West London's Trellick Tower has a less famous older brother on the other side of the capital. That's the Balfron Tower - a Brutalist 27-storey apartment block, located just north of the Blackwall Tunnel. Both have a similar silhouette, both were designed by Erno Goldfinger, and both are admired from the outside by people who'd probably never dream of living on the inside. The architect himself was an exception. Goldfinger and his wife moved into the Balfron Tower soon after it was built, and spent a couple of months living in flat 130 on the top floor to find out what living here was like.
The latest creative type to move in is Australian artist Simon Terrill. He spends his time visiting communities, gaining their trust and then taking a giant photograph. He's been able to do that here in Poplar courtesy of the Bow Arts Trust, who moved him in as artist in residence and enabled the realisation of his project. The Balfron Project.
The key date: Thursday 18th November 2010. Simon encouraged residents to be at home around 6pm, then to come out on their balconies (or wherever) for an hour while the event took place. He set up cameras and catering outside, and illuminated the entire front of the building with bright spotlights. Then he stood on a nearby rooftop taking photographs approximately five minutes apart - ten separate images in total. And from these he eventually picked one picture that best represented the people ofBalfron and their beguiling building. This single image has now been printed out, on the rather-large side, and forms the culmination of the entire undertaking.
That photograph is currently on view at the Nunnery Studios on Bow Road. This is the public face of the project, for the next three weekends, so that residents (and the rest of us) can drop in and see what they looked like.
It's not the most inviting gallery, the Nunnery, from the outside. Hidden up a side alley near Bow Church, rarely signposted to catch passing footfall, and requiring a ring on the doorbell to gain entry. But things are more welcoming within. Three rooms in total, the first with a language-mangled Tower of Babel theme. Someone's had fun jumbling up various literary forms, from email to poetry, although the impenetrability wears a little thin after the first couple of sheets. Other than that, the entire exhibit's text free. If you don't ask the curator, or if you haven't read up in advance, you won't have a clue what's going on.
Next up, rather wonderfully, a timelapse film of the entire recording session viewed from afar. It starts in daylight, with late afternoon rain splotching against the camera until eventually (thankfully) it dries up. Clouds rush past as dusk falls, and the traffic on the A12 transforms into a stream of headlamps. At this scale the residents look really tiny, but some are visible as they wave to the camera, and there's definitely a disco underway in one of the flats on a halfway floor. The hour of official illumination speeds by, then the lightshow fades and the Balfron returns to peaceful night. Throw in a slideshow at the other end of the gallery showing the residents out and about and dressed up on the day, and you get a real flavour of what fun the photoshoot must have been.
Finally, with the third gallery to itself, Simon's photograph. The tower's six foot tall at this scale, easily large enough to pick out what's going on in some of the flats and balconies (yes, definitely a disco). A family group peers out from one of the windows in the liftblock walkways. There's a premature Christmas decoration top left, and three great lights blaring out from the roof. Some of the residents didn't play ball, and their flats are dim, or maybe they belong to the people standing out front at ground level in warm winter woolies. The mural invites close examination, maybe even to reveal "ooh look, that's me!"
Don't come specially from the other side of town - you may take longer walking from Bow Road station than you'll spend inside the gallery. But what a great idea to take a snapshot of a building and its community and to exhibit it with pride. The most unusual fraction of a second in the life of the Balfron, forever captured.
Update: All residents of the Balfron Tower (and the neighbouring Carradale Tower) will be forced to leave over the next couple of years so that the block can undergo regeneration. Many will not be able to return, as the housing association needs to sell off at least 100 flats to private buyers in order to fund the repair works. Which is a bit grim, unless you're one of the lucky rich folk who get to move in afterwards.