Balfron Tower

You could easily be excused for mistaking – as many people do – Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower for its (slightly) taller, and certainly more famous, younger sibling the Trellick Tower. Balfron Tower essentially became Goldfinger’s dry run for West London’s Trellick, and the two share a number of distinctive features. National Trust’s 2 Willow Road, Goldfinger’s Hampstead home, organised a tour to Balfron last week, so the Londonphile headed off to visit another of London’s brutalist gems.

Balfron was Goldfinger’s first foray into large scale social housing. He’d long had a hankering to design taller buildings, and at 27-storeys Balfron must have really hit the spot. So high was it in fact that for years it was exceedingly popular with pirate radio stations and other illicit communicators, who would place radio masts on its rooftop. Designed in 1963 and built between 1965 and 1967, it forms part of the Brownfield Estate in East London’s Poplar. This is something of a Goldfinger fan’s vision of heaven, composed as it is of not one but two of the architect’s buildings (Balfron and Carradale House) and a third (Glenkerry House) designed slightly later by his studio. All three were named after Scottish villages, in what was apparently a homage to the area’s Scottish connections. The long, low form of Carradale House is currently under wraps (quite literally) as it is being refurbished.

Glenkerry House

Balfron is about to undergo a similar refurbishment and is currently – and somewhat controversially – slowly being “decanted” of its residents by its management group, Poplar HARCA. In the meantime, a number of artists had been invited to live and work in Balfron. One of these artists, Simon Terrill, also created an installation featuring Balfron Tower – now on show at 2 Willow Road – and organised our visit to flat 122 on the 21st floor, whose former residents had left behind more than a little of the detritus of their lives (in addition to leaving on the heating).

Balfron is entered via a concrete bridge – which has been compared to a drawbridge – to the distinctive separate service tower. This detached tower was to become a favourite design element of Goldfinger’s and one which he used again at Carradale (but placed in the middle of the building) and at Trellick (also to one side, but at a 90 degree angle). This service tower contains “all the noisy stuff”, including stairs, rubbish chutes and the two lifts that service the entire structure. One family were moving out when we visited – item by item in one of these narrow lifts; happily, Goldfinger later included an extra lift when designing Trellick. The boiler room can be seen jutting out at the very top of Balfron’s service tower (with its metal boilers reaching for the sky). Balfron has often been compared to a fortress and  – like its brutalist counterpart the Barbican Estate – contains a number of martial and castle references.

The service tower is attached to the main section of the building by seven walkways. This means that lifts do not service each floor, and entry to the flats is via every third floor. So for example, you would travel to the 12th floor to access floors 11, 12 and 13. This feature is also repeated at Carradale and Trellick. The lift foyers contain narrow rectangular windows – which have been likened to arrow slits – that create the interesting pattern on the outside of the tower and afford tantalising glimpses of Balfron’s spectacular views. The flats themselves also have three styles of entry; you might encounter a staircase going up or down immediately upon entering, or you might just enter directly on that level. Those with a staircase down to the flats, like the one we visited, once had a door in one of the bedrooms that led directly to the fire escape (these are now kept locked).

Goldfinger and his wife Ursula rather famously left the leafy confines of Hampstead and moved into Balfron for two months in 1968, primarily for Goldfinger to get feedback on his design from other residents and to give it a test run for himself. They even paid rent! They held parties in their flat – number 130 on the 25th floor – during which Goldfinger would ply his neighbours in the sky with champagne while eliciting their views on Balfron. This feedback was then applied to his design for the Trellick Tower.

Just one of the superb views – possibly to be encroached upon by the new towers in front.

The rooms within the Balfron flats (in number 122 a kitchen, lounge, two bedrooms and bathroom) are quite small and narrow. Not many of the original features survive in number 122 – with the exception of the all-metal light switches and the built-in window boxes – making the interior nothing much to write home about. But the beauty of Balfron is in its exterior, which Simon Terrill likened to a sculpture – although beauty is obviously very much the wrong term for this reinforced concrete jungle. Goldfinger’s colleague James Dunnett spoke of “delicate sense of terror” when referring to Balfron, which seems a far better phrase to apply to it.

P.S. Dear Poplar HARCA,
I have turned down some of the heaters, but I think the one in the kitchen is still on.

