Balfron Tower: the artwash of an icon
– Rab Harling

1. Balfron Tower

It was with great excitement and optimism when in late 2010, at the cusp of attaining my MA in Photography from the London College of Communication, that I wrote a proposal for my next project: Inversion/Reflection: Turning Balfron Tower Inside Out1, a plan to work with the architecture and community of Ernö Goldfinger’s 27-storey brutalist masterpiece Balfron Tower in East London.

I wrote a project proposal to turn the tower inside out using large format transparencies, an optimistic and ambitious aim considering Balfron Tower had been in a state of turbulence since 2007 when Poplar Harca, a housing association formed by management of the housing department in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets to manage its former housing assets, took control of the tower and was in the process of ruthlessly decanting the tenants, many who had lived there for generations, so that the tower could be redeveloped into luxury flats. I submitted a proposal to Bow Arts2, an Arts Council England funded artist studio provider who were renting flats in the tower to artists; “end of life” properties where I was told by Bow Arts Director of Property that “you can do anything you like except knock walls down.” The tower subsequently became host to a gentrification jamboree, “Balfron Season”, a series of events which included an immersive performance of Macbeth, for which artists were evicted from their self-restored flats to clear space and a pastiche of a recreated Balfron Tower flat, hosted by the National Trust and Bow Arts, and described by Olly Wainwright in The Guardian as the “death knell for the legendary Balfron Tower”3.

The first few months in the tower were a strange and isolating experience. It became clear very quickly that Bow Arts had alienated most of the remaining residents in the tower and that there was an active campaign to disrupt and sabotage the work of the live/work scheme artists. A formal ban on film & photography, already in place by the time I arrived in February 2011, was being aggressively enforced by the resident’s committee.

2. No filming and no photography

Despite some minor disruption to one of my project’s ‘A Delicate Sense of Terror”4 which was to be made in the communal areas of the tower, I carried on regardless, aware that my my main project did not breach the ban as it was to be made entirely within people’s homes upon their invitation, fully aware that things were not as Bow Arts had made them seem in their literature, and were not addressing issues we were facing in the building, but who were still happy to send me in to the tower, my rent money and security deposit attained, but with no advance warning of the hostilities or issues that they had already caused in the community. I was later told by artist Ruth Solomons, a faithful pioneer of the Bow Arts style of artist-led gentrification and who had been in the tower since the beginning of the Bow Arts scheme, that they believed that I would just give up and abandon my work, as so many other artists who had come in to the tower to create work had already done, following a lack of co-operation from Bow Arts and the local community.

Bow Arts and Poplar Harca had already commissioned an artist<sup5 to produce their master artwash event, in which the community were encouraged to stand on their balconies as a photograph was taken of the tower, from a distance. Few residents chose to take part and many boycotted the event as a way of protesting their impending evictions. They were not being offered any possibility to express their opinions on the ‘regeneration’ of their homes that would later see a raft of star architects and designers drafted in, whilst Poplar Harca ruthlessly set about dismantling the entire community, using a host of tactics that would send most people with a conscience into a state of shock.

What particularly shocked me was how they used divide and conquer tactics amongst the community, playing people according to the level of resistance they would give and the level of education they had attained and their ability to fight for their rights. This included threatening ‘difficult’ leaseholders with Compulsory Purchase Orders, and in one case reportedly attaining leasehold possession of a flat from a resident with learning difficulties for £14,000.

3. Still from “What Does Balfron Tower Mean to You?” By ©RabHarling

I didn’t hear of a single occasion where tenants were offered anything that would allow them to attain a similar home in the area with their settlement for surrendering their homes, with the exception of the resident’s committee, who had been purposefully disruptive to artists, but who overall remained silent on the subject of the brutality with which Harca were ripping through the community. In hindsight it was with no surprise that Bow Arts intimidated and bullied artists in the tower, making it clear that we were to turn a blind eye to the ruthless attacks on our (new) neighbours. Was our privilege as artists just there to be abused? The promises of gallery flats6 and community funding7 were shallow and empty lies, lies to be reinforced with Terrill’s commissioned portrait of the tower.

