21-07-2022

Goldfinger's Trellick Tower

Trellick Tower was Ernő Goldfinger’s defining monument to Brutalism, built when the support for the harsh concrete structures was dwindling. It would be Goldfinger’s final major project and most recognisable work, the silhouette of which has appeared in films and been referred to in literature for the past 50 years.

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During the 1960s and 1970s, many housing projects in London consisted of high-rise structures, built according to the rigidity, scale and expression of Brutalist architecture. These structures embraced theories of modern urban planning articulated by Le Corbusier, replacing outdated social housing throughout the city. At 98 metres tall, with 31 floors and 217 dwellings, Trellick Tower expanded upon Goldfinger’s work in East London. Balfron Tower is similar in appearance. Both share a thin profile with an adjoined access tower. As with other examples of his work, the blocks sought to provide social accommodation through modern design principles. These principles remained, in part, theoretical, as for decades issues caused by mismanagement allowed the building to become a nest for wrongdoing.

Encased in rough concrete, Goldfinger’s Brutalist forms are social buildings that seek to solve human problems. Considered within their designs are spaces within which people can thrive. Goldfinger, though known to have been a humourless man with a volatile temper, was a thoughtful architect and lifelong Marxist. His influence stemmed from Corbusier’s imaginings, for whom Auguste Perret was the greatest influence. Perret was Corbusier’s mentor and a master of designing reinforced concrete structures. Perret’s book, ‘Vers une Architecture’, was a formative piece of literature for the aspiring Goldfinger.

Moving to England in the 1930s, the Hungarian-born architect spent the remainder of his life in London. His buildings are found to the east and west of the city, as well as bridging south of the Thames. From Trellick Tower in Kensal Town to Alexander Fleming House (Metro Central Heights) at the border of Walworth and Elephant and Castle, the architect was tasked by the British Government to rebuild homes destroyed during the Second World War. High-rise buildings were seen to be the solution to solving the housing crisis and thus, London’s skyline, from which tower blocks protrude at regular intervals, is encrusted with Goldfinger’s concrete designs.

“The whole object of building high is to free the ground for children and grown-ups to enjoy Mother Earth and not to cover every inch with bricks and mortar”
Erno Goldfinger stated in a letter to The Guardian regarding the design of Trellick Tower.

Goldfinger personified the final chapter of utopian modernism, a style of building that was loathed by large swathes of the general public for its often experimental appearance and further loathed by right-wing newspapers and government for its socialist ideals. Social issues that arose within these developments, in the case of Trellick, were the result of poor management and technical issues that were not accounted for in the planning process. Neglect and serious incidents of crime encouraged a negative perception in newspapers, where in the 1970s, they spoke of Trellick as a dark, looming concrete behemoth. Colloquially referred to as the ‘Tower of Terror’, a long association with anti-social behaviour was established.

Balconies of Trellick Tower, photographed by Jared Phanco

To replace the local supply of substandard Victorian housing in the area north of Portobello Road, the London County Council (LCC) commissioned a new high-rise development to be constructed by Goldfinger, following the success of the Balfron Tower development in Poplar. Trellick shares many similarities with Balfron. Inspired by his earlier work, Goldfinger was convinced of the success of his design. As research, Goldfinger and his wife Ursula moved into Balfron Tower to experience what life would be like living within its confines. The couple hosted a number of cocktail parties for neighbours and residents to share their likes and dislikes of life within their new homes. This community and their experiences were used as a sounding board for the design of his new development in Notting Hill. Ursula's diary entries during their brief stay, talk of residents having few complaints, bar the mention of 'draughts from some windows and heating that didn’t work', most proclaimed that 'the flats were lovely'.

“Those I have been into are beautifully kept, people are going to a lot of trouble to install them mostly with outrageously terrible furniture, carpets, curtains and ornaments.”
Ursula Goldfinger, