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Contentious Balfron plans set for approval

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Controversial changes to the internal layout of Erno Goldfinger’s 1960s Balfron Tower in east London have been recommended for approval by planners

A report set to go before London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ development committee next week say that the changes to the listed Brutalist landmark, drawn up by Studio Egret West and Ab Rogers Design are ‘acceptable’.

Heritage campaigners and community groups had protested against the proposals, saying they would undermine the integrity of the original architecture, and would lead to social housing tenants being pushed out (see Balfron residents: ‘Privatising the tower will segregate the community).

But planning officers said in their report: ‘The proposed refurbishment works have been sensitively designed, taking into account advice from Historic England and the borough’s listed building officer.

‘An acceptable balance has been achieved with the heritage needs to preserve the special character, historic significance and appearance of the grade II* listed Balfron Tower along with the requirements to bring the building up to modern standards.

They added that the re-instatement of original features such as the roof cornice, concrete boiler flues, internal corridors and the front entrance ‘offsets any harm caused by the replacement of the existing windows and internal flat layouts’.

The 27 storey tower was built between 1965-1967 and was grade II listed in 1996, a designation upgraded to Grade II* in October this year.

The building contains 146 flats and is seen as a iconic example of Brutalist architecture.

The council’s listed building officer said that the changes to layouts – which will see the removal of internal partition walls “reflect modern living standards” and “are not considered to detract from the significance or character” of the building.

Councillors will determine the application on Wednesday (25 November).

Previous story (AJ 20.10.15)

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.

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