Large and frequent rent increases meant that most artists in the tower were forced to give up their studio spaces and take in flatmates, whilst those that complained privately about rent increases on Facebook, received intimidating letters from Bow Arts, or were summoned into their office and confronted for innocently speaking to an interested media. It seemed artists were just here to pay up and shut up about the way our community was being treated, but also to carry on regardless and pretend that what we were witnessing in front of us was not happening. I could never accept that we were simply there for artwash and were to avoid and ignore our new neighbours and the predicaments they were in over their evictions. Sadly, it seems, for many artists who have heralded from greater wealth and privilege than I did, this did not seem to raise many ethical dilemmas for them and they seemed quite happy turn a blind eye to what was going on, if not actively engage in the artwash process and vigorously defend its perpetrators.

Having been made aware reasonably quickly after moving into Balfron Tower that things were not quite as they seemed, I got my head down and started working. I had thrown everything I had into this work, and failure was not an option. I didn’t put notices up in the lift seeking participants, notices that would have been removed immediately anyway. I set about getting to know my neighbours by word of mouth, discovering through degrees of separation how isolated, alone and vulnerable many of the remaining tenants in the building were.

Living on the 2nd floor of a 27-storey building, where the lift was the most sociable place, made meeting my neighbours difficult and progress was initially slow. Many artists simply refused to participate in my work, although many did and this allowed me to shoot a number of flats and build up a small catalogue of work which better allowed me to visually explain to other residents what my plans were and what their role was within them. Slowly doors started to open, particularly when residents started to become more familiar with me around and about the building, and slowly the archive of homes I had photographed grew.

4. Promises made to residents of Balfron Tower by Poplar Harca ahead of the nil value stick transfer

It was really only when doors started opening for me that I really started to hear the horror stories from an embattled community over how they were being treated. Poplar Harca lied to the residents of Balfron Tower over their plans to refurbish their homes, promising new windows, bathrooms and kitchens if they voted to transfer the housing stock to them, free of charge from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. They also told many residents that they could return to their homes, only for them to find out after they had already moved that they could not return.

It was very clear to me from the start that all was not well with the decant of Balfron Tower, and the stories I heard were heart-breaking8, but consistently told of ruthless and nefarious tactics to clear the building so that the homes could be redeveloped by luxury property developer Londonewcastle9, and sold off with zero social housing. It is wrong to believe that residents did not value what they had, that it was wasted on them. It was rare to meet anyone who did not speak passionately about the building and/or their community.

5. As more residents took part, the lightboxes grew

As the number of participants in my project grew, and as more and more people took part in my work, allowing me into their homes to document and record their private interior worlds, the more the hostility increased from Poplar Harca. Despite some early co-operation, they quickly stopped assisting me, perhaps aware that I was photographing the homes of people they were desperately trying to evict10, and were worried that my work could be used to highlight the social cleansing of Balfron Tower. This wasn’t something that was in my original proposal, but was something that I was finding it more and more difficult to ignore.

By the time Bow Arts started forcibly inspecting our flats, widely rumoured to be so that artists who had turned their mostly dilapidated flats into something habitable, could be evicted to make way for Bow Arts Balfron Season of events I had already been invited in to photograph nearly 120 of my neighbour’s homes. Despite receiving no funding for the first two and half years, but dozens of rejection letters, I sustained and supported my work by eating at Occupy LSX and volunteering my time in exchange, just so I could continue to buy film and pay for processing.

Throughout this process Bow Arts seemed to be actively working against me, refusing to provide any support or assistance whatsoever, omitting my name from internal mailing lists that would have assisted me etc. It became clear that they were using artists to artwash11 the tower, abandoning us to be ruthless pawns in the game of social cleansing that they were engaging in; to artwash and change the demographic of the local community, and were offering us very little in return.

