As you follow the Westway into London on your left you can’t miss Trellick Tower. At thirty-one storeys, this elegant and imposing North Kensington tower block was for a time one of the tallest social housing projects in Europe. The distinctive silhouette, with its separate lift and services tower joined to the main block by walkways, has turned the building into a local landmark and a cultural icon. It regularly features in television advertisements, pop videos, on book covers and even t-shirts. But this is much more than tower block as giant sculpture. Its massive wall of bush-hammered concrete is not beautiful; some people hate it; but to me it is sublime.
Hungarian-born emigré Ernö Goldfinger, its architect, had lived for several months in Trellick’s predecessor, the slightly smaller Balfron Tower in East London, and learnt from his experience. He did everything he could to improve the quality of life for ‘his tenants’ as he liked to call them. This building should be judged from the inside. Many of the flats have windows on two and some on three sides, the balconies are large with cedar-clad walls, windows swivel into the room to allow for easy and safe cleaning, and there is even marble and a coloured glass window in the entrance hall. Standing on Trellick’s rooftop you realise how slim the ‘footprint’ of the building is: and that is part of the point of building high. Not only do you get spectacular views over London and stunning sunsets, but it also frees up the ground for parkland: in this case Meanwhile Gardens, next to the canal at the base of the building. Renowned in the 1970s and 80s as ‘the tower of terror’, notorious for violence, drug-dealing and burglary, since introducing a concierge system and video surveillance, Trellick has become a highly- desirable place to live: when right-to-buy tenants sell off their flats they can fetch £350,000 or more.
Too many tower blocks hastily built in the 60s and 70s were ill-conceived and poorly-executed. The biggest blunder, in stark contrast to Trellick Tower, was Ronan Point in Canning Town, a 23-storey block built by Taylor Woodrow-Anglian from prefabricated concrete units that slotted together. Poor design meant that huge stresses were placed on relatively weak sections of the block. A small jolt could topple the entire building. And that is what happened when Ivy Lodge got up to make a pot of tea at 5.30 am on 16th May 1968: she accidentally triggered a small gas explosion that destroyed most of the block, killing five people in the process. That was the end of this self-destructive building, but it also turned public opinion away from building high as an alternative to creating suburban sprawl. We are living with the consequences.
[A version of this article was originally published in The Guardian newspaper. ]