Are artists the shock troops of gentrification – or just another of its victims?

Carradale House, with Balfron Tower behind it. Image: vasilissdimos/Wikimedia Commons.

Editor's note: This article draws heavily on the work of the housing writer Dawn Foster, particularly this article in the Guardian. We are happy to make this clear.

Balfron Tower looms over Poplar like only a 1960s brutalist tower block can. To some, it is a work of art in itself, bold and uncompromising.

The block of modernist flats was designed by Ernő Goldfinger for the London County Council in 1963. Today it is owned by Social Landlord Poplar HARCA, who took over ownership of Balfron Tower following a ballot of residents in 2006.

Poplar HARCA originally undertook to bring all of the dwellings in the estate up to the last Labour government’s “decent homes” standard. In 2015, however, it was announced that the properties in the Grade II listed building were to be sold as luxury flats.

Residents of the block were decanted during the refurbishments, and artists occupied the tower in their place. It was an example of what Mark Aeling, owner of MGA Sculpture Studio and president of the St Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District Association (WADA), describes as “art washing”: a phenomenon in which artists are used to increase the attractiveness of an area and the value of properties.

A Balfron Tower Redevelopment Video posted on YouTube in July 2014 by the Balfron Social Club, which campaigns on behalf of social residents, shows the plans for redevelopment. They include a cocktail bar and cinema. The video makes no mention of where the former social tenants will live.

Hannah Nicklin was one of these artists – a “storyteller in residence… as part of the Social Housing Arts Network working alongside Poplar HARCA”, according to her website. On Twitter, the Balfron Social Club accused her of art washing.

In a blog post response, Nicklin said that artists “sometimes work with partners within communities and the world in general… who are playing a damaging role in the lives of many of those same communities”. She also went onto say that “Art and artists often plays a role in gentrification”.

In other words, artists are being co-opted to facilitate gentrification. The presence of artists in Balfron Tower during its transformation from social housing to luxury flats appears to be a natural part of the process. Londoners are familiar with abandoned factories becoming galleries or studios, and then luxury homes. Grayson Perry has described artists as the “shock troops of gentrification”.

But are they benefiting from the changes to the social fabric of London? Or they also the victims of rising property prices, as much as the social housing tenants?

Aside from a few household names, the majority of artists do not have a large income. It is therefore necessary for them to locate where accommodation and studio space is cheap. This movement of artists is a reflection of pressures that rising rents in London are putting on creative industry workers.


Artists have also been inspired by social housing, even if they are not themselves social housing residents. In 2007, Catherine Yass filmed tightrope-walker Didier Pasquette’s attempt to cross the 45-metre gap between the two blocks of Red Road Estate in Glasgow. In 2010, the residents of Balfron Tower featured in Simon Terrill's Balfron Project. From the use of Thamesmead in A Clockwork Orange to Jonathan Meade’s documentary on brutalism, social housing has inspired many works of art. The relationship between artists and social housing goes beyond the need to find affordable space.

Do artists benefit from the process of gentrification? When organisations like Poplar HARCA offer space to artists, it is understandable that they accept it, even if these spaces had formerly belonged to social housing residents.

So the relationship between artists and property owners is a complex one, because artists depend upon support from companies and on cheap housing. Their presence changes the perception of an area, adds value to the assets of property owners – and eventually makes the space unaffordable for artists themselves.

“It’s a vehicle,” WADA’s Mark Aeling said. “[Artists] don’t generally have economic resources, they have creativity. Their energies often get utilised and they, to be honest, get taken advantage of.”

Artists are very much a part of gentrification, and it is understandable why residents who are concerned about rising rents are wary of artists moving into an area. But artists are often as much the victims of gentrification as the benefactors, as rising property prices threaten their livelihoods.

The artists will leave Balfron Tower when the work is finished. Like so many of the capital’s residents, they will continue their migration further east in search of affordable properties. But there is no guarantee that they will be able to find anywhere to re-establish their community.

And why not buy Dawn Foster's book, Lean Out?

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Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.