documentation, especially as increasing numbers of social tenants are being priced out of Balfron.
The Balfron Project was made possible thanks to the Bow Arts Trust, a collective that provides live and work studios for artists in over 70 former council flats at Balfron and other locations in corners of East London and Bermondsey, all at affordable rents. Inopportune locations coupled with demographic pulls and pushes have led to thousands of boarded house fronts across London, remarkable given the chronic housing shortage. Thanks to Bow Arts, artist communities are flourishing in such areas, seemingly taking the raw urban landscape as a positive and stimulating visual connotation. The result can be seen in the year-round list of events and shows taking place at many of the studios that double-up as intimate gallery spaces.
Concrete towers and brutalist courtyards - the antithesis of the polished computer rendered language of urban regeneration - have become grey canvases for London’s artists. Tower block demolition footage is still the most tangible narrative of the fate of post-war social housing; but the artistic use and depiction of these places is adding a facet that not so much apologises for modernism but embellishes it. Roger Hiorns 2008 ‘Seizure’ installation that beautifully encrusted an abandoned South London council flat in sparkling blue copper sulphate crystals, was critically acclaimed and brought thousands to a sublimely bleak corner of the city.
Back at the vertiginous Balfron Tower Terrill deliberates further; “Balfron was meant to be a new utopia, and this discourse has vanished,” he laments; “the only discourse now is about real-estate and who the highest bidder might be”. Architect James Dunnett who worked with Goldfinger described Balfron as emitting a “delicate sense of terror”. Just as daunting is the struggle facing many of London’s inhabitants and its ranks of artists still trying to find new ways to identify with these icons of postwar social housing. The Bow Arts Trust is at least putting a new spin on an unloved urban reality.
David Plaisant is a member of Black Country Atelier
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