How and why the changes in Balfron Tower exemplify the changes of Britain’s attitude towards social housing.23 minute read

Brutalist architectures are concrete reminders of the post-WW2 period in Britain, when local government believed in the architecture of public housing to bring about social progress. Brutalist architects stepped in to support the recovery of Britain by designing and constructing social housing estates such as Balfron Tower [image 1] in London. Although the exterior of Balfron Tower remains the same, it actually hides enormous societal changes in London since the 1960s. The project identification is to examine how gentrification at Balfron Tower destructed the original ethical purpose of Brutalism attached to the building, which reflects the changes of British society’s attitude towards social housing.

Image one. Balfron Tower. 
Image 1: Balfron Tower.



[Image 2. Location of Balfron Tower.
Image 2: Location of Balfron Tower.
Balfron Tower is a grade II listed building (English Heritage, 1996), so the outside of the building cannot be altered. Since palimpsest is the idea of “change and layering through history” (Dillon, 2005), the project aim is to examine the changes overtime inside the building though a palimpsestous lens. I argued that Britain’s attitude towards social housing has changed, as the status of social housing in London is viewed less importantly by society today.

This paper begins with an overview of the background and history of Balfron Tower, the methodology used and its limitations. My first analysis is on rise and recognition of Brutalism as shown from the mass construction of social housing post-WW2. This is followed by an analysis on how the change in government housing policies and the abolishment of the GLC (Greater London Council) contributed to the fall in Brutalism, and suggest that the change to neo-liberalist government policies is the root cause to the problem of the demolition of social housing estates. The last section shows how housing associations can suppress the powerless through gentrification, by analysing protests carried out by evictees and the displacement of low-income and short-term tenants. These show that the significance of Brutalism is diminishing in modern society, and exemplify the changes in Britain’s attitude towards social housing.

The main themes of study include Brutalism, gentrification and government housing policies. Gentrification displays a hierarchy of class (Smith and LeFaivre, 1984), as it is a process where high-income residents displace low-income tenants, which contribute to the change in the dynamics of the residential area (Lees, 2000). This is exemplified in the case of Balfron Tower’s gentrification from a social housing estate to luxury private apartments, which led to the displacement of its residents and the destruction of the original Brutalist purpose that was attached to the building.

Background review

Balfron Tower is a 27-storey block with 136 flats and 10 maisonettes, located in Poplar, London borough of Tower Hamlets (image 2) (, 2018). It was designed by Erno Goldfinger in 1967 and was granted as a grade-II listed residential building in 1996 (image 3). This building was once a social housing estate, but now it has been transformed into a luxury private property. Poplar Harca, the housing association that owns Balfron Tower, although previously promised in its redevelopment video in 2006 that “no resident will lose their home involuntarily” (, 2006), tenants were eventually evicted from the building during the gentrification scheme. Throughout the construction phases, batches of artists from the Bow Arts Trust and ‘property guardians’ moved in as temporary tenants, and as sections of old flats were renovated into luxury apartments, artists moved out and the flats were then sold to private investors.



Image 3. Sales Listing of Balfron Tower
Image 3: Listing of Balfron Tower


Research aim

I am interested in the contradiction between the unchanged building exterior and the changing lives of the tenants inside Balfron Tower. Although the physical appearance of the building still remains the same, it should be noted that  “monuments are deceptive” because they “may not be what they seem” (Cherry, 2006). What happens ‘inside’ of the building – the purpose of the building, the lives of its residents and the relationship between the tenants and the housing association, has changed dramatically overtime. This shows that this gentrified building now conceals its past as a social housing estate, hiding the history of forced eviction of its residents to make way for wealthy private investors, and the changes in British society’s attitude towards social housing since the 1960s.

I will examine the changes of the purpose of Balfron Tower overtime through a palimpsestuous lens by tracing back to the roots of Brutalism and social housing policies post-WW2 in the 1960s. Brutalism is not just about the architecture, but a social movement with the aim of supporting society post WW2. Hence, most Brutalist buildings such as Barbican and Finsbury Estates were built for the purpose of social housing (Spa Green Estate, 2018). Redevelopment and maintenance works aim to transformed the interior the building into luxury apartments led to the displacement of its residents, resulting in unrest and stress as shown by protests and interview accounts with ex-residents. This is an important issue because the social changes hidden behind the tower’s walls represent a wider social change in London. Such change is facilitated by government policies and the council’s profit gaining motives, affecting attitude towards social housing.

