I joined this RIBA walking tour last year which took me around the areas surrounding (but unfortunately not into) Balfron Tower and Robin Hood Gardens.
The two social housing projects had been selected for the tour due to their contrasting fates: whilst Balfron Tower was undergoing a glamorous refurbishment at the time, Robin Hood Gardens was facing imminent demolition.
Balfron Tower was designed by Ernő Goldfinger in 1963 for the London County Council. Stylistically similar to the later Trellick Tower, Balfron Tower was Grade II* listed in 1996. The refurbishment works, undertaken as a joint partnership with luxury residential developer Londonewcastle, have been going on since 2011. All properties in the tower will be sold off once the refurbishment is done with none of them going back to the social housing tenants who lived there before.
Due to the refurbishment works, the tower had been wrapped in a rather Javacheff Christo-style chrysalis on the day of the tour so it wasn’t much to look at. We had to make do with Carradale House instead, an adjacent, lower rise 11-storey building designed by Goldfinger to complement the 26-storey tower. Carradale House building had a similar look and feel to Balfron Tower with the same sky bridges and access at every third floor.
While the tour didn’t extend to going inside either building, I understand that all flats in Carradale House have dual window aspect and large south facing balconies, letting in plenty of natural light, with natural wood panels on each side.
The above pictures of Goldfinger’s former flat in Balfron Tower, which designer Wayne Hemingway restored in 2014 as part of a National Trust exhibition on brutalism (I recall trying and failing to get tickets for this) give you an idea of what the flats in Balfron Tower and Carrdale House were/are like.
The next stop on the tour was Robin Hood Gardens, or rather the remaining sections of the estate that hadn’t yet been demolished.
Robin Hood Gardens was designed in the late 1960s by architects Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972. It was built as a council housing estate consisting of two long curved blocks made of precast concrete slab blocks facing each other across a central green space.
The blocks contained 213 homes connected by broad aerial walkways on every third floor (so-called “streets in the sky”) which the architects hoped would encourage interaction between residents. In addition, alcoves called “pause spaces” were provided next to the entrance doorways on the “streets” which the architects hoped the residents would personalise and where children would play. The flats themselves were a mixture of single-storey apartments and two-storey maisonettes, with two to six bedrooms.
Unfortunately, it transpired over the years that the design of the estate was inherently flawed. The exposed concrete slab blocks weathered poorly and the location meant that the estate was cut off from its surroundings by roads, exacerbated by its inward-facing design. The “streets in the sky” and the pause places outside the doorways were not used by the residents for their intended purpose and only served to create numerous blind spots for muggers.
Visiting the remaining parts of the estate in person, it was still a very striking piece of architecture and I could see why so many renowned architects and heritage bodies campaigned against its demolition. However, it was also undeniably bleak. I was unsurprised to hear that the majority of the former residents – the people who actually had to live on the estate – supported its demolition.
In a slightly bizarre twist, the V&A Museum salvaged a large three-storey section of the estate, including the gutted interiors of a maisonette flat, sections of concrete stairway and part of an elevated walkway, on the grounds that the estate was a nationally important and internationally recognised work of Brutalist architecture. This was recently reconstructed for display in Venice.
I had a day and a bit of free time in Brussels tacked on the end of a business trip so I decided to use it doing three of my usual pastimes: rummaging through tat at a flea market, taking photos around a brutalist building and looking at (but not buying any) mid century modern furniture.
Place du Jeu de Balle flea market
Established in 1854 and reportedly the only antique and flea market in the world open every day of year, the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market was fully of pretty good tat compared to flea markets I’ve visited in Berlin, Copenhagen, Helsinki, New York and San Francisco.
The market was made up of stall after stall of miscellaneous objects, sometimes strewn out on blankets and sheets or crammed into cardboard boxes, ranging from antique to 20th century porcelain, pictures, pottery, fabric, clothes and furniture. Even though the market was limited to professional dealers, it had an informal yet organised junkyard feel to it, which I liked.
Prices were about average for a European flea market but in retrospect, I was massively ripped off with my first purchase – a bust, which I liked the look of but was clearly complete junk and totally not worth what I paid for it (I found remnants of a “Made In” sticker when I got it home). I went on both Friday and Saturday – apparently dealers tend to replenish their stock on Thursdays and Fridays but Saturday had a livelier feel with more stalls.
Westrand Cultural Centre
Although the exterior of the Westrand cultural centre was interesting enough (concrete punctuated with panels of bright colour), the interior really was something else.
