Unveiling Poplar’s architectural renaissance

The ultimate architectural adventure reveals an unseen side of Poplar.

With the Canary Wharf skyscrapers glistening in the morning sun, finding the path to the quieter and less bustling neighbourhood of Poplar appears challenging. After momentarily feeling lost, I am greeted by Austin McGrath, MA Architecture student guiding all of the tour participants through the five locations. McGrath illuminates the renaissance of Britain in the aftermath of World War II.

Eagerly awaiting the arrival of all tour collaborators, we find ourselves on the brink of immersing in Poplar’s history. This historical tapestry is woven with the maritime industry, the metamorphosis into an industrial epicentre, and the profound impact of wartime upheaval. A narrative teeming with stories of architectural evolution, innovation, and transformation.

From the Festival of Britain’s ‘Living Architecture’ at St. Mary’s & St. Joseph’s Catholic Church to the iconic Balfron Tower and the controversial history of Robin Hood Gardens. From the innovative Blackwall Tunnel Ventilation Shaft to the postmodern rebellion embodied by the Temple of Storms. Let’s embark on this architectural adventure and uncover the hidden gems of Poplar.

St Mary’s & St Joseph’s Catholic Church. Image courtesy of Loreta Tale.

St Mary’s & St Joseph’s Catholic Church

After the war, the United Kingdom was in chaos. People desperately needed something to rally for. In 1951 labour cabinet member Herbert Morrison initiated a nationwide celebration of everything British, dubbed the Festival of Britain. While referencing the centennial of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the festival focused solely on Britain’s achievements and its promising future.

Living Architecture was a part of the festival dedicated to demonstrating how Britain wanted to live through the means of architecture. Introducing the British public to modernism for the first time.

The way forward was marked by the Abercrombie plan. An urban planning document developed by town planner Patrick Abercrombie. It included famous maps of how to rebuild London from its post-war wreck. Abercrombie’s approach was focused on repairing or replacing the broken with modern ideas.

St Mary’s & St Joseph’s Catholic Church. Image courtesy of Loreta Tale.

Mid-century modernism got rid of all the classical things people couldn’t afford anymore as a consequence of the war. The biggest innovation of the time was the introduction of concrete. This suddenly enabled architects to create shapes that they couldn’t before.

The Church of St Mary and St Joseph was built from 1951 to 1954 as part of Living Architecture. It replaced an earlier church of the 1850s made by William Wardell which was destroyed in World War II. The new church was built using traditional London brick, now common in the Poplar area as the soil consists of mostly clay.

Balfron Tower. Image courtesy of Loreta Tale.

Balfron Tower

Stretching 84 metres up in the sky, The Balfron Tower is a Brutalist residential building. Designed by modernist architect Ernő Goldfinger from 1965 to 1967.

The left tower features all of the utilities, while the right side of the building is reserved for living spaces. Several bridges connect them both. The Balfron was Goldfinger’s experimental version before being funded for the Trellick (the Balfron’s bigger brother built in North Kensington in 1972).

In the post-war era, architects and urban planners began to embrace Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s principles of functional design, the use of concrete, and the idea of creating efficient, high-density housing.

While Le Corbusier’s specific designs may not have been replicated in London, his ideas and the modernist movement had a substantial impact on the development of post-war architecture. Including the Cities in the Sky projects in London.

Balfron Tower. Image courtesy of Loreta Tale.

Elevators are becoming more common and affordable while concrete becomes the key component in innovative designs. Architects started to explore new types of buildings and living situations to be made. For example, the walkways in Balfron were designed so that two pushchairs could get past one another. This creates lots of areas and opportunities for interaction. Yet, the intricate spaces were hard to police and soon resulted in an increased crime rate.

To test the new building, Goldfinger himself moved into flat 130 on the 25th floor for two months. He threw champagne parties for other residents hoping to hear their honest thoughts about the Balfron before developing the design for the Trellick.

Yet, Goldfinger was rumoured not to have been a very nice person. He was neighbours with Bond writer, Ian Fleming who named the villain in James Bond after the architect. After being sued Fleming claimed that the name choice was a pure coincidence.

Balfron Tower. Image courtesy of Loreta Tale.

The Balfron was listed in 1996. This meant that any renovations made to the apartments would involve a complicated process of going through special government loopholes. Therefore, the flats aren’t that comfortable to live in. Still, they have become coveted real estate for the fans of their unique design and the work of Goldfinger.