6. Still from “What Does Balfron Tower Mean to You?” By ©RabHarling

Artists whose work challenged or threatened this tick-box example of community engagement (aka valuable revenue stream), challenging or criticising the role that artists play for property developers, were targeted and intimidated. By the time I had made numerous formal complaints to Bow Arts, following the complaints procedure outlined on their website, the intimidation had not stopped and demands to inspect my flat were being made daily, under the guise of a gas meter inspection. My requests for a Gas Safe engineer to attend were refused. A subsequent phone call to Marcel Baettig, the CEO of Bow Arts,  advised him that the intimidation by his co-director had not ceased despite earlier promises to me that it would, I raised a question that had been on my mind since a rent increase several months earlier, which advised me for the first time ever, that Bow Arts were taking a significant proportion of my rent and donating it to themselves as a charitable donation, a sum total of over £5,000 over three years; money I could have quite happily used to buy film, and food. I raised this and expressed my dissatisfaction that this money was being forcibly taken from me and donated to themselves.

I received an eviction notice in the post the following day. Revenge eviction was the perfect way for Bow Arts to punish me. Completely legal and required no explanation beyond a simple lie, a lie lapped up by everybody in authority.

7. The view East from Balfron Tower

I remain adamant that I should be able to choose freely with whom I give any charitable donation, and that I would not and do not choose to give it to an organisation that uses artists to artwash social housing on behalf of property developers and fails to provide anything that they claim to offer in their PR regarding community engagement in return. Shortly prior to receiving the eviction notice, I had received a Leverhulme Trust funded artist residency12 for my work in Balfron Tower, hosted by UCL Urban Laboratory (after two and half years of rejected funding applications). Bow Arts had done nothing to assist me with this, other than act as a slum landlord, and attempts to negotiate with them over my impending eviction and their purposeful attempts to sabotage of my work were fruitless.

There was simply no negotiating with them and they aggressively pushed for an eviction on 31st December 2013. Bow Arts had purposefully decided to try and destroy my work and then they employed High Court bailiffs to expedite the process of removing me from my home in the tower (nearly three years before the ultimate decant date of August 2016).  I subsequently spent over three years homeless, desperately trying to keep my residency at UCL together, to make films, host exhibitions and give talks about my work at Universities13, all whilst living in a squat with no power or water.

During this period, I spent as much time as I could desperately trying to highlight what was going on at Bow Arts. Their literature promoted themselves as a community arts organisation, yet I had been made homeless for actually successfully working with my community. Meanwhile, homeless charity CRISIS defended their ongoing partnership with Bow Arts, despite being signatories to the campaign to end revenge evictions.

Why were Bow Arts so aggressive toward me just for questioning why part of my rent was being donated to a charitable cause? Why was a charity promoting community arts trying to use me to help displace a working class community from their homes, so they could be sold off to luxury property developers, all using public funds received from Arts Council England?  It didn’t take a great deal of research to discover that Bow Arts were taking public funds to do something that they were not actually providing, but nobody was listening.

What followed was years of hell. Trying to get anybody to believe what was happening in Balfron Tower; that artists were being used in this way; that I was apparently volunteering to give my landlord nearly £2,000 a year as a donation without even being aware that I was doing so. I reported my complaints to the police, to Arts Council England, to the Charities Commission and to HMRC.

And nothing happened. Nobody wanted to know. Bow Arts had also retained my tenancy deposit claiming I had vandalised the flat, the near-derelict end of life property rented to me as an art studio, which I had used: as an art studio. I was broke and homeless. I tweeted, I shouted and I did whatever I could to raise awareness of what was going on. It was outrageous, a publicly funded charity had evicted me from my home, had sabotaged my work and was now threatening organisations where I was engaged to speak, such as The Royal Geographical Society and Goldsmiths14.

