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Weekend roundup: No Midas touch at Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower?

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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Twentieth Century Society slams Studio Egret West’s Balfron refurb • Hull College axes architecture courses • MIPIM vs community land trusts

The covers have started to come off at east London’s Balfron Tower and the Twentieth Century Society doesn’t like what it sees. 

Studio Egret West has been refurbishing Ernő Goldfinger’s 1960s Grade II*-listed building, working with interior designer Ab Rogers. The 27-storey housing block was built as council housing but is now privately owned. 

That the heritage body is critical of the work comes as no surprise. It was vociferous in its objections when the architect first set out its proposals, saying they would ‘dilute the strong Goldfinger design aesthetic and cause harm to key defining features’. In particular it objected to changes to the flats’ layouts and their window frames. 

The frames were originally wooden, painted white, though most were replaced by uPVC frame in the 90s. The new ones have an anodised brown metal finish and slim profile, with matching fascia panels – ‘an ersatz hybrid’ according to the society’s director Catherine Croft. 

Egret West has robustly defended the change, arguing that their dark appearance is much less susceptible to staining caused by the heavy traffic of the A12 and so will not require continuous maintenance. It’s fair to say that traffic levels will have risen vastly since the building was completed in 1967. 

Goldfinger used residents’ criticism of Balfron to inform the design of his subsequent Trellick Tower

The society has also objected to the removal of interior partition walls, to open up the space within the flats. On this front, Egret West says Goldfinger would have had his hands tied by GLC building safety regulations at the time, now made redundant by subsequent innovations. 

‘Goldfinger’s own flat in Hampstead showed that he was very much experimenting with open plan layouts and sliding partitions,’ argued practice director Christophe Egret in 2015. 

Goldfinger himself famously moved into one of Balfron’s flats for two months following its completion. As well as experiencing his creation as a user, it gave him the opportunity to get feedback from other residents, holding champagne parties where he quizzed them about how they found living there. 

He then used their criticism to inform the design of his subsequent Trellick Tower in north-west London. So it seems unlikely he would have been averse to making changes to Balfron if he felt they were improvements. 

And so we come to the issue of whether such buildings, of recognised architectural merit, should have to remain as a faithful historic record or be allowed to be adapted to best serve their users. 

Perhaps more pertinent is the tower’s change of use from social housing to private flats. Tenants voted in a ballot to approve the transfer of the tower’s ownership from Tower Hamlets Council to housing association Poplar HARCA; then found themselves forced to moved out while the refurb took place - with no undertaking that they would be able to return. 

Defending the change in 2015, Ab Rogers made the interesting argument that since the flats were ‘more valuable as aspirational upmarket housing than as social housing … the responsible thing to do is upgrade them and use the profits to plough into affordable homes elsewhere.’ 

Follow that argument to its logical conclusion and surely the only social housing that remains is that of the lowest quality in the least desirable locations.

To Hull and back

Shutterstock despairing student1

Shutterstock despairing student1

Aspiring architects studying their craft at Hull College are in trouble. The higher education institution has scrapped both its undergraduate and graduate architecture degree courses after the RIBA withdrew its validation for the Part 1 course.  

It is believed to be the first time in 40 years that the RIBA has taken such action.  

Its visiting board inspected the college in December and concluded that it was failing to meet the required academic standards and provide an ‘appropriate-quality student experience’. It also found evidence of a shortfall in staffing, which was affecting both courses.  

While Hull will not take any new architecture students, this still leaves current students in a pickle as those graduating after this summer will not receive RIBA-validated qualifications, meaning their years of study could not be used on the path to becoming qualified architects – or at least not without an additional year of study elsewhere.  

While the school says it is trying to rectify this, students who want an architectural career may have to switch to another institution to complete their studies. The nearest university teaching architecture is in Leeds – 63 miles away.

Is MIPIM still the place to win work?

Voting for architect

Voting for architect

This week has seen the annual UK exodus to the south of France as architects hot foot it to the MIPIM property fair in Cannes.  

The AJ has been running its regular blog, with attendees reporting an unrelenting programme of meetings, presentations and rosé drinking with sleep very much an afterthought.  

They all seem to be having tremendous fun, but are the real work opportunities closer to home? An AJ series on new ways of working kicked off this week with a report on community land trusts or CLTs.  

Reporter Ella Jessel witnessed the unusual phenomenon of four practices proffering their services at a Choose an Architect community ballot, where Lambeth residents voted for which practice would win the commission to design 27 homes on a brownfield site in Streatham Hill.  

CLTs are set up by communities to develop and manage their homes. The housing can be for sale or rent but is genuinely affordable in perpetuity, based on people’s salaries rather than market value.  

The movement has mushroomed in recent years, aided by the government’s Community Housing Fund, which has provided £163 million in funding and has 3,500 homes in its pipeline.  

Winning business in a church hall may be less glamorous than at Cannes’ La Croisette, with refreshments of tea and biscuits rather than chilled wine. But it’s rather less removed from the lives of the people who will be using the buildings.  

Poll: What is the main reason for going to MIPIM? 
• Winning work 
• Sun, sea and socialising 
• Fear of missing out 
• No reason; it’s a waste of time 
Vote here

Last week’s poll asked what the main lesson was from the court ruling that an architect must pay £500,000 damages for designing a ‘wonky’ home cinema. A resounding 49 per cent said ‘always have a written brief’ while 23 per cent felt the moral of the tale was ‘don’t work for bankers’. A further 15 per cent went for ‘don’t design home cinemas’ and 13 per cent said ‘don’t use Pinterest’. 

Also this week 

  • The government may be bringing back a zero-carbon homes policy, four years after then chancellor George Osborne scrapped plans to make all new homes zero carbon in their day-to-day running. His successor Philip Hammond, in his Spring Statement, said he planned to introduce a Future Homes Standard which would make all new-build homes ‘future-proofed with low-carbon heating and world-leading levels of energy efficiency’. Among the targets is that, from 2025, homes would be built without fossil fuel-powered heating – meaning they would not be connected to the gas main. 
  • The RIBA Regional Awards shortlist season is in full flow, with Yorkshire, the North East and London all announcing the buildings that are in contention. London’s bulbous spread of projects contains 83 buildings – 10 fewer than last year – with five by AHMM. The list includes four significant cultural schemes: Battersea Arts Centre by Haworth Tompkins, Southbank Centre by Feilden Clegg Bradley, Royal Opera House by Stanton Williams and South London Gallery by 6a. The winners will be announced in May. 
  • In addition to its shortlist success, AHMM has been hired to design a 1,000-home scheme on the site of north London’s Holloway Prison, which closed in 2016. Peabody housing association bought the site from the Ministry of Justice for £80 million. The Mayor of London has lent £42 million to Peabody on condition that two-fifths of the homes are for social rent and that the site also contains green spaces and a women’s centre. 
  • Glasgow practice ADF Architects has made all 27 employees redundant and started insolvency processes after several key projects were put on hold. Provisional liquidator Brian Milne said the main reason for the liquidation was ‘the delay or mothballing of a number of significant projects’. He added that this was is a common issue for the architecture profession, ‘where work can be commissioned and completed over a considerable period, but ongoing payments are not made and can be dependent upon the submission for planning permission’.

Simon Aldous’s Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. Click here to find out about our subscription packages

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