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Housing

The Pernicious Realities of 'Artwashing'

In expensive London, artists are caught in the middle of developers' attempts to push out lower-income residents and rebrand neglected properties.
The entrance to East London's iconic Balfron Tower, a long-decaying brutalist behemoth that has traditionally housed lower-income residents.
The entrance to East London's iconic Balfron Tower, a long-decaying brutalist behemoth that has traditionally housed lower-income residents. Wikimedia Commons/Graeme Maclean

Last weekend, architecture lovers got a chance to visit one of East London's most iconic buildings—the striking, austere Balfron Tower. A 28-story-high 1960s housing project designed by the wonderfully named Ernő Goldfinger, the tower is recovering both from years of neglect and its (now much admired) brutalist architecture's former status as the ultimate in ugliness. Refurbishment is taking place, residents are moving out, and property guardians and artists are moving in—fittingly so, given East London’s latter-day role as one of Europe’s key art world centers. (In 2010, the tower and its residents actually featured in a major artwork themselves: Simon Terrill's Balfron Project.) Partly to celebrate the transformation commemorated in the project, the tower hosted a "vertical carnival" and international architecture showcase last Saturday. The day illustrated the extent to which the Balfron—rescued from near dereliction—has been reborn as a creative hub.

That's the upbeat gloss on the situation, at least. The truth is rather more complicated: Like much British social housing, the Balfron was indeed long neglected. Still, as this thorough eyewitness piece details, long-term residents say they've been flushed out against their will and hindered at every turn in their attempts to stay. New residents, meanwhile, are just passing through. The tower's property guardians (short-term, contract-based residents with fewer rights than normal tenants) can be evicted with just 24 hours' notice, and while some Balfron artists have been there for up to six years, most are on short-term agreements. When these expire and the full-scale refurbishment begins, the vacated flats will be rented or sold to a new breed of tenant who can afford far higher prices. That upscale tenants would flock to a Brutalist housing project may sound improbable, but bear in mind that London's Barbican Estate, in similar style (though built with wealthier residents in mind), is already hugely sought after.