8. Balfron Social Club

It was in late-2014, still incensed by what was happening at Balfron Tower, that I founded Balfron Social Club15, a campaign to try to put pressure on decision makers and expose the privatisation of the tower, and to demand that a minimum of 50% social housing is retained in all regeneration projects. It is unfortunate that in the solidly Labour borough of Tower Hamlets, with Labour councillors, Labour MP’s and a Labour mayor that they were steamrollering ahead with the social cleansing of large swathes of the borough, pioneering regeneration policies designed to disrupt and displace working class communities, whilst they profit from the regeneration of their homes.

9. Robin Hood Gardens, Tower Hamlets

The most notable attacks on communities in the Eastern side of Tower Hamlets being the anticipated demolition of the Smithson’s brutalist masterpiece Robin Hood Gardens, as well as the regeneration of Balfron Tower which will contain no social or affordable housing whatsoever. This is not to mention dozens of other estates, all in the process of being ‘regenerated’ to dismantle the social housing element, instead favouring private sale and part-ownership models. Despite a successful campaign to upgrade the listing of Balfron Tower to a Grade II* status by David Roberts of UCL and architect James Dunnett, the plans16 for the redevelopment of the tower were announced to great surprise.

10. Balfron Tower’s fenestration: before & after

The recommendations in Historic England’s heritage listing had been almost completely ignored and plans are afoot for a Goldfinger theme park, visually aimed at hipsters and bankers, but even more critically aimed at investors. Figures released recently for one of Poplar Harca’s preferred developers Telford Homes show that 93% of their sales were to investors, with only 7% to owner occupiers. The proposals were to dramatically modify both the interior and exterior of the building. Despite it’s recent heritage listing upgrade, the proposed plans were approved by Historic England and were accepted unanimously by the planning committee for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets on 16th December 2015.

11. Mayor Biggs interrupts proceedings during the vote to approve planning permission for Balfron Tower

But why did Cllr Sharia Khatun, subsequently promoted to Deputy Mayor of Tower Hamlets, fail to disclose her current and former interests in Poplar Harca, something she had declared on previous occasions and something that would have made her ineligible to vote? Why did Mayor John Biggs interrupt the committee mid-session and then take a seat directly in front of them and glare at them whilst they voted? Claims that the majority of the timber-framed windows in Balfron Tower’s iconic elevation were dilapidated and beyond repair were also not true, as is witnessed in my high-resolution photographs. Plans have been approved17 to replace this beautiful fenestration with aluminium frames and sheet glass, fundamentally changing the visual appearance of the tower.

12. Balfron Social Clubs’ petition

A petition18,19 organised by Balfron Social Club, local activist groups and a Balfron Tower leaseholder objecting to the privatisation of the tower had gained over 3000 signatures and had forced the planning meeting to be conducted in a public session, but was otherwise completely ignored. The decision seemed to have already been made and our protestations on both architectural and social grounds fell on deaf ears.

13. Lord Cashman of Limehouse debates Poplar Harca and Balfron Tower in the House of Lords. Click here for the video.

Debating the social cleansing of Balfron Tower in the House of Lords on 5th November 201520, Lord Cashman of Limehouse, speaking in a debate about regeneration legacies following the London Olympics, declared “there has been incredibly poor communication with, and an incredibly poor attitude towards, tenants and leaseholders from the current landlord Poplar HARCA over the decant and refurbishment, with changing plans, the insidious decanting of tenants, years of delay and an eventual declaration that Balfron Tower would be 100% privatised”.

Lord Cashman also stated that he did not consider our demands for 50% social housing as too vigorous. I remain committed to exposing the swindle that is the removal of Balfron Tower from public ownership into the hands of investors and will continue to fight to ensure that those involved in the process are exposed. The use of artists in this role must also be challenged, especially when artists are being forced, just by association with Bow Arts to fund their involvement in artwash on behalf of housing associations turned property developers, like Poplar Harca in East London and most recently Peabody in Thamesmead.