Sort of like the Hayward Gallery in London but on smaller scale and a lot weirder, it was filled with concrete indoor landscaping which appeared to serve no actual purpose other than to provoke and confuse. A section on the lower floor was particularly installation-like, resembling a drained water feature crossed with a child’s adventure playground.
The sense of strangeness was heightened by unexpected inclines, circular openings in the concrete (which didn’t really lead anywhere) and the fact that the whole building was almost completely deserted – there wasn’t exactly a buzzing programme of cultural events on that day.
I did eventually find signs of life in the building – the easterly end housed a pleasingly designed public library and the westerly part contained a pleasant enough informal bar and restaurant.
Dandelion, Rue de la Victoire 184
There seemed to be a real appetite for high end mid century modern furniture in Brussels with antique stores on practically every shopping street selling the stuff, usually piled high and at prohibitive prices.
Dandelion stood out from all of the other antique stores due to the quality and condition of its pieces (each piece had been expertly restored by the owner before being put up for sale), the uncluttered presentation of the pieces on the shop floor (small but unpretentious) and the reasonableness of the pricing (substantial items of furniture such as desks, sideboards and armchairs were priced between €250-350).
The depth of the owner’s passion for mid century modern furniture and design really came across in the selection of pieces for sale and his knowledge about each piece – whilst there were some classic items that I recognised, others were more obscure, made by European designers that I hadn’t come across.
I was particularly taken by a compact black and teak 1960s Pierre Guarriche desk, beautifully restored and priced at a rather unbelievable €250 (a similar one is priced at in Panamo at €900). I would definitely have bought it for my new study were it not for the fact that the shop didn’t do or arrange for deliveries overseas.
I recently attended a 20th Century Society walking tour around Elephant and Castle, taking in the various housing estates, the much maligned shopping centre and the interiors of Draper House and Metro Central Heights (aka Alexander Fleming House) by Ernö Goldfinger.
Seemingly one of the last areas in zone 1 to undergo complete regeneration, Elephant and Castle has (regrettably in my opinion) seen major change in recent years to revamp its down-at-heel, brutalist image. The 42-storey Strata tower (the one with that hideous fan thing on top) was completed in 2010, One The Elephant (another rather bland 37-storey tower) was completed in 2016 and a number of further new high rises have planning permission. The shopping centre, which has been scheduled for redevelopment for about 30 years, is apparently (finally) going to be demolished later this year.
This was where the the walking tour started. Designed by Boissevain & Osmond and opened in 1965, the shopping centre was one of the first US-style indoor shopping malls in Europe with enough space for over 100 retail units spread across on three levels surrounded by public space and incorporating the railway and tube stations. Unfortunately, it never really took off as a retail destination and fell into disrepair over the years. Walking around it on the tour, there were glimmers of the architects’ vision for a shopping centre of the future: light and airy concourses with daylight reaching deep into the building (not something that could be said of either Westfield shopping centres), neat design touches such the rainbow panelled ceiling, terrazzo marble flooring and striking red staircases.
Next on the tour was Draper House, a 25-storey tower forming part of the Draper Estate. Designed on 1958 and completed in 1963 under the principal housing architect HJ Whitfield Lewis, it was constructed with a reinforced concrete frame with pre-cast floor and cladding. We were invited in to walk across a striking if rather austere and prison-like walkway on one of the upper floors but unfortunately not inside any of the flats, which I understand to be spacious and split level in a lot of cases.
Other sights on the tour included the Lubetkin-designed Dorking House (unremarkable but for a great “1965” sign), the slightly overwhelming Symington House (a fortress of ice white and blue) and an strange pale-coloured structure (I’m not entirely sure what purpose it served – a communal seating area? Parking?) attached to a towerblock that looked an awful lot like La Villa Savoye in Poissy.
The last stop on the tour was Metro Central Heights (previously Alexander Fleming House), a vast concrete complex built between 1959 and 1967 by Hungarian-born modernist architect Ernő Goldfinger (also responsible for Trellik Tower). The multi-winged, multi-storey building (55 metres at its tallest point) housed the Department of Health and Social Security until 1989 after which it sat empty until 1997 when it was converted into around 400 residential apartments and renamed Metro Central Heights.
I’ve always had the impression that the conversion wasn’t particularly well executed: flats in the building that I’d seen online looked oddly proportioned and fitted with ugly late 90s kitchens and bathrooms inconsistent with the era of the building. In addition, while I can understand why they decided to freshen the original and very brutal concrete facade by painting over it, I’ve never liked the rather hospital-like white and blue colour scheme.