Methodology and reflexiveness

Inductive research method was used as a starting point, and I chose to research the topic of social housing in London because it is an issue that I have great interest in. Having also a curiosity in Brutalism, I have narrowed my options down to Brutalist architectures. As Balfron Tower is in the process of transforming from a social housing estate into luxury private apartments, I have identified this site as an interesting topic to examine how the significance and impact of social housing has changed overtime.

A range of secondary research methods was used for data collection to examine the research aim of this paper. Books and online blogs are used to gain a deeper understanding into the philosophies behind Brutalism, and the elimination of the GLC as its socialist ideologies clashed with Thatcher’s neo-liberalist views. Academic articles are used to gain a deeper understanding of the themes on gentrification and culture. The promotional videos from Balfron Tower’s official website are used to gain an insight into the rationale of the designers behind the gentrification scheme. Newspaper articles are used to learn about the protests of evictees against Poplar Harca, as it allows insight into the rage and stress of the residents towards the eviction. Discourse analysis is used to analyse the past interview with a Balfron Tower evictee, to examine how the evictees were actually treated by the housing association and whether Poplar Harca supported their relocation as what they claimed to have done. Semiotic analysis is used to analyse photographs of protests against the gentrification.

Although there are some limitations to the methodologies I have chosen, the benefits from use of these secondary data largely outweighs the limitations. Oral history and blog posts are idiosyncratic so they are subject to biases and incomplete information, as the subjects’ opinions might be exaggerated or skewed. Visual research especially the promotional video created by Poplar Harca is one-sided as it only glorifies the gentrification project, so it can only be used as a reference point. I also have to be aware that not everything is captured within the frame of the photographs of the protests, so it cannot be a full representation of the scale of the event. Books, newspapers and academic articles are historical accounts, so might be out-dated as they are published many years ago. Thus, I cannot fully rely on them for up-to-date information about the gentrification at Balfron Tower and how Brutalism in London is regarded in the modern age.


Balfron Tower reflects the changes in British society’s attitude towards social housing, supported by the arguments on the elimination of social housing that shattered the ethical aspect of Brutalism, change in government housing policies, and the negative impacts of gentrification on social housing tenants.

(i) Gentrification destroyed the ethical philosophies of Brutalism as demonstrated by the redevelopment at Balfron Tower     

“Brutalism was not just about honesty in the use and construction of ‘as found’ materials… but was based on a social program committed to creating economically, environmentally and culturally relevant architecture” (Webster, 1997). This movement was originated in the 1950s by French architect Le Corbusier, and his aim was to promote simplistic architecture as “Beton brut” (Calder, 2016 ). This means “raw concrete”, which highlights the idea of being honest in the building material and open about the structure of the architecture. British architects Alison and Peter Smithson later then coined the term “Brutalism”, and pushed Brutalism to be a social movement through the use of the architectural philosophy Le Corbusier advocated (Webster, 1997). The term “New Brutalism” became popular after British architectural historian Reyner Banham used it to describe Brutalism as “an ethic, not an aesthetic” social movement (Banham, 1968). Now, Brutalism is generally referred to the social movement that utilises “Beton brut” architectural style to carry out ethical missions that can benefit the wider public.

In the post-WW2 years when resources was scarce and decorative materials like paint were unaffordable, Brutalist movements emerged in Britain to provide immediate shelter for those who have lost their properties during the war (Clement, 2011). The design of Balfron Tower was stripped back to reveal its construction materials, and the benefit of such design is a shorter construction time. This building reflects both the architectural idea of Brutalism of using things ‘as found’ (Banham, 1968), and its social mission to provide affordable housing in response to a time of austerity in Britain (Clement, 2011). This reflects the significance of Balfron Tower in accommodating those whom have lost their property, and the role social housing played in rebuilding Britain post-war.

Many social housing in London such as Balfron Tower have been gentrified over the past decades, and some were sold to private landowners or wealthy individuals. Poplar Harca claims that its gentrification scheme can preserve Goldfinger’s building, however, only the exterior of the building is preserved but the interior of the building is completely modified. Renovation works began after Poplar Harca had a joint venture with Londonewcastle (Buckley, 2014), a luxury residential developer that took part in development projects on the Dollar Bay at Canary Wharf [image 4] and luxury apartments at Queen Elizabeth Street [image 5] (, 2018).

