What makes a building fashionable? The vocabulary of couture is not inappropriate to a discussion about architecture. Both media flirt simultaneously with the artistic and the practical, the quotidian and the exceptional. Buildings are as essential to human society as clothes, and like clothing they can stand apart from or blend into their respective environments. Just as some garments are branded “loud”, a certain school of architecture has been called “brutal”, but these modifiers seem as referential to their objects’ milieu as to anything inherent to the objects themselves. A Hawaiian shirt stands out on a rainy day, as does a brutalist highrise on a street of stucco townhouses. In the urban landscape, context is key; a straightforward principle, perhaps, but deceptively so. For while the object, once finished, remains a constant (so long as it isn’t thrown out), context is ever-changing. Thus when it is well-made, a bit rare, and symbolic of a past era, a jarring object can be redeemed. It comes into fashion’s focus; it gains “vintage” legitimacy and retro cool.
I begin my discussion of Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower (5 Golborne Rd, W10) with some contemporary stylized images. These illustrations, the newest of which comes from the cover of the Portobello Film Festival’s 2007 program (Trellick-as-snake-charmer, top), evidence the building’s iconic status. Trellick Tower (henceforth TT) occupies an enviable position in the world of London architecture. The building boasts simultaneous institutional and popular appreciation. Not only did it earn a Grade II listing (and thus inclusion in most guidebooks) in 1998, it also, like Connery’s Bond, enjoys a sizeable cult following. This was not always the case, and after TT became listed on the twenty-sixth anniversary of its completion, a series of newspaper retrospectives sought to explain its transformation from den of crime to landmark of chic. Whatever changes and improvements occurred in the building, however, I would argue that the TT story is a new take on an old favoriteâ€”the ugly duckling that never got any prettier. Context changes, the object does not. The TT renaissance is inextricably linked to and indeed part of the fluidity of its neighborhoodâ€”the area loosely known as Notting Hill.
When considered abstractly, TT would seem to possess significant inherent advantages. For one thing, bearing in mind its use as a council estate (low-cost public housing), the imposing 31-storey building is anything but drab. At its opening, the towerâ€™s aesthetic appeal may not have been immediately accessible (if at all). Nor may all residents have appreciated its elite dimensions; the faÃ§ades assume Goldfingerâ€™s trademark double-square proportions while the continuous horizontal balconies on the south side create four vertically-stacked Golden Section rectangles (Dunnett and Hiscock 110). The architectâ€™s comparison of the buildingâ€™s brutalist-ly bush-hammered external concrete to the Pyramids of Giza (Elwall 98) may have been a bit overblown, too. Nevertheless, TT has always merited conversation. Residentsâ€™ reactions have ranged from â€œIt looks awful from the outsideâ€? to â€œI have never wanted to leaveâ€? (Bar-Hillel). Ultimately, the buildingâ€™s appearance sparks interest and debate, which makes it inherently undepressing.
TTâ€™s more practical features also give it credit. The dwellings (217 total), which range from one-bedroom flats to three-storey houses, are â€œgenerously plannedâ€? and mostly exceed the state-minimum surface area (Elwall 99). The full-width balconies that stripe the faÃ§ade are spacious and oriented for maximum sunlight exposure. Inside, Goldfinger paid as close attention to detail as at his own home on 2 Willow Road. We see the same space-saving sliding doors, timber-framed windows, cedar cladding on the balconiesâ€”not to mention the London panoramas this monolith overlooks.
The detached service tower that houses the lifts and maintenance services, meanwhile, is in my opinion a pragmatic and aesthetic masterpiece. Ostensibly intended to counteract the noise of the service machinery, the brick tower connects to the concrete body through precast concrete bridges that are lined with sound-absorbing neoprene pads. Metaphorically, this structural composition reminds me of Lloyds of London (for which TT may have been an inspiration). The liminal transport space is dramatically divorced from the permanent functioning space. Because TT is residential, however, the relationship is perhaps the reverse of Lloydâ€™s. Here the service tower represents the workaday and the apartment bloc life beyond the job. The link bridges are like modern takes on the Venetian Bridge of Sighs. They announce the sad but necessary journey away from home.
