The idea of making a model of Balfron Tower out of cake has been something I’ve joked about with various friends ever since I moved into the Grade II listed brutalist tower block in London’s East End more than three years ago. I’m not really sure why the idea appealed – as a building, it’s the opposite of cute, with all its raw concrete and hard edges. And unlike, for instance, the Millennium Dome, it’s not at all cake shaped. I’m sure that Erno Goldfinger, the apparently fairly humourless architect who designed it, would be not be amused. Architect Sam Jacobs has written an excellent essay on the contradiction involved in chinzy renderings of modernist icons. But for me there’s definitely something appealing about a twee appropriation of such an uncompromising building. And it seemed difficult enough to be interesting. And also – who wouldn’t want a model of their home made out of cake?
Anyway, after talking about it for years, London Open House Weekend seemed as good a moment as any to give it a go. Gingerbread seemed likely to be the best material – I couldn’t think of any other kind of cake which would have the structural integrity for Balfron’s tall, narrow shape – especially of the separate tower which contains the lift and the stairs.
Amy, my flatmate, and I followed Mary Berry’s recipe for making a gingerbread house. The dough seemed very crumbly once it was made, and we had serious doubts about whether it would be stiff enough, once cooked, to stand upright. But we rolled it out into thin sheets, and used greaseproof paper templates to cut it into rectangles that would fit together to make a 1:190 scale model of the tower – we got the dimensions from an elevation of the tower drawn by architects involved in its planned refurbishment.
The hardest part was transferring the cut-out shapes from the rolling mat onto the baking tray, but Amy found that if you rolled it onto grease-proof paper you could lift it straight on.
We should have trusted Mary Berry – once baked, the rectangles of gingerbread were quite rigid, though still quite brittle.
Using super-sticky icing from the recipe, we managed to assemble the main block of the building and the separate lift tower, and to get them to stand upright on a bed of icing.
And then we put in the bridges which cross from the lift tower to the main building every three floors. This was the hardest part – the bridges we’d cut out varied in dimensions very slightly, so weren’t an exact fit between the two towers – despite wedging them in with quite a lot of icing, we couldn’t get them exactly straight.
I’m sure there would have been a better way to make the bridges – perhaps by carving notches into the towers so that they could slot in, or by using cocktail sticks to anchor them, as Mary Berry recommends. Also, I’m sure we could have rendered the windows and balconies using cake decorations, if we’d put our minds to it. But overall, I think as gingerbread tower blocks go, we did alright.