Image 4: Dollar Bay
Image 4: Dollar Bay


Image 5: Queen Elizabeth Street
Image 5: Queen Elizabeth Street           


The granting of a heritage listing to Balfron Tower although aided its physical survival, Poplar Harca has changed the purpose of the building dramatically. Instead of a social housing estate that provides the needy with secure living spaces, it is gentrified and transformed into a luxury housing estate. Although this change cannot be observed from the outside of the building, it does not cover up the fact that the ethical philosophy of Brutalism has been destroyed in the process of gentrification. Furthermore, Ah Rogers, a representative of the redevelopment scheme, took pride in the use of new modern materials to improve the interior of the building (, 2018). This shows that the change in the interior of Balfron Tower undermines the Brutalist architectural attitude of using simple building materials. It is ironic that Brutalism embodies an ideology that advocates for using the bare minimum, whilst the luxury estate developer Londonnewcastle is one of the main players in this gentrification scheme.

Goldfinger believed that “the success of any scheme depends on… the relationship of people to each other which the building provides” (Harrison, 2014), so the original interior setting was designed with common spaces and facilities for families to share. However, Christophe Egret stated that one of the main changes is the layout of the flat to be more modernized with a luxurious touch (, 2018). This shows that not only did gentrification changed the purpose of Balfron Tower, but also ignored Goldfinger’s mission helping tenants inside the tower to build a sense of community.  This shows that not only the purpose of the building changed, Goldfinger’s use of space inside the building to provide a sense of community is also destroyed in the process of gentrification.

Hence it is evident that although this maintenance scheme helped preserve the outside of Balfron Tower in its original form, the significance and purpose of the building has changed completely. People only appreciate the aesthetic nature of Brutalist architectures, but disregard the ethical purpose behind them. Gentrification at Balfron Tower reflects how social housing estates can be used as tools by housing associations to earn profits from the rich, which echoes how society less values the importance of social housing in helping the disadvantaged in society.

Image 6. protests outside the offices of poplar harca.
Image 6: protests outside the offices of poplar harca.


Image 7. Petition against privatisation and social cleansing at Balfron Tower.


(ii) The shift in government’s attitude towards public housing led to the fall of Brutalism and social housing estates in London    

In 1979, 42% of Britons lived in social housing, whereas the percentage reduced by five-folds and was only 8% in 2016 (Harris, 2016). This was mainly driven by the change in local government’s attitude towards social housing (Harris, 2016). Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health post-WW2 in 1945, advocated for making housing the first priority to help Britain recover (walesonline, 2009). Government’s prioritisation of social housing supported the spread of Brutalist movements in London, and the mass buildings of social housing estates were made possible with the support of the Greater London Council (GLC).

GLC was a powerful government administrative body that had complete control over the entire social housing development in London, from design to funding to construction. Each of the 32 London boroughs were represented by two members of the GLC (BBC News, 2016), and the council had power to enact its own socialist ideologies and mass construct public housing in London. Ken Livingstone was the leader of the GLC from 1981 to 1986, but his socialist policies to tackle inadequate housing conflicted with Margret Thatcher’s conservative ideologies (BBC News, 2016). This led to the abolishment of the GLC in 1986 (BBC News, 2016), and subsequently, the widespread demolition of social housing estates (Watt, 2017).

Now, social housing estates are owned by local town council or by a housing association. In this case, the government transferred Balfron Tower’s ownership from Tower Hamlet Council to Poplar Harca (, 2018). Thatcher’s neo-liberalist housing policies fundamentally changed the housing system in London— in particular the 1980 Housing Act extended right-to-buy council homes to tenants with generous discounts (, and the 1988 Housing Act expanded private sector financial input into social housing development (Gulliver, 2013). These led to the collapse of social housing completion to over 75% in 1990 (Gulliver, 2013), and Thatcher’s housing scheme was criticised from failing to live up to the dream of housing all Londoners, but instead “rob the poor and give to the rich” (Chakrabortty, 2016). There are three ways housing associations can opt for to relocate its tenants: to rehouse long time tenants in the same borough, to rehouse short time tenants in a council housing estate in any borough, or to carry out “compulsory purchase” to owners of the flats in the building. The consequence of “compulsory purchase” is that tenants who own the flats are paid a sum of money even if they do not want to and are forced to deal with housing by themselves, whilst low-income tenants who rent the flats are forced to relocate to anywhere that the housing associate allocates them to (, 2017).

It is evident that Thatcher’s elimination of the GLC and her neo-liberalist housing policies allow housing associations to manipulate social housing estates to earn profits, which is the root cause to the problem of the fall in social housing in London. Hence, both the change in government housing policies and the transfer of social housing ownership to private bodies, contributed to the destruction to the Brutalism that played a critical part in Britain’s building of social housing estates.