As housing projects go, TT would seem like a rather interesting place to live. It is certainly more appealing than New Yorkâ€™s famous Co-op City for example, which is its exact contemporary. The aberration is not regional; British council estates are not typically more unique-looking or carefully designed than American housing projects. As in New York, most postwar London estates â€œwere the work of large contracting firmsâ€¦which had standardised designs, in-house engineers and package deals with local authoritiesâ€? (Moran 56). Goldfinger was an elite architect, and he lived up to his reputation. He intended to build an exceptional structure, and as the other buildings in Cheltenham Estate (the five-block public-housing radius of which TT is the crown) can attest, he succeeded. The surrounding buildings are near-uniform three-to-five story brown- or white-concrete lowrises with dreary blue detailing around the windows and railings. TT deliberately counters this homogeneity, and not just size-wise. The faÃ§ade is oriented south toward the river rather than at the rest of Cheltenham, and small details like the red canopies on balconies immediately counteract the surrounding blue. Considering the drab alternatives, one wonders why area public-housing residents wouldnâ€™t have rushed to this integrated living complex (complete with its nursery school, old peopleâ€™s club, shops, etc.).
Today TT finally does enjoy its deserved and much-belated public admiration. I believe this has as much to do with the buildingâ€™s forty-year history as with the innate qualities just discussed. TT was built at exactly the wrong time; when it was completed in 1972, a widespread popular and political backlash against highrise council housingâ€”much of which was becoming dysfunctional and crime-riddenâ€”had just begun. England was meanwhile entering a period of economic depression that was to last several years and was to see many postwar social welfare programs scaled back. Locally, the early 70s also saw a large influx of poor Moroccan and Iberian immigrants to the North Kensington area, which reduced the neighborhoodâ€™s popularity amongst affluent English locals. A grandiose brutalist landmark was not the most welcome addition to this backdrop, even if it did put an otherwise forgettable housing project like Cheltenham Estates on the map.
Upon completion, TT immediately became an anachronistic building in a hostile environment. Goldfinger must have sensed the direness of the situation, as he decided to spend two months in the building as a full tenant to prove it could be inhabited. The gimmick was nicely theatrical but ultimately ineffective, and for some combination of the reasons outlined above, the Greater London Council, which had commissioned the building in 1966, essentially forsaked it as soon as it was finished. Most Goldfinger enthusiasts and apologists blame the GLCâ€™s spending cuts, of which a concierge and manned security for TT were casualties, for the buildingâ€™s rapid decline. Without proper security, TT soon became a hub of transience and a center of illegality. Horror stories of rape, murder, suicide, prostitution and heroin are part of the â€œTower of Terrorâ€?â€™s folklore (Carroll).
There is, however, a cause-and-effect chain at work here that is more complex than the issue of concierge or no concierge. Only a certain kind of neighborhood could witness the Trellick Tower calamities, no matter what the security was like. In the mid-20th century, Notting Hill had transformed from prewar bourgeois suburb to postwar slum. It was the scene of G.K. Chesterton novels and Roger Mayne photographs. Cheltenham Estate may have been planned public housing, but the renters in the divied-up townhouses nearby were many of them in the same income bracket as their neighbors in the projects. A large Mediterranean immigrant community was moving in to supplement (and often to confront) the more established Caribbean one, leading to decreases in per capita income and increases in racial tension and violence. Actor and Chelsea resident Stefano Theodoli (SY â€™07) recalls how his parents â€œstill freaked out a bit when as a kid Iâ€™d go up past Notting Hill Gate. They remembered it from the 70s and 80s when there were loads of punks and squatters and they just wouldnâ€™t go up there.â€? TT and Cheltenham Estate are in a particularly unfortunate location as they reside just on the other side of the railway tracks from Portobello Road and the more historic part of Notting Hill. Crossing the Golbourne Road bridge that surmounts the rail tracks must have been an ominous reminder of the council estateâ€™s dangerous isolation.
Yet by the 90s both the building and the neighborhood had become much safer and wealth-friendlyâ€”so much so that in 1999 Notting Hill received the ultimate stamp of posh: it was featured in a Julia Roberts movie. Tourists and West Londoners alike flock to the neighborhoodâ€™s varyingly upscale and kitschy (but never downbeat) Portobello Market each Saturday, and many stay to lunch at a gastro-pub in the shadow of Goldfingerâ€™s newly renovated highrise. Itâ€™s even safe to venture inside and take in the colored-glass sheet that dominates the entrance hall, which the concierge-cum-visitorsâ€™-guide will tell you is a conceptual piece that reflects the architectâ€™s seminal work in the 1956 This Is Tomorrow exhibition.