In June 2016 I made a formal complaint to the Fundraising Regulator21, the independent regulator of charitable fundraising, to complain about charitable donations taken from me by Bow Arts. Taking ten months to reach a decision, the regulator has ruled that the statement in Bow Arts tenancy application pack that “all successful applicants will have to be committed to supporting the arts, arts events and arts education in the local area” was adequate notice that I was willingly and knowingly making them a charitable donation.

The regulator has made a decision that without my knowledge Bow Arts can take £5k from me and use it as they see fit, even though I remain fundamentally opposed to their use of artwash on behalf of property developers. All choice has been taken out of my hands. The regulator has chosen to ignore a witness who has spoken out22, on the record, to Christy Romer, a journalist for Arts Professional investigating corruption, that confirms that Bow Arts in no way advised us that we would be making a charitable donation to them during our initial visit to the tower as they have claimed, and has been accepted by the regulator.

Allegations by another former Balfron Tower live/work resident that match my own experience of bullying and intimidation have also not been investigated. According to the regulator, if they do not complain to them, then it simply did not happen. The regulator seems to take no responsibility to actually investigate nor follow-up allegations. Despite being made aware of others speaking out, on the record, the Fundraising Regulator has shown no interest. It has also failed to address allegations and evidence that Bow Arts lied to tenants claiming changes in government legislation to absolve them retrospectively of fours years of Gift Aid donations taken without permission or authority.

14. Don’t forget to sign the Gift Aid form

Regardless of how the regulator has chosen to rule, including finding Bow Arts in breach of Section 5.2(h) of the Fundraising Standards Code, I remain adamant that I was never advised of any charitable donations and that I fundamentally do not nor have I ever approved of making donations which are in any way associated with an artwash agenda. I believe that I should have the right to choose where and how I give money to charity or charitable causes. The regulator has chosen to side with Bow Arts on the basis of probability, despite the availability of witnesses and evidence which dispute their conclusions.

Following this ruling, artwash is now seemingly funded and supported by everybody that has a studio space with Bow Arts. You do not have a choice anymore. Art no longer equals freedom of expression, but forced oppression, a violent assault on working class communities by a class of educated and privileged people who choose, in the most part, to turn a blind eye to what is going on, at least until it directly affects them. I chose to stand up and protest the forced use of artists in this way, and the consequences I suffered were barely imaginable. Bullying and intimidation by some arts administrators has left all of us in the arts worse off, and a climate of fear has ensured that few people attempt to challenge the worst offenders.

Organisations who abuse and exploit artists, that force artists to contribute to processes of artwash on behalf of property developers; that use artists to artwash the social cleansing of social housing and artists that turn a blind-eye to their own involvement need to be exposed. As a founding member of Artists Against Social Cleansing23, we advise on best practice for arts organisations, and encourage artists to come forward to expose the worst offenders. It is time that funding models serve communities and artists, and not just the needs of arts organisations and their PR machines.

The East End is ripe pickings for developers as London expands eastwards, and the arrival of organisations such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the London College of Fashion and the Wellcome Trust24 in Poplar would be a lot more welcome if they weren’t working in partnership with the developer that is brutally dismantling our social housing, and if they were offering something genuine to the local community, rather than documenting, displacing and replacing it.

It is not acceptable to force artists upon communities that were doing just fine before an Arts Council funded artist turns up to collect community memories on behalf of whichever property developer is currently ‘regenerating’ their home. Funding bodies such as Arts Council England need to address the corruption at some of their National Portfolio Organisations. Property developer led agendas do not serve artists and they do not serve communities. They are turning communities against artists, exposing us for exactly what we have become; the shock troops of gentrification.