(iii) Gentrification induced forced-displacement of tenants    

People give meaning to spaces and memory is intertwined with history (Cherry, 2006), so gentrification at Balfron Tower completely changed its significance of space as residents that once lived in the tower were evicted. It is important to analyse how the voices of the ‘previously silent or suppressed are “interwoven” with the “dominant and authoritive” (Dillon, 2005), hence, it is essential to examine the relationship between the housing association and its tenants over the course of the gentrification process.

Brutalism is a nightmare when there is a lack of funding to keep up the buildings (Chadwick, 2016). However, Balfron Tower shows that gentrification is in fact catastrophic for low-income and short-term tenants. Before the refurbishment works started, residents had the option to keep their flats, as promised in the scheme’s promotional video in 2006: “if residents choose to stay… no residents will lose their home involuntarily” (, 2006). However when the works started, tenants were suddenly informed to move out with no information on when they could return. Eventually, the flats were sold as luxury apartment to private investors. Artists from Bow Arts Trust moved in as guardians temporarily, and the RIFT theatre group rented an entire floor for their performance of Macbeth (Harrison, 2014). These show that Balfron Tower temporarily became a site of art and entertainment during the reconstruction phase, and such guardianship and arts is a way of concealing the displacement of tenants at the tower.

In 1968 after the building was built, Goldfinger moved into Balfron Tower and lived there for 2 months to have a deeper understanding of what the residents like and dislike about the buildings, so he can improve the design accordingly (McManus, 2015). However when Poplar Harca took over, they forced tenants to leave their flats without prior notice in 2010, nor consulted their opinion about the gentrification scheme. Evictees felt that they were treated unfairly, and such unrest led to the outbreak of protests [image 6] and petitions [image 7] against Poplar Harca for “social cleansing” (Brooke, 2015). Protestors claimed that Poplar Harca did not give tenants the option of returning back to the building as promised in 2006 before the works began. Campaigner Glenn McMahon said, “Goldfinger designed it for the East End’s working classes—yet Poplar Harca has kicked them out and is selling their homes to bankers and investors” (Brooke, 2015). This shows that Goldfinger’s original aim of housing the needy is not respected by those that claim to preserve his work through gentrification, and now Balfron Tower houses high income individuals who can afford luxury housing instead of the disadvantaged in society.

Poplar Harca denied evicting tenants, and said that if they were to be displaced, they will be allocated to nearby social housing within the Poplar and Bow area (Crofton et al., 2014). However, only long-term tenants were relocated to other social housing estates in the same borough. Sara, an ex-tenant at Balfron Tower, said in an interview that Poplar Harca “really really pressured me with the rent deposit scheme, and I was told by Shelter not to take it” (Butler, 2013). This shows that Poplar Harca had the power to shunt social tenants into the private sector without any guarantee of security with regards to their housing. Sara was also very concerned about moving to Dagenham as arranged by Poplar Harca. Being a mixed race single mother with a daughter (Butler, 2013), she is insecure about relocating to an area full of EDL (English Defence League). This shows that the Poplar Harca did not even give advices according to the interests of the residents. Instead of giving support to the poor as embodied in the Brutalism movement, those that own social housing estates have the power to push the poor into worse situations to satisfy their profit motives.

Overall, the deportation of low-wage residents from social housing estates in London is opposite to the Brutalist purpose of these buildings. It is clear that the evictees were powerless against the Popular Harca, as they failed to fight for their right to return to Balfron Tower after it is gentrified, nor received fair compensation and relocation support from Poplar Harca. The original purpose of Balfron Tower was to house the needy, but not to preserve the aesthetics of the building in the expense of its residents. Hence, gentrification not only changed the significance of space at Balfron Tower, but also forced its tenants to face the problem of unsecure housing once again.


Artefacts are ‘vehicles’ that carry meaning, and the significance of artefacts change overtime (Hall, 1997). Balfron Tower encompasses a wider Brutalist meaning than just the architectural philosophy of using simple building materials, but more importantly it is a broader social ethical movement. Although people appreciate Brutalist architectures as shown by the willing of artists to move in as temporary tenants and wealthy individuals’ willingness to purchase the new refurbished flats, these only shows admiration of the physicality of the building but not respect towards the ideology of Brutalism.

Balfron Tower exemplifies the changes of Britain’s attitude towards social housing. Firstly, Balfron tower reflects the destruction of the Brutalist philosophy that is attached in the building, which shows that society neglects the role social housing played in the past. Secondly, the shift in government’s housing policies, namely the privatisation of social housing and the compulsory purchase scheme, allow housing associations to carry out gentrification schemes and ultimately sell the estates to private investors. Lastly, gentrification resulted in the eviction of low-income tenants from Balfron Tower, and some short-term tenants like Sara were driven into worst living conditions far away from the bourough of Tower Hamlets. This shows that gentrification destroys the original purpose of the building in providing the needy with secure housing and a sense of community, but now hides the original purpose of the building as a social housing estate, and conceals the injustice the ex-residents suffered from the gentrification scheme.