In the case of TT, many of the improvements made to the building in the late 80s, including maintenance renovation and increased security, have been credited to the organizing powers of the new residentsâ€™ association. This summation, romantic as it is, is a bit short-sighted. As Alison Beckett argues in her 2005 Times article, the rejuvination of places like TT is due more to the recent innovation of ex-council real estateâ€”a program initiated in the Thatcher era to essentially privatize public housing by â€œallowing tenants to buy their own homes to get a foot on the asset-owning ladderâ€? (Beckett)â€”than any kind of collective community effort. Likewise, former slums like Notting Hill owe their gentrification to economic growth and upper-middle-class expansion. White people may attend the Notting Hill Carnival (Londonâ€™s raucous and beloved annual West Indian festival), but they arenâ€™t moving to the neighborhood out of a sudden appreciation for Caribbean culture. If anything, the immigrant community is being pushed out.
While TT remains majority council housing, The Independent in its famous â€œSo you want to live inâ€¦â€? section lists TT flats as purchasable and ranging from 170 to 300 thousand pounds. Via the strange (and certainly temporary) loophole of ex-council real estate, TT manages to offer relatively affordable housing with great views in one of Londonâ€™s trendiest, priciest neighborhoods. This is not, however, enough to lend it its star power. What, then, makes TT so appealing to architects and scenesters alike?
Sheer size has something to do with it. Like the iconic Louis Vuitton handbag, an iconic building must stand out boastfully amongst the crowd and make itself recognized. TT dwarfs the Portobello shoppers and the nearby posh white stucco residences; it is a watchful giant that on its own is the West London skyline. Its svelte bulkiness (for TT is actually a quite skinny building from the side) seems to draw many onlookers who have a background in modern architecture. For example Peter Smith, an architect who was on the English Heritage listing team: â€œI always liked it, its mass, its shape, its sculptural powerâ€? (Carroll).
As for the buildingâ€™s cult appeal, I have my own theory. To me, Robert Elwallâ€™s reference to TTâ€™s â€œaggressive mienâ€? (98) is spot-on. TT is a bully of a building, less ugly than simply immodest, and definitely not neighborly. These qualities play well in the arena of contemporary pop culture, so much of which centers on the imagery of hip-hop and the recuperated gangster. TT is in the projects; it is seriously bad-ass and can boast legitimate street cred. The legacy of its dark days, like Jay-Zâ€™s hustling record or Snoop Doggâ€™s prison sentence, only boosts its ghetto credentials and popular draw. Because of the way public housing works in London (each borough must set aside space for council estates), housing projects exist even in such upscale areas as The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea. Thus a council highrise that neighbors the rich kids who â€œgetâ€? inner-city culture becomes a pop icon. TTâ€™s courtyard/playground, significantly cleaned up, looks like a graffiti-gallery caricature and reminds me of the faux-urban â€œskate parkâ€? underneath Queen Elizabeth Hall. To be trendy, you have to get rich people interested; TT is trendy because it communicates in the current pop culture language of aenesthetized ghetto (all imagery and no danger, all talk and no walk).
Trellick Towerâ€™s location in affluent Notting Hill is a very important facet that we must not overlook. The sad truth? If it were in a poor part of town, like its very similar-looking sister building Balfron Tower in Poplar, East London, (i.e. if it really were an inner-city edifice), nobody would care. Trellick Tower is at once the victim and the beneficiary of the pop-culture pendulum. Let us hope for its sake that the trend sticks around.
Bar-Hilell, Mira and Richard Porritt. â€œIconic Tower â€˜Must be Sold.â€™â€? Evening Standard. London: 30 October 2006. p.2
Beckett, Alison. â€œCouncil Chic is on the Up and Up.â€? The Times. London: 7 October 2005.
Carroll, Rory. â€œHow Did This Become the Height of Fashion?â€? The Guardian. London: 11 March 1999. p.22
Dunnett, James and Gavin Stamp. ErnÃ¶ Goldfinger. London: Architectural Association, 1983.
Dunnett, James and Nigel Hiscock. â€œâ€˜To This Measure of Manâ€™: Proportional design in the work of ErnÃ¶ Goldfinger.â€? Twentieth Century Architecture and its Histories. Louise Campbell, ed. Otley, U.K.: Smith Settle Ltd for Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain and Authors, 2000.
Elwall, Robert. ErnÃ¶ Goldfinger. London: Academy Editions, 1996.
Jacques, Adam. â€œSo You Want to Live Inâ€¦Trellick Tower.â€? The Independent. London: 23 April 2003.
Moran, Joe. â€œTowers of Terror.â€? New Statesman. London: 18 July 2005, Vol. 134 Issue 4749, p55-56
Private conversation with Stefano Theodoli-Braschi.