It was a bleak day when I went to visit artist Rab Harling at the Balfron Tower in Poplar (East London). I have always been suspicious of Brutalist architecture and whether it serves as a happy environment for the people that live in the buildings, and staring up at the gargantuan concrete tower block set against a grey sky, I could see why Danny Boyle used it in his post-apocalyptic film 28 Days Later. It scares me. When I tell Rab that it looks somewhere between a large factory and something out of 1984, he disagrees. Firstly it was Battersea Power Station (another example of Brutalist architecture) that was the facade for Victory Mansions in the film of 1984, and secondly, because inside, he says, it’s beautiful. Rab is currently taking up residency on the second floor to create a large photographic installation about the building, its community and the idea of ‘happiness’ that an environment can either inspire or extinguish. Having just read Alan de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, I was intrigued to find out more about social housing like Balfron Tower, and those that live there.
Its sister building is the 31- floor Trellick Tower in Kensington, and both were designed by Erno Goldfinger in an attempt to solve the huge shortage of housing in the country following World War II. Goldfinger was known as a humourless man who would fire his assistants for being too ‘jocular’. When he heard that Ian Fleming had made him into the villain of one of his James Bond books, he contested it so much that Fleming nearly changed the character to ‘Goldprick’. Looking at the tower, I can’t help but think it is a mere extension of the architect’s character, which has been – and will be — inflicted upon many a generation. At 27 floors high, it houses hundreds of people — about half of whom are Bangladeshi (says Rab) and all of whom (including him) will be moving out as they refurbish it, not knowing if they can return.
Where we live and the buildings around us make up the foundations of our community and can have a strong hold on our sense of happiness in life. Oscar Wilde claimed that: “The wrong kind of wallpaper could upset him more than a death in the family.” As an extreme aesthete, I doubt he would have liked Brutalist architecture. The Balfron tower was built with socialist ideals of economy and community, but due to urban decay after the war and the stark alien presence of such blocks compared with the rest of the city’s architecture, Brutalism became quickly un-popular and synonymous with un-happy residents.
“I want to make a piece that sheds a positive light on the often negative associations people bring to social housing and celebrate the diversity of the community within,” Rab says as we reach his place, on the second floor. It’s the size of a small house with steps leading down into a large living room with big windows. It’s peaceful, quiet and light. A balcony spans the room and the kitchen next door and over-looks another estate, a children’s ‘playground’ (fit with strange concrete walls and a concrete slide), and in the distance, the grand glass HSBC towers, one of the richest areas in London. “This area,” Rab says, “is one of the poorest in Europe – but this building” — he thumps his fist against the living room wall — “is solid, well made so that you have privacy.” Rab’s work is a series of photos taken in the apartments looking out. To show the building from the other perspective, he’ll set them on a light-box and in essence turn the Balfron Tower inside out. By getting to know as many of the residents as possible and through their word of mouth, he is building up his own network and relationship with his fellow residents in the form of “a family tree”.
“Beauty is the promise of happiness,” quotes Alain De Botton in The Architecture of Happiness, but in Brutalist design there is no room for the indulgence of beauty, only that of economy. Form must follow function, which through the 70’s and 80’s was simply ‘low budget’. John Ruskin said: “Buildings should shelter us, speak to us of all the things that are important, and remind us of them on a daily basis.” Domesticity, comfort and protection are but a few of the feelings that I think a house must communicate and even though Balfron looks like a severe dystopian factory from the outside, inside, I agree with Rab that it’s beautiful. When he takes me to the 27th floor the view is mesmerising and inspiring. “But the residents are treated really badly. They’re in the process of erecting scaffolding over the entire block — to work on the building for six months — it’s cheaper to do this when the building is occupied rather than wait and do it when it gets refurbished. No one was told. The direct disruption of noise and blocking up the windows has caused major unhappiness.”
Social housing can often say more about the ideal of the architect or a council’s budget, which in turn can have a negative impact on those that live there. A community can turn sour and break apart, not just because it is a poor one, but because of the way it is regarded, the relationship it has with neighbouring boroughs, the police and each other within it. I’m writing this as vans of police shoot past my window and my neighbours board up their shops. The place, East London (right now) is the target of hatred. Instead of gangs fighting gangs, they’re fighting the buildings, the communities, and last night broke down walls on terraced streets in Tottenham and used the bricks to smash and loot local businesses and banks, and it started from the same Brutalist inspired estate that gave birth to major riots in the 1980’s.
This speaks of social problems that run deeper than whether a house is pretty or not, but what de Botton and Rab Harling are both promoting is that we pay more attention to the psychological consequences of design in architecture as it can have the ability to further alienate communities, and will always affect us all.