My negative impression of the building was mostly dispelled after the tour. The internal courtyard, with its unexpected Japanese garden was striking, the communal areas were well kept (the lift lobbies featured the original stained glass windows) and we were told that management has plans to paint the blue exterior panels a more appealing colour in the near future (the options were various shades of putty).
Unlike the ugly examples I’d previously seen online, the flat that we were invited in to see was light-filled and well-proportioned though the owner did concede that it took a while to find a flat in the building as good as this one. The Modern House currently has a similarly nice example for sale on its website.
Historical photos courtesy of a Google search…
Taipei had some great brutalist architecture and was clearly quite a design-centric city with some great independent stores selling beautiful objects at decent prices in the Datong district (the areas around Dihua Street and Zhongshan metro station in particular). I wish we’d had longer than a day and a half to explore.
Hong Kong is notoriously unsentimental when it comes to preserving its heritage, constantly demolishing anything remotely old to make way for brand new glass and steel skyscrapers. That said, there was still plenty to appreciate from an architecture and design perspective during my recent trip there (even if none of it was really mid century or modernist).
– The three brightly coloured interconnected buildings in Wan Chai: the Blue House, Yellow House and Orange House. Now a grade one historic building, the Blue House is a four-storey tenement building and one of the few remaining examples of a tong lau: a style of residential building notable for balconies that were built in the late 19th century in Hong Kong and southern China. The Blue House houses a museum and contains private living quarters. The Orange and Yellow Houses are also primarily residential buildings featuring around 20 residential flats each.
– The old Hollywood Road Police Married Quarters, a grade III listed 1950s building now used as a mixed-use venue for arts and design. In 2014, after nearly 15 years of disuse, the building was renamed PMQ and opened to the public. The building’s residential units were turned into studios, shops and offices for selling pleasing but overpriced design tat and hosting exhibitions.
– Hong Kong Cultural Centre, a tiled salmon pink building which was designed in the 1970s but only opened in the late 1980s (and therefore has elements of both decades in its design).
– Other interesting modern buildings
The Poolhouse at Cotswold Lodge, Rodborough GL5
Mid century modern poolhouse
Architect: Unknown to me
Year built: Late 1960s
For the second year in a row, I decided I’d quite like to celebrate my birthday by staying at a mid century Airbnb property at an entirely unsuitable location for a holiday in November. This year, it was the turn of a 1960s poolhouse (with no access to the actual pool, which was covered over) in the rather remote Cotswolds village of Rodborough.
According to the Airbnb listing, the Poolhouse was built in the late 1960s in glass, timber and Cotswold stone (reputed to have originated from Prinknash Abbey) as an add-on to the much older, rather stately-looking main house. While the exterior of the Poolhouse was basically a glorified shed (the pool itself, surrounded by cedar decking, was the star attraction), its interior was a beautifully detailed haven of mid century modern fittings, furniture and very kitschy artwork.
The best room was a very long, open plan living space comprising a dining area, a seating area (demarcated by an unusually attractive L-shaped sofa – I usually hate them) and open plan kitchen which looked out onto (and if we’d visited in summer, would have opened out onto) the pool through a set of floor to ceiling doors which spanned the left hand wall.
An internal hallway led through to the bathroom and master bedroom, which was fitted with the most luxurious long-haired shag pile carpet I’ve ever had the pleasure of treading on and some great built in furniture. The internal hallway also contained a staircase which led down to a further bedroom on the lower ground floor (mysteriously this was not intended to be part of the Airbnb listing and clearly hadn’t been entered for a while judging by the scent of mothballs).
Decor-wise, the poolhouse appeared to have been sympathetically restored in the recent past to make the most of the original features, notably what appeared to be iroko woodwork, but also to install various mod-cons such as a decent modern kitchen and bathroom. In my opinion, the Poolhouse would benefit from some further modernisation: the shower was abysmal (there were around three precious minutes of dribbly hot water before it turned ice cold) and at the risk of sounding ridiculously spoiled, the TV didn’t have an HDMI cable which meant we were stuck watching terrestrial tv for the duration of our stay and the music system was only compatible with Apple products with the old charging head. So, while the Poolhouse wasn’t quite a 1960s simulation, it did feel like we’d been transported back into the recent past.
