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?