The Balfron has made many appearances in pop culture. Featuring in music videos of This Is Music by The Verve, Morning Glory by Oasis, Mortalhas by ProfJam, Ready to Go by Republica, and Money Talks by Rubella Ballet. As well as films such as For Queen and Country (1988), Shopping (1994), and Blitz (2011) and television programmes like HustleThe Fixer, and Whitechapel.

Robin Hood Gardens. Image courtesy of Loreta Tale.

Robin Hood Gardens

The Robin Hood Gardens, designed by architects Alison and Peter Smithson, is a residential estate completed in 1974. Dating back to the same era as the Balfron, the estate controversially didn’t get listed and is now midway through demolition.

The reason for its obliteration is straightforward. The buildings are simply not good enough for comfortable living. Many architectural designs from this era reveal that good designs were not a priority for the architects. It was about them being masters of telling others how to live best.

The communal play areas in Robin Hood Gardens featured playing equipment that was made out of concrete. Emphasising that its design didn’t focus on utility but rather aesthetics.

While architects employ their full creativity when working on private buildings, the only significant projects in post-war Britain were funded by the government. As a result, many of the public housing projects from this era have a unique and intricate design. The designs weren’t considered controversial at the time because architects were treated as the masters of living.

Before the demolition works began in 2017, the V&A acquired a part of the estate and cut out a large chunk of the building which was later exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2018. The exhibition aimed to explore the legacy of the estate and pose questions about how social housing should look in the future.

Blackwall Tunnel ventilation shaft. Image courtesy of Loreta Tale.

Blackwall Tunnel Ventilation Shaft

In East London, bridge construction was never in favour because of the intense boat traffic. Otherwise, the bridges would have to be very tall or be able to open and close.

Opened in 1897, Blackwall Tunnel is a significant stretch of road running under the Thames connecting Tower Hamlets with the Royal Borough of Greenwich. What makes it a true architectural gem is the two giant ventilation shafts located on each side of the river.

If they were to be designed today, the shafts would most likely look like simple metal boxes. However, architect Terry Farrell, working for the London County Council Architects Department, decided to over-design the modest constructions. He created beautiful architecture that didn’t really have any reason to be that way.

Completed in 1967, the vents became so iconic that their listing in 2000 ensured that during the construction of the O2 arena, a special hole was made in the building to leave enough space for the shaft.

Temple of Storms. Image courtesy of Loreta Tale.

Temple of Storms

By the 1990s, everyone in Britain had grown tired of post-war housing and modernism. For the previous 30 years, people had been living according to the rules imposed by the domestic structures architects had put in place.

Architecture leading up to the modernist era had been all about referencing what was before. When modernism arrived, architects decided not to reference anything anymore – everything had to adhere to modern living standards. The past was treated as a bygone era and not as a source of inspiration.

Architects today struck a balance between learning from the past and applying futuristic ideas to their designs. Amid this transition exists an intriguing in-between phase which lasted for around five years. It was the ultimate rebellion against modernism in the most aggressive yet silliest way possible.

Dubbed the Temple of Storms by its architect John Outram, the extravagant water pumping station in the Isle of Dogs was built between 1986 and 1988. An unapologetic celebration of infrastructure with witty classical references. The decorative eaves and pediment covered in corrugated cladding and the two colossal Corinthian columns turn the modest structure into a true temple of the modern age. The giant eye in the middle serves the function of an extraction fan.

What makes this building a true marker of its time is its inherent satire and ludicrousness. Outram treated this unassuming pumping station as the most important building ever. Yet, this is also what caused the demise of the trend. The witticism was only amusing for those with considerable knowledge of architecture.

Tour participants Aaron Oddoye and Oliwia Walzcak. Image courtesy of Loreta Tale.

As the two-hour journey drew to a close, the heavens opened and heavy rain pelted down. Nodding to the fact that it was time to rush back to the DLR and return to our usual ends of London.

Still, Britain Reborn allowed us to explore a corner of London that, under different circumstances, might have remained undiscovered. The novelty of the experience truly let the architectural evolution and innovation of post-World War II Britain come to life before my eyes.

The day brimmed with architectural wonders and shared moments reminded me of the thrill of exploration. With a knowledgeable guide at your disposal, there’s every reason to stroll through Poplar. It may ignite a spark within you to wander around and take a closer look at your neighbourhood.

Tour map. Illustration courtesy of Aaron Oddoye and graphic design courtesy of Orna Costello.

Team credits

Tour guide: Austin McGrath / austinmcgrath.com

Illustration: Aaron Oddoye

Graphic design: Orna Costello

Photography: Loreta Tale / loretatale.com

Organisation and words: Una Lote Andzane

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