The Poolhouse was situated in an excellent location for admiring sweeping views, trudging through muddy fields, ambling through ancient villages made out of Cotswold stone and doing other things people usually do when visiting the Cotswolds. The nearby market town of Stroud had some decent vintage shops: a mid-century themed one called Duffle was decently stocked and very reasonably priced.
Artek flagship store
Launched in 1935, Artek (an abbreviated portmanteau of the Finnish words for “art” and “technology”) remains the official licensor for Alvar Aalto’s steam-bent beech pieces seen everywhere across the city but also sells a range of furniture and design items from other Finnish and international designers.
The large flagship store on the South Esplanade was almost a museum of beautiful mid-century modern pieces, which at full price were mostly out of my price range but I did manage to buy some pointless but pretty accessories such as a fluffy round seat cushion for my Aalto chair at home and a rather natty multi-picture display hanger.
Artek second cycle
Tucked away in a basement level space in the Design District of the city was Artek’s second hand branch. The store was full of beautiful vintage Aalto pieces that wouldn’t look out of place in Aalto’s studio and/or villa.
This was a strictly window shopping trip – I wasn’t going to attempt to fit anything into my hold luggage (even an artfully battered Stool 60) and the setup, whilst slightly haphazard, suggested that the stock was being sold at antique-level prices.
Marimekko factory store
This factory store was located on the outskirts of the city in an unglamorous Purley Way-esque area made up of busy roads and hypermarkets but proved to be well worth the trek.
The large store sold a broad range of Marimekko’s instantly recognisable 1960s-style printed clothing and homewares at decent discounts (I like their stuff but can’t justify buying it full price): I was primarily interested in picking up printed duvet sets and cushions but the glassware and crockery were decent as well. The building was also home to a full priced store, textiles factory and busy staff cafeteria which also appeared to be open to the public, judging by the number of buggies in there.
Arabia is a Finnish ceramics company, founded in 1873 which appeared to specialise in tableware (a Finnish, much cooler Royal Doulton, if you will). The flagship, which was adjoined to the equally fancy Iittalla store, housed all of the brand’s retro pieces, including a section dedicated to one of Finland’s most recognisable exports, the Moomins.
Hietalahti flea market
I don’t know if we just came on the wrong day or too late in the morning (a Saturday at about 11am) but as you can see from the photos, this flea market was disappointingly sparse. The vendors who had bothered to show up were peddling decent stock, however. One stall was loaded up with vintage Iittala and Arabia pieces (I managed to pick up an unusually shaped vintage Arabia salt shaker for 15 euros) and there was a decent selection of mid century tat hidden amongst the rubbish on the other stalls.
A quick tram ride from central Helsinki brought us to the Tiilimäki neighbourhood of Munkkiniemi. Home to both the studio and former home of one of Finland’s most famous exports, Alvar Aalto, Munkkiniemi also appeared to contain a lot of very attractive modernist housing stock: on our walk over from the tram stop to Studio Aalto, we walked past countless interestingly designed apartment blocks that I wished I could pick up and transplant into London somewhere.
Alvar Aalto designed the Studio Aalto house during 1955–56 to be the studio of his architect bureau. Though from the street it had a rather plain, unassuming-looking façade comprised of white-painted, lightly rendered brickwork, the closed-in mass of the building concealed a garden shaped like an amphitheatre in its inner courtyard and some spectacularly designed interior spaces.
The working space upstairs was broadly split into two main areas, one of which Aalto intended to be used for technical work and the other for dreaming up ideas. The technical work space was a vast hall of a room, which narrowed slightly at the end to make it look even longer and was flooded with light from windows on both sides giving views to both east and west.
The dreaming room was altogether more unusual with curved walls, double height ceilings, climbing plants and pieces of Aalto’s signature furniture dotted about. This room also overlooked the amphitheatre space outside – we were told they used to project banned films onto the wall outside, which the team could watch from the comfort of the the dreaming room.
Aalto’s house was a ten minute walk away from the Studio Aalto. Built in 1936 as a joint project with his first wife, it was Aalto’s first house in the city and his home until his death in 1976. The house was a relatively modest two-storey structure which, like the studio, didn’t look like much from the street but contained a wealth of characterful features round the back and inside.
The ground floor contained a double height brick and jute clad study featuring high windows and steps up to a library area and gallery.
Sliding doors separated the study from the warmer, wood and suede-lined living room which contained a range of original Aalto-designed furniture and a grand piano, which had a rather severe portrait of Aalto’s wife propped on it.
