In the gloaming of a December afternoon, the Balfron Tower – a former local authority block in East London – loomed like an impenetrable fortress.
Even after I gained entry by sneaking in behind a resident, made it to the 21st floor, and negotiated the pools of rainwater flooding the walkways, it was hard to imagine that behind one of these front doors, clad with penitentiary steel bars, there could be a bustling public art viewing.
However, with a little faith, and an ability to follow the telltale waves of 1960s music, came the journey’s end: a tribute to post-war social housing courtesy of Peter Wylie, the Bow Arts Trust and the Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association.
Amid retro furniture and staggering panoramic views of London’s skyline, a dozen or so people were gathered for the exhibition. On display, painted from photographs, were two colourful representations of Denys Lasdun’s cluster blocks in Bethnal Green and four of this very building: Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, forerunner to his celebrated Brutalist icon, Trellick Tower in North Kensington, London.
Being inside the subject of the paintings was strangely incongruous, largely because Wylie’s interpretation of social housing is so optimistic: he makes it possible to understand the rationale behind the London County Council’s (LCC) post-war architectural commissions. The LCC embraced Brutalist models of housing to rebuild war-torn London but also, as Reyner Banham argues in The New Brutalism (Architectural Press, 1966) because it wanted its housing to emulate Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, and that architect’s desire to construct safe, integrated communities in the sky.
Those visions may be far removed from the decaying estates of today, but Wylie’s canvasses show sympathy with their utopianism. And, by setting the Balfron Tower against the backdrop of a sunny day or dramatic red cloudscape, he sidesteps the aesthetic problem of importing these design principles to Britain: the concrete of Le Corbusier’s Unité may have worked in sunny Marseilles, but béton brut looks ugly set against our damp, dreary weather.
Three pictures are accompanied by the words ‘with Le Corbusier flaking paint’. It turns out that they contain paint from the walls of Le Corbusier’s own studio and his Villa La Roche in Paris. (Wylie had recently visited and found it needing a little TLC. Like those who collected up pieces of the Berlin Wall, he pocketed some of the flaking paint.)
The presence of this paint on the canvasses gave the event – which now not only moved from Le Corbusier to Goldfinger to Wylie to Goldfinger, but, via the flakes, back to Le Corbusier again – a satisfying, if dizzying, circularity. It also added an elegiac note, reinforcing the sense of dilapidation and of a utopianism that has not weathered well.
Resume:Paintings of the tower, about the tower, in the tower (in the perishing cold)
(From Modernist Social Housing to the Sea by Peter Wylie, 14 December, Flat 121, Balfron Tower, Poplar, London. Extended: 3-15 February, Lavender House, Highgate Hill, London, N6 5HG)
The pictures are presented as a Flickr slideshow. You can click on an image to see the next in the series or select pictures directly using the thumbnail images below.The copyright of each image rests with the photographer.