Original metal light switch

Should you wish to visit Balfron’s exterior the closest station is Langdon Park on the DLR line. Balfron Tower is often open as part of the Open House Weekend.

2 Willow Road
2 Willow Road are also holding a series of lates on the last Thursday of each month until October (except August). The 25th October late will feature Simon Terrill talking about his Balfron Project. 6.30-9pm, £9.

Simon Terrill

Door entry phone, thought not to be original.


Modernist Hampstead

Hampstead has long attracted artists, writers and – yes – architects to its leafy environs. Although perhaps better known for the Hampstead Garden Suburb, and its good stock of Victorian architecture, Hampstead is also home to a number of London’s finest modernist houses. Possibly drawn by the splendid isolation of the hilly zone to the north of London (Hampstead was not integrated into the Borough of Camden until 1965), and undoubtedly by the prospect of Hampstead Heath, in the 1930s Hampstead also had the draw-card of offerring relatively cheap accommodation – as impossible as that is to believe today…

The following photographs were taken on a walking tour of Modernist Hampstead organised last year by the National Trust’s 2 Willow Road (see my earlier post about this property). This is by no means an exhaustive list of Hampstead’s modernist houses, but gives some idea of what is out there and what you could expect if you go on a similar tour (a number of these were run last summer and I expect will run again this year – I’ll keep an eye out for you!). A self-guided walking tour brochure containing most of these houses is also available at the property for a paltry sum. You may also like to visit David Anderson’s excellent site listing modern style housing in London, which has a more extensive listing for Hampstead:

Sun House, Frognal Way (1935). Designed by Maxwell Fry.

66 Frognal (1936-37). Designed by Connell, Ward & Lucas.

1-6 Frognal Close (part) (1937). Designed by Ernst Freud.

13b Arkwright Road/The New House (1939). Designed by Samuel & Harding.

49a Downshire Hill (1975). Designed by Michael & Patricia Hopkins as their own residence.

13 Downshire Hill (1936) - on the far left of the photo. Designed by Michael & Charlotte Bunney as their own residence.

1-3 Willow Road (1938). Designed by Erno Goldfinger, with number 2 as his own residence.

Left: 78 South Hill Park (1965), designed by Brian Housden. Right: 80-90 South Hill Park (1956), designed by Stanley Amis, Gillian & William Howell.

Lawn Road Flats/Isokon Flats (1929-32). Designed by Wells Coates.

2 Willow Road


A good place to start this blog is with one of my favourite architectural sites in London: 2 Willow Road. London is not known for its modernist architecture, and there’s even less of it than you can actually enter (especially outside the confines of the Open House weekend), but Willow Road is a happy exception to this rule.

Located in leafy Hampstead, Willow Road was designed by Erno Goldfinger (of Trellick Tower fame) and completed in 1939. It has the strong, clean lines, concrete supporting columns and window walls we would expect of a modernist house of this era, although the brickwork was a concession to not straying too far out synch with the neighbours. Goldfinger had originally designed a block of flats for the site, but after this failed to receive planning permission, he scaled the design back to this group of three ‘terrace’ houses – the Goldfingers moved into number 2 (in the centre) with separate tenants to either side in 1 and 3.

Much of the built-in furniture and door furniture was designed by Goldfinger himself. A strong feature of the house is the use of movable partitions between rooms, allowing space to be opened up or closed down when required. But life at number 2 wasn’t obsessively modern – when Goldfinger’s mother moved into the house later in her life she filled up her room with her ornate Austro-Hungarian furniture! The house was clearly designed as a place to live – it housed four generations of the family at one point – and also to work, featuring a studio (originally for Goldfinger’s wife) and study.

2 Willow Road is now run by the National Trust and open to visitors from March to November each year (in 2012 it will open from 3 March to 4 November, Wednesday to Sunday from 11am-5pm, with entry by guided tour on the hour between 11-2 and self-guided viewing from 3-5). You can also pick up a copy of a good self-guided walking tour of Hampstead’s modernist architecture on site. And keep an eye on the National Trust’s website as they also run excellent guided walking tours on this theme. I did one earlier this year and can highly recommend it – but that’s another post…