The Balfron Tower in the Brownfield Estate, Poplar, East London.
Last week an artist was supposed to hurl a piano off the 26th floor of the Balfron Tower in Poplar, East London. According to Turner Prize nominee Catherine Yass, the piece – "Piano Falling" – would hopefully offer "real regeneration to an area which has been ignored until it is seen as valuable real estate". The performance was intended as a "swan song", she continued, "to the lost socialist ideals of modernist housing that Ernö Goldfinger, amongst others, brought to Tower Hamlets".
Unfortunately for Catherine, conceptual art fans and people who like seeing pianos destroyed in imaginative ways, her swan song was silenced by fierce criticism and a petition of 254 signatures from local residents. Jean Brown, one of those residents, told the East London Advertiser that Poplar HARAC – the housing association that owns the property – "employs anti-social behaviour officers, and if chucking a piano off the Balfron Tower isn’t anti-social behaviour, I don’t know what is".
The building – and its West London sister block Trellick Tower, which you'll recognise from the cover of every UK hip-hop mixtape on sale in Ladbroke Grove – was designed by Ernő Goldfinger in 1963 and made a Grade II listed building in 1996. It’s a mecca for fans of brutalist architecture and is even available for tours during the Open House Weekend, where lifestyle supplement enthusiasts queue up for hours to wander around some of the country’s most iconic buildings. Or, in this case, traipse up the stairs and have a peek into somebody's flat.
However, Balfron Tower is no longer the utopian housing venture it once was. The building is now set to be sold-off and turned into luxury flats, with most of the residents already decanted into nearby properties.
But despite the fact its population has decreased, the building is still in the middle of a large estate, and it was these residents who objected to the art piece. Andrea Baker, Director of Housing at Poplar HARCA, said: "We've listened to [the residents'] concerns, and, as a result, the project will not be going ahead."
One local resident, Ken Coleman, who lives just across the street and sits on the committee of the estate, explained why he voted against "Piano Falling".
“It’s a fucking stupid idea," he said. "I’d sooner see the artist dropped off there and see what damage they’d do, because a piano would do more. I think it was aimed at somebody who thought it would be art. From what I heard, it was [the artist’s] dream to drop a piano off Balfron Tower."
Another resident, Muzammil Ali, was understandably alarmed at the thought of a piano being dropped from the top of the tower.
“What if a child is walking underneath? It could be anyone – they’d have no chance to survive," he said. "A piano crushing somebody – have you thought about that?”
Yass – and Poplar HARCA, which approved the project – presumably gave that a lot of thought; it's unlikely they would have thrown a half-ton block of wood and metal off a tower block without properly assessing the dangers. But Muzammil raised a good point: that – in the artist's mind, at least – the estate seems to have been viewed as merely a creative space, not a home.
In a similar stunt last year, another Turner Prize nominee – Mike Nelson – planned to convert an empty area of Elephant and Castle's partly-demolished Heygate Estate into a pyramid sculpture. That's until ex-residents complained that turning the buildings they were evicted from into an art piece was "insensitive", forcing Southwark Council to shut the project down.
The Red Road towers in Glasgow (Photo via)
Earlier this year VICE also reported on the planned demolition of Glasgow's Red Road housing estate during the opening sequence of this month's Commonwealth Games. If it had gone ahead, the writer Dan Hancox argued, it would have essentially been live action gentrification for entertainment purposes.
The televised demolition was eventually called off. However, it's another reminder that there are some who don't seem able to appreciate that flippantly turning a building that's been somebody's home – potentially for their entire lives – into an art project after they've been evicted from it might not always be such a great idea.
As Balfron Tower is being emptied of its former residents, Bow Arts Trust have harvested the empty flats and made them available for cheap studio and live-in spaces for artists. Hilary McCool – an artist who's been living in Balfron Tower for a couple of months as part of the Trust's scheme – welcomed Yass’s piano piece.
“I love the idea of the piano off the roof. It’s just a spectacular thing – especially to see something like that moving through the air," she said. "The noise that it would make, the effect that it has whenever it hits the ground – it would just be absolutely incredible. I’m quite short-sighted and I think about things in a different way. I think about things texturally and in auditory terms, so I like it.”
Although "Piano Falling" was shut down, another artistic piece – an immersive performance of Macbeth – is currently underway in the building. Daniel Hernandez, an artist who produces immersive theatre himself, was queuing up to see the play when I asked him what he thought of artists using council housing as a backdrop for their own work.
“I’m all for it – I think it’s great, I think it should happen more," he said. "You should use any space to be creative.”
When I asked what he thought of the residents' grievances towards Yass's piece, he said: "It seems like a fair enough objection, to that specific act. As amazing as it might be – I mean, they live here. As much as I'd like to see someone throw a piano off a building, someone could have a heart attack.”
Remi Smith, a resident of another Bow Arts Trust studio space in Balfron Tower, thought the building wasn't the best setting for "Piano Falling".
“I think that, overall, what they’re trying to do here over the next couple of months is really great – trying to bring art into the community. But I don’t think they’re really taking into account how much it affects everybody living here," he said. "It’s quite a big feat trying to throw something off a building, and with people living metres away from it I don’t think it’s the right place to be doing something like this.
"I think the artists are quite attached to this building, but what [the Bow Arts Trust project] should really be doing is providing value for the community, and it’s not any more; it’s about making money and showing off a big piece of concrete.”
The Balfron Tower
James McWilliams – who was moved from Balfron Tower to another nearby block of flats, after he'd lived there for 16 years – said: “I think it’s a stupid idea. Throwing a grand piano off Balfron Tower... it's 24-storeys high! It’s dangerous. I don’t know what it’s for – some sort of company want to attract attention, or something or other."
All this isn't to say that art should be limited to a certain venue, or that any artistic endeavour automatically dispels community engagement. But I find it hard to see how the local community in either Poplar or Elephant and Castle would have benefitted from Yass or Nelson going ahead with their respective pieces. The artists would have received a brief flurry of media attention and maybe had an easier time getting grants in the future, but it's unlikely any of that would have trickled its way down to residents.
And artists and creative directors both fetishising council estates and overlooking the ramifications of the works they stage in them clearly isn't a positive thing. Imagine being evicted from the home where you'd raised a family, only for some St Martins graduate to come along, blow holes in all the walls and stuff them with origami Beanie Babies – I can't imagine you'd be too happy about it.
Stage your art project wherever you want, but be sensitive and considerate of what it is you're doing and where you're doing it. And another top tip: it's probably best to avoid telling people that throwing a piano off a roof is going to "regenerate" an area, because it's very unlikely they'll believe you.
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