1. A selection from personal photographic projects from Balfron Tower can found on my website
2. Bow Arts website
3. Wayne Hemingway’s Pop-up Plan Sounds the Death Knell for Balfron Tower. Olly Wainwright, The Guardian. 26th September 2014 (accessed 24th September 2017)
4. A Delicate Sense of Terror by Rab Harling
5. Simon Terril was commissioned by Bow Arts to produce “The Balfron Project” in 2010 (accessed 24th September 2017)
6. The “Heritage Flat” was promoted by Bow Arts in their literature until the end of the Bow Arts scheme in Balfron Tower, despite being rented out to journalist Katharine Hibbert in 2010. Hibbert subsequently founded anti-squatting company Dot Dot Dot in collaboration with Poplar Harca and the Bromley By Bow Centre (accessed 24th September 2017)
7. Requests for project funding were referred to the Isle of Dogs Community Foundation. Despite promises from Bow Arts that part of our rent was being made available to artists for community projects, no funds ever seemed to be available
8. In order to share some of the stories I heard from residents, in 2015 I made the short film “What Does Balfron Tower Mean to You?” which lets former residents tell their own stories in their own words (accessed 24th September 2017)
9. Balfron Tower on the Londonewcastle website
10. How the Balfron Tenants Were Decanted and Lost Their Homes. Benjamin Mortimer, East End Review. 24th March 2015 (accessed 24th September 2017)
11. The Pernicious Realities of Artwashing. Feargus O’Sullivan, Citylab. June 24th 2014 (accessed 24th September 2017)
12. UCL Urban Laboratory Leverhulme artist-in residence, 2013-2014. University College London. 16th July 2013 (accessed 24th September 2017)
13. A detailed list of academic and artistic engagements can be found online
14. Bow Arts contacted Goldsmiths ahead of The Work of Art in the Age of Urban Cannibalism, hosted by Albert Duman at the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths University of London, and threatened legal action in an unsuccessful attempt to have me removed from the event. 18th March 2015 (accessed 24th September 2017)
15. A selection of guest posts as well as personal writings can be found on the Balfron Social Club blog and on Twitter: @BalfronSocial
16. Planning permission application documents for Balfron Tower. 25th November 2015 (accessed 24th September 2017)
17. Full planning application for Balfron Tower. November 2015 & various dates (accessed 24th September 2017)
18. Stop Privatisation and Social Cleansing of Balfron Tower, a petition organised by Balfron Social Club, Balfron Tower leaseholder Dr Vanessa Crawford, Action East End and Tower Hamlets Renters (accessed 24th September 2017)
19. Balfron Residents: ‘privatising the tower will segregate the community’. Dr Vanessa Crawford, Architects Journal. 3rd November 2015 (accessed 24th September 2017)
20. Labour peer Lord Cashman discusses Poplar Harca and the social cleansing of Balfron Tower in the House of Lords. 5th November 2015 (accessed 24th September 2017)
21. Fundraising Regulator website
22. Artists Squares Up to Regulator Over “Manifestly Unreasonable Fundraising Decision. Christy Romer, Arts Professional. 28th June 2017 (accessed 24th September 2017)
23. Artists Against Social Cleansing
24. These organisations have recently engaged in community outreach work in the Poplar area, or been associated in property deals with Poplar Harca. The V&A has set up the Lansbury Micro Museum, the Wellcome Trust have commissioned artist Alex Julyan to create Poplar Pavilion and the London College of Fashion plans to redevelop a significant number of garages on Teviot Estate to create a “fashion hub”

Balfron Tower: The Artwash of an Icon was commissioned for Building the Revolution, a symposium at Cardiff University for Diffusion International Photography Festival, 5th May 2017

Rab Harling, born England 1972, is a London-based contemporary artist and film maker who specialises in experimental photography and sculptural installations. His practice investigates the social occupation of space, focusing on how people construct a sense of place, and how the design of built environments reflect and actively produce particular social configurations and political ideologies. His installations deconstruct and reassemble pre-conceived notions and understandings about space and time. Rab’s work intersects with a long-term debate in urban culture and policy regarding the relationships between environment and behaviour, particularly in the context of the current housing crisis in the United Kingdom. His practice-based research has a particular focus on the effects of gentrification on the vulnerable, and in particular on the socially excluded and insecurely housed.



Volume 1, no. 3 Autumn 2017