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Ab Rogers on Balfron: 'We don't want to create a pastiche'

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Ab Rogers sets out why his and Studio Egret West’s plans for Erno Goldfinger’s Grade II*-listed Balfron tower will not diminish the Brutalist landmark’s architectural strength

At its inception Balfron Tower, in London’s East End, was a highly progressive piece of design. However nearly 50 years have passed and now it is in serious need of modernisation.

Piecemeal work has led to some unfortunate eventualities including two facades of uPVC windows, disused spaces such as the laundry rooms, and the underused, under-performing public realm on the hardscape of the external ground floor. Addressing and improving these elements requires a level of work and intervention through which we hope to establish a healthy dialogue between the old and the new.

The nature of the remedial work required to bring Balfron Tower up to current environmental and living standards is now beyond the limits of social housing budgets. Towers are often cheap to build but costly to renovate; this is why it is now in private hands.

The work Ab Rogers Design (ARD) is undertaking at Balfron Tower takes into account its history and its intellectual position at the time it was built. It originally offered 146 homes, of which 136 were flats and 10 maisonettes. These were divided into six types. We plan to keep one faithful example of each of the six types, as well as retaining and celebrating key details such as the exquisite tiling, the industrial skirting, the concrete soffit and the amazing light switches.

We do not want to create a pastiche of the original, but a contemporary translation of Goldfinger’s ethos. Goldfinger stood for all that was modern and progressive, and as such the use of current technology and materials – sensitively applied - seems appropriate. Architecture is a living body that cannot be frozen, and to treat this building as a fossil misses an opportunity to extend its useful life.

We are bringing the other 140 homes into the 21st century with such alterations as removal of the galley kitchen, to combine it with the living room. We are introducing modernisation through changes such as replacing individual hot and cold taps with mixers and creating better bathrooms with showers that make the most economical use of water (environmental considerations in both cases).

Currently there is too much space donated to circulation and - as has happened in many Victorian houses in London - we are creating better living space by eliminating them and, in parallel, improving the flow of light from front to back. We are re-enforcing Goldfinger’s original notion of the public corridors as ‘streets in the sky’, bringing new details that will maximise communal living, making these areas feel integral to the experience.

We are not effecting our changes for stylistic reasons  

Goldfinger’s intention was to create optimistic, contemporary living spaces, and we are not effecting our changes for stylistic reasons, but to improve the quality of life that can be lived inside these flats while lessening their environmental impact.

While ARD believes that historic buildings should be treated with respect, we also see them as a great reuseable resource. In London the intelligent reuse of buildings has given the city Tate Modern, the Sanderson Hotel and the Pall Mall Depository offices, while all sorts of buildings – from churches to schools and old factories – have been recommissioned for residential use.

The continual updating of buildings is something that should be pursued, provided the process does not compromise or diminish their original architectural value. With a building as tough and forthright in its intentions and design as Balfron Tower, minimal interventions that create more suitable living spaces could hardly begin to diminish or alter its extraordinary character.

Balfron Tower is a monumental piece of architecture in which it was intended that contemporary lives should be lived well. That will not change. 

Ab Rogers is founder of Ab Rogers Design

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