Some iconic buildings are remarkably easy to get inside, so long as you wait for the right moment. And so it is with the Balfron Tower in Poplar, the slightly smaller sister of the much better known Trellick Tower in Notting Hill. Both were designed by Ernő Goldfinger, Balfron first, with lessons learned here used to improve plans at loftier Trellick. Ernő even moved into a flat on the 24th floor for a few months, to better get a sense of what his community in the sky was really like. Since the 1960s it's been social housing, but maintaining a listed concrete building is expensive, so the time has come for major renovation work throughout the block. And that's meant moving the existing tenants out, a gradual process which has left several flats vacant in readiness for a full refurbishment starting maybe at Christmas, probably next year, nobody's really sure.
Into these empty apartments have parachuted dozens of local artists as part of a programme organised by the Bow Arts Trust. And these artists are keen for visitors to come and see what they've been up to, hence the Balfron Open Studios event was part of Open House weekend and anyone could get inside. Exciting stuff, not least because as many as two dozen flats were open, and because visitors could wander at will round the building on several different floors. The concrete! The views! The art! And oh, the decay. [20 Balfron photos]
The Balfron Tower's well known as a Brutalist masterpiece, hence attracts the attention of an arty trendy crowd as well as architects who know their stuff. But the building still remains home to many less well off tenants, while the surrounding area exists somewhere near the bottom of the UK poverty league. So on occasions like this I always find it somewhat awkward when Hoxton decamps to Poplar to inspect its societal quirks, and local residents are left wondering who the hell's invading and why. They've not read the Open House brochure nor checked the Balfron Season website, so the presence of special artistic opportunities on their doorstep generally passes them by.
So we shared the lift nicely on the way in. Ten of us at a time, so as not to overwhelm the place, with instructions to head for the top floor and then work our way back down via the stairs. I seem to have spent a lot of my Open House weekend in lifts, and Balfron's was the least glam of the lot. At least it didn't smell of that liquid you hope lifts never smell of, but the interior had more than the usual feel of metal box about it. Our ascent was a little slow and perhaps disconcertingly rattly as we climbed to the 24th floor and alighted.
Ernő kept the lift shaft entirely separate from the rest of the building, hence the unmistakablesilhouette of the tower. Here too are the rubbish chutes (not to be used after 9pm), the peeling stairwells and the drying rooms that were essential before the advent of the automatic washing machine. Slit windows are cut in the concrete shell, for that modernist castle vibe, and a buzzered security door grants access to the walkway beyond. The first few yards are suspended in thin air, in this case over 70 metres up, so this is not the place to live if you've no head for heights - you'd never get home.
Each walkway is tiled in its own colour - on the 24th floor that's royal blue - with front doors along one side and windows on the other. There are a lot of doors, which might suggest tiny flats but not so, some lead to stairs that lead either up or down to flats on other floors, with walkways only on floors that are multiples of three. While security grilles cover some of the doors others flap forlornly open, with months of post and junk mail splayed out on the floor, revealing that all is empty within. The door of Ernő's temporary flat at number 130 was firmly shut, but other numbered portals led to the art installations we were technically here to see.
Walking into each artist's flat, you never quite knew what you were going to get. In some the artwork was obvious and its creator bubbling over to talk, explaining why they'd draped the room with sheets or projected a film on the bathroom mirror. In others some right peculiar stuff assaulted the senses, from sculptures that looked like litter on the floor to soundscapes recorded from the neighbouring Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. A few encounters were plain awkward, as the artist anticipated you'd want to engage deeply with their meaningful concept, while others had a lightness of touch and a flavour of fun.
I enjoyed the photographic exhibits, the industrial lullabies and the room filled with a giant sculptural X. I smiled at Kate Pelan's herd of folded shapes, and the room overrun with coloured glass mice. But I did wonder, after a while, if some of the artists in residence were simply using the Balfron Project as an excuse to have somewhere to stay for a few months. Shove some objets on the wall, annotate them with supposed meaning, and validate your bed for the night with art. Having said that, most of the flats had no electricity and had had all their kitchen fittings ripped out, so staying overnight looked somewhat impractical.
But sorry, Open Studios team, what I enjoyed most was the building you were exhibiting everything in. While you were trying to engage me with your artworks I was staring at the stairs, the walls, the entryphones, and wishing I could rush over to the balcony to take some photos. The really amazing Balfron artwork, used by many in the tower as inspiration, was the view across East London stretching out in all directions below. Oh to wake up to that panorama each day, or to watch a succession of blazing sunsets beyond the City. But then the sky was once the place where we hid the poor, and now it's all penthouses for the rich... as I suspect the revamped 24th floor will ultimately be. [9 panoramic photos]
If you want to take a look inside before refurbishment begins, before each of the hundred plus flats becomes a private space again, 2014's your only chance. The BalfronSeason runs until mid October and offers a range of experiences including exhibitions, workshops, dinners and debates. I think you've missed the Open Studios, sorry, but the National Trust are opening up Ernő Goldfinger's top floor flat to visitors between 1st and 12th October. It'll be fitted out in Sixties style, hence far more evocative than anything I saw, although the hour and a bit tour will set you back £12. Places are limited, but then it's not every day you get the opportunity to visit a community in the sky and a tower block people actually want to live in.