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Architects come out fighting over Balfron criticisms


Architects behind plans to revamp Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower in East London have hit back at criticisms of the scheme

Planners at London Borough of Tower Hamlets are currently considering a planning application drawn up by Ab Rogers Design and Studio Egret West which would change the layouts of flats, replace windows and landscape the building’s roof terrace.

The tower’s concrete cornice would also be reinstated as part of the proposed work, while the proportion of social homes would be reduced in favour of private housing.

In a letter objecting to the application, conservation group the Twentieth Century Society said the scheme would ‘be detrimental to the character of this highly significant landmark building.’

But Christophe Egret, founding partner at Studio Egret West, told the Architects’ Journal that conservation was at the heart of the designs.

He said: ‘The criticism has been frustrating and I can only assume it comes from people not having the full facts in front of them.

‘Our work has been immensely sensitive. It is in keeping with the original.’

Egret added landscaping works would remove additions to the landscaping such as barriers which had been bolted on since the original building was finished in 1967.

He said that original features, such as light switches and tiling in communal areas, which had been removed over the years, would be restored.

Critics have leapt on plans to remove partition walls to open up the space within individual flats, despite the retention of one unit representing each of the eight different layouts within the builidng.

But Egret said: ‘Goldfinger’s own flat in Hampstead showed that he was very much experimenting with open plan layouts and sliding partitions.’

He added Goldfinger was restricted by 1960s Greater London Council building which required dividing walls for safety reasons - since made redundant by the widespread use of cooker smoke hoods and sprinklers.

The plan will also see the replacement of 1990s uPVC windows installed on two facades of the building during the 1990s with new window units allowing ventilation while still shielding residents from noise from the neighbouring A12.

‘It looks beautiful from the outside and is in keeping with the original,’ said Egret.

He added that the practice had learnt from its experience bringing back to life another brutalist classic – Sheffield’s Park Hill estate.

He said: ‘That project showed us that creating a sense of arrival and using landscaping were key to ensuring you don’t feel like you are entering a ghetto.

‘However the two projects are very different. Park Hill had been about to be demolished which gave us more freedom – we knew that Balfron was due to be listed at Grade II* so there was more of a conservation agenda.’

He also welcomed the introduction of private housing into the building.

‘My guess would be that the greater the social mix that exists in a given place the more sustainable that community will be. Therefore the injection of some private homes within the traditional social housing estate is no bad thing.’

Comments from Ab Rogers

‘Erno Goldfinger was a massive Modernist and believed in progress. The way to keep that spirit alive is not to dumb down the building by slavishly keeping every historic detail but by keeping it up to date to make it more responsive to the moment.

‘It’s anti-Modernist to fossilise a building’

‘Losing space to communal corridors in the centre of the flats seems counter cultural.

‘I believe in dialogue and conversation, but I disagree with the perspective of the objectors. It is anti-Modernist to fossilise a building rather than allowing it to develop.

‘Battersea Power Station is grade II* listed. If that hadn’t been altered then it would have had to be pulled down because of a lack of use.

‘Towers are quick to build but expensive to upkeep – the flats in the tower are more valuable as aspirational upmarket housing than as social housing so the responsible thing to do is upgrade them and use the profits to plough into affordable homes elsewhere.’

Rowlett Street Housing Phases I, II and III

An original drawing for Erno Goldfinger’s Brownfield Estate in east London, which has Balfron Tower as its centrepiece. The project was originally known as Rowlett Street Housing, and divided into three phases.


Readers' comments (2)

  • I agree that conservation is about managing change and not "fossilising" a building, but it is also about directing change to the least sensitive or significant parts of that building so that its overall character is not compromised. What was particularly innovative about the Rowlett Street scheme was the layout of flats, integral with the structure of the building; a design which was so successful, it was carried forward in the design of the Cheltenham Estate (Trellick Tower). It is one of the reasons why those buildings are still standing today and have not suffered the same fate as Robin Hood Gardens etc. If this building can not be found a viable use without altering the layouts, there needs to be some serious rethinking about the credibility of the project team...

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    That the apartment can be reconfigured to keep up with the times is a toast to the robustness of the original plan and the creativity of the new.
    The proposal uplifts and makes feasible the retention of an old building - bringing modernity to a new community.

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