The National Trust unveiled a detailed historical replica of a 1960s flat in the Balfron Tower today, in the very flat lived in by the tower’s architect.
The modernist Erno Goldfinger designed the Brutalist block in Tower Hamlets’ Poplar area – part of Britain’s post-war, utopian obsession with modern living in concrete structures – to rehouse Londoners displaced by the mass slum clearances of the 1940s and 50s.
The tower, near Canary Wharf and the old London docklands, was finished in 1967, and Goldfinger moved into Flat 130 in 1968, with his wife Ursula. “It wasn’t a PR exercise,” said Joseph Watson, programme manager at the National Trust, one of the organisations behind the pop up.
“He was trying to test out his own building. He saw it as his empirical responsibility as an architect to really ‘live’ the building, find out first-hand how it would be to live there.”
Watson described the Balfron as a “prototype”, a precursor to Goldfingers subsequent buildings – such as the Trellick Tower in North Kensington – “He learned a lot from living in the Balfron, for example in later buildings he included more lifts, as while living here he realised how annoying it was to rely on just one lift, for a whole tower block of people.”
Each room has been carefully restored with furniture, appliances and general household items from the late 1960s, to give visitors a real sense of how it would have been when residents first lived there.
Everything is date-accurate, from the sofa and tables right down to the cologne and bottle of Gillette in the bathroom, the record player and Twiggy posters in the teen bedroom, the nylon dressing gowns, to the Beatles bed rug and ragdoll in the kids’ room.
Tilly Hemmingway – of Hemmingway Design, and daughter of Wayne Hemmingway, fashion designer, designer and founder of Red or Dead – dressed the flat. “Most of this is what a normal, working class family would have had in their flat in 1967,” said Hemmingway, “apart from the table and chairs in the living room.
But I have a story in my head that the lady of the household found them second hand at a market: that’s why there’s one chair missing!”
She had quite a task finding everything and keeping it accurate: “I found stuff on eBay, at markets and auctions, and some of it – especially the really small pieces, like the kitchen and bathroom products and the magazines – came from the Land of lost Content, museum of popular culture, in Shropshire: they have floors and floors of stuff.”
The Balfron is not being acquired by the National Trust, it is supporting the Flat 130 pop up as part of the Balfron Season project: a programme of events based in and around the Grade-II listed tower, which is seen as a monument to Brutalist architecture and an imposing East London landmark. For information on these events visit here.
Poplar HARC own the tower, which is soon to be refurbished and reopened as a mixed tenure redevelopment; half private and half social housing. Tenants wishing to return to the tower will be housed temporarily nearby.
The flat is open to the public from October 1 to 12, to book tickets and request a guidebook visit here.