A wooden staircase led up to a second living room with a freestanding fireplace as a centrepiece and three bedrooms, a large terrace and the bathroom (which contained those weird round sinks that Aalto designed for a sanatorium) branching off it.
Whilst relatively modest in terms of size and scale, the house was stunning down to the last detail and had a calming, almost Japanese aesthetic.
One of Aalto’s later buildings, the music venue Finlandia Hall was opened in 1971 in a picturesque location overlooking Töölö bay. With its high angled roof and white Carrara marble facade, it looked a bit like a huge, jagged iceberg and was significantly more dramatic in appearance and scale than the studio and house.
Having visited in person, I would say Finlandia Hall needs to be viewed from afar to be truly appreciated – apparently the best place to see it from is Sinisen Huvilan, a café across the bay, which gives you enough distance to see all of it at once, rising out of the water. I didn’t have this vantage point which meant that it was difficult to capture its vastness in any one picture but the view of the building from Mannerheimintie (I assume that this was the main entrance) was pretty impressive.
There weren’t any concerts showing on the day that I visited but I did manage to have a wander around the main foyer areas, which were lined in a combination of birch and stone – Aalto designed the interiors down to last details from lighting fixtures and furniture to the flooring.
I seem to have a habit of visiting strange-looking modernist churches when on holiday abroad. This late 1960s example, designed by architects and brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen was possibly the most unusual yet.
Excavated and built directly out of solid rock, the church’s bunker-like entrance led down into a subterranean oval space bathed in natural light entering through a glass skylight surrounding a central copper dome. A wooden staircase led to an upper tier of seating overlooking the James Bond-esque lair below.
The architects had incorporated the rough, virtually unworked bedrock into the design of the church and adapted the colour scheme accordingly with lots of reds, purples and greys with steel rendered bluish by hammering. Apparently the church is visited more by tourists than worshippers these days and is one of the most popular sights in Helsinki – the tour buses which appeared to arrive at regular intervals outside the main entrance confirmed this to be true.
Though I found it to be rather small and underpopulated, I greatly enjoyed my time in Helsinki, home to stunning Alvar Aalto-designed architecture (including the house that he lived in) and various design stores from which I bought yet more tasteful Nordic tat for my flat. Blog entries on Helsinki’s architecture and shopping to follow.
The Rotunda, Birmingham B2
Grade II converted apartment block
Architect: James A Roberts
Year built: 1965
Completed in 1965 as a mixed-use office block as part of the James A. Roberts-designed post-war Bull Ring Shopping Centre development, the Rotunda is one of the few mid-century buildings left standing in Birmingham after years of regeneration which has seen the 1960s station, shopping centre and numerous John Marin brutalist buildings demolished to make way for glass and steel replacements.
The Rotunda almost met the same fate when it was threatened with demolition in 1993 but was saved by English Heritage and was given a Grade II listing in 2000. It sat empty for a number of years before being refurbished and partially converted for residential use by developer Urban Splash and Glenn Howells Architects. The refurbishment involved updating the façade by fitting 72 floor-to-ceiling height glass panes, each placed at 5° to the neighbouring window and carving the internal space up into 232 luxury apartments. All of the flats except those on the top floors, which are let out as serviced apartments, were bought up by eager buyers (most of them buy-to-let investors) in just three hours at the height of the market in 2005 – these buyers were to end up losing out in spectacular fashion when the credit crunch hit in 2008.
A trip to visit friends in Birmingham last weekend provided us with the perfect opportunity to stay in one of the serviced apartments on the 19th floor of the tower. The building looked almost completely contemporary in person, perhaps due in part to its new glass facade and renovated lobby area, a gently sloping stone ramp with a rather busy light display overhead.
The flat itself consisted of a large open plan living area and sleeping area separated by a sliding wall. A “jack and Jill” bathroom (i.e. with a door at each end) ran down the side of the flat, providing a direct route to the sleeping area from the front door.
This space-optimising layout together with the sparse yet tasteful furnishings (slightly naff colour scheme and artwork aside) and curved floor-to-ceiling windows made the flat seem a lot larger than it actually was. The views over Birmingham city centre were fantastic as well.
Flats in the building occasionally come up for sale. Even post financial crash, they’ve been pretty expensive for Birmingham (£350,000 for a two bedroom flat – this would buy you a sizeable semi-detached house elsewhere in the city). That said, if I were to move to Birmingham, I certainly wouldn’t mind living here.