The London cityscape as seen from atop of Balfron Tower (© Tilley Harris)
The London cityscape as seen from atop of Balfron Tower (© Tilley Harris)

The other week I received an email personally inviting me to join ‘a pretty eclectic collection of people to have a drink, enjoy the view and muse about Lea Valley past and future’. The gathering was to be held at the top of Balfron Tower in Poplar. I was intrigued and RSVP’d in an instant.

Arriving at Balfron Tower (having never been there before) I felt satisfied that my journey was worth it just to stand at the feet of such a spectacle. Whatever awaited for me at the top of this uncompromising symbol of concrete modernism was an added bonus. I was met at the elevator doors on the top floor by Ralph Ward, a veteran Planner, enthusiast of London’s built environment and one of the organisers of the evening’s event. I was ushered down the stairs into flat 131, greeted by the ‘eclectic collection’ of attendees and handed a glass of Prosecco. Discussion was already in full swing in the packed living room as David Black led the group through a pick ‘n’ mix selection of proposed designs for the area – most of them boasting a futuristic, rather vacuous and shiny new future.

All attendees seemed to agree that the lines between economic and residential intent were too blurred in modern day redevelopment. Poplar’s fate, it seems, has already been chosen – it is to one day become the Canary Wharf of the east. Will this encourage growth at a local level? How will the current community gain from this monetary makeover?

Reaching a point in the discussion where conversation could go no further, the hosts proposed we freshen our glasses and head to the roof to watch the sunset and ‘muse over London’s skyline and it’s long history of transformation and development’. The view from Balfron’s roof provided the perfect headspace, staring down at the city’s dense layout the group was able to project their thoughts and feelings on urban planning, preservation, progress, history and community. The healthy mix of planners, architects, artists, enthusiasts and a few longstanding residents made discussions open and colourful. Although we all stood on the same vantage point looking down on the model-like sprawl, each member of the gathering offered a unique perspective of what this environment means to them and what it should mean to us all going forward.

 

The Brutalist exterior of Balfron Tower (© Tilley Harris)
The Brutalist exterior of Balfron Tower (© Tilley Harris)

Hosting this discussion on top of Balfron Tower was the most genius juxtaposition. Balfron Tower was designed by architect Ernő Goldfinger and is associated with the Brutalist style of 1960’s architecture. Seen by many as a controversial style of architecture, these unapologetic giants have stood in the middle of so many love hate debates over the years. Recently though Brutalism seems to be inspiring an appreciation revival, with a new generation of fans joining forces with the diehards.

‘Beton Bruit’ was where the term Bruitlism first originated, which simply means raw concrete. Concrete was functional and affordable after the Second World War, making it the material of choice and an asset to those assigned the job of rebuilding cities and providing much needed housing stock. The true genius of these ‘futuristic fun houses’ however lies behind their concrete facades, for they were designed from the inside out. The building’s purpose and what happens inside it was most important to their creators. Brutalism was never meant to literally mean brutal, in fact despite the name’s deception it is one of the most civic spirited forms of architecture.

This concept of designing from the inside out chimes loudly not just with Mapify’s ethos but with the surge of Neighbourhood forums and neighbourhood plans that are popping up all over the country. Neighbourhood plans in the UK are currently in their thousands. Mapify attended an afternoon discussion hosted by Nesta last week about Neighbourhood planning and the digital tools available to help. The room was full of residents involved in their own neighbourhood plans and designers from various backgrounds all eager to help them.

Rhodri Marsden wrote in the The Independant on Wednesday about the recent influx of people into Waltham Forest. The London borough now has the fastest rising house prices in the UK. It seems new homeowners, himself included, are moving into Leyton, Leytonstone, Chingford and Walthamstow as rapidly as the property prices are rising. Marsden, happy that he brought his house in Walthamstow and made it to the finish line just over a year ago beating the stampede, is less satisfied however with the area itself.

‘I am happy to have somewhere to live, but feeling curiously detached from my surroundings. That is hardly atypical in a city as big as London, but I’d certainly be interested in developing some civic pride. If I only knew what the hell I should be proud of?’

Waltham Forest Council is on a mission to generate some civic pride, rolling out their ‘Place Brand’ strategy and signing off new development ‘The Scene’ which is set to become Walthamstow’s new lifestyle destination. As long as lifestyle choices include – choosing what to watch at the 8 screen cinema and dining at either Nandos or Pizza Express. Despite the Council’s efforts Marsden is not convinced. Neither is Nick Bason, co-chair of local music festival Stow Festival.

‘The cultural life of the borough is not created by estate agents and the council can’t rely on on attracting people who are a bit groovy and have some disposable income and then hope that some great cultural infrastructure will pop up. It needs proper support. I remember back in 2010 the council identified The Standard as a key local venue, a key part of the future of music life in the area. Today, it’s boarded up’

In his article Marsden admits the same dilemma that had the Balfron Tower gathering scratching their heads, an issue that the Mapify team deliberate over everyday. How to strike a balance between economic progression and residential preservation. How can gentrification be more inclusive – can it enhance history, culture and diversity, rather than simply provide a locale with expensive coffee shops and chain retailers affordable for only the middle classes up.

 

Part of Stratford is reflected in a train window. (© Tilley Harris)
Part of Stratford is reflected in a train window. (© Tilley Harris)

Considering this new search for civic pride, does this then explain our new appreciation for Brutalism’s civic spirit? Christopher Beanland backs up this point perfectly in his online article Concrete Buildings:

“You can’t see your reflection in a brutalist building, because its design was not about the individual, it was about the multitude. These schools, libraries, council flats, newspaper offices, shopping centres, hospitals were gifts from benign bureaucracies for society to share. Today’s glass buildings, full of mirrors (and smoke), are there to sate the narcissistic desires of the billions of individuals that the heaving mass has shattered into”

Developing civic pride and trending through the gentrification mine field is not an easy task. Quite often councils and big developers are unwilling to consider what is on the ground already and design from the inside out. There is hope that with all these neighbourhoods coming together and creating their own area plans, means we will see more designing from the inside out. Voist has watched the formation and evolution of Church Streets Neighbourhood Forum, it takes time, a lot of effort and some key leaders that truly know and love their area to get such a mammoth task off the ground and sustain interest.

Alison Smithson, a leading Brutalist figure, once said of Brutalist style that it is about finding ‘poetry in the ordinary’, perhaps Rhodri Marsden is overcomplicating things. He might consider starting a residents forum in the neighbourhood he now calls home, in his quest to develop some local civic pride. It’s a start. Perhaps we should all take a moment to consider Brutalism and its method of designing from the inside out? The Voist team feel encouraged, from pinpointing what counts (Mapify) to designing from the inside out, developing local civic pride is possibly not as challenging as it first seems.

GALLERY: See more of Tilley Harris’ images from the top of the Balfron Tower