Hence, it is clear that social housing does not serve the same purpose post-WW2 to help Britain recover.  As the government and society no longer believe in the mass construction of public housing to bring about social progress for London, social housing estates are less respected in London today and become targets by profit-driven housing association to be redeveloped into private housing estates. Gentrification in this case only preserved the exterior of Balfron Tower, however, the enormous societal changes of the purpose of the building, the lives of its residents and the wider societal view on the role of social housing are concealed within the walls of Balfron Tower.

Yan Chow




Banham, Reyner (1966) The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? London, Architectural Press

Calder, B. (2016). Raw concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism. Random House.

Chadwick, Peter (2016). This Brutal World.

Clement, A. (2011). Brutalism: Post-war British Architecture. Marlborough: The Crowood Press.

Harrison, L. (2014). Home on high. [London GLC Housing office]: Rendezvous Press.

Watt, P. (2017). Social Housing and Urban Renewal. Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited.

Academic articles

Cherry, D. (2006). Statues in the Square: Hauntings at the Heart of Empire. Art History, 29(4), pp.660-697.

Dillon, S. (2005). Reinscribing De Quincey’s palimpsest: the significance of the palimpsest in contemporary literacy and cultura studies. Textual Practice, 19(3) pp. 243-263.

Lees, L (2000) ‘A reappraisal of gentrification: towards a ‘geography of gentrification.’ Progress in Human Geography Vol 24 (3): 389–408.

Smith, N. LeFaivre, M. (1984) A class analysis of gentrification in Palen, J. J. London, B. (1984) Gentrification, Displacement, and Neighbourhood Revitalization. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Webster, Helena (1997) Modernism Without Rhetoric: Essays on the Work of Alison and Peter Smithson John Wiley & Sons Inc

Promotional Videos (2006). Balfron Tower: a building archive. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018]. (2018). Balfron Tower. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018].

Newspaper articles

BBC News. (2016). The rise and fall of the GLC. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018].

Brooke, M. (2015). East End tenants ‘booted out’ of Goldfinger’s iconic Balfron Tower’ claim. [online] East London Advertiser. Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018].

Chakrabortty, A. (2016). Rob the poor and give to the rich – housing policy for 2016 | Aditya Chakrabortty. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018].

Gulliver, K. (2013). Thatcher’s legacy: her role in today’s housing crisis. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018].

Hall, Stuart (Ed), (1997) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London: SAGE in association with The Open University

Harris, J. (2016). The end of council housing. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018].

Walesonline. (2009). Housing owned by the people for the people – Nye would have approved. [online] Available at:–2066201 [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018].

Past Interview

Butler, J. (2013). Social Cleansing in Tower Hamlets: Interview with Balfron Tower Evictee | Novara Media. [online] Novara Media. Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018]

Websites (2006). Balfron Tower: a building archive. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018]. (2018). Balfron Tower. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018].

Buckley, J. (2014). CoStar UK – The Leader in Commercial Property Information. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018]. (2017) [online] Avaliable at: [Accesssed 17 Apr. 2018]

Crofton, C., Benge, J., Benge, J. and Silverman, N. (2014). The Balfron Tower: a tale of gentrificiation | Eastlondonlines. [online] Eastlondonlines. Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].

English Heritage (1996). [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018]. (2008). The History of Council Housing. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018]. (2018). LONDONEWCASTLE. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018].

McManus, D. (2015). Balfron Tower, Poplar, London – e-architect. [online] e-architect. Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018].

Spa Green Estate, L. (2018). Spa Green Estate, Rosebery Avenue, Finsbury, London: Sadler House | RIBA. [online] RIBApix. Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].

Image index

Image 1

Waite, R. (2018). Studio Egret West set to revamp Balfron Tower. [online] Architects Journal. Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].

Image 2

Google Maps. (2018). Google Maps. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].

Image 3

English Heritage (1996). Balfron Tower List Summary. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].

Image 4 (2018). LONDONEWCASTLE. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].

Image 5 (2018). LONDONEWCASTLE. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].

Image 6

Brooke, M. (2015). East End tenants ‘booted out’ of Goldfinger’s iconic Balfron Tower’ claim. [online] East London Advertiser. Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018].

Image 7 (2015). Balfron Tower: a building archive. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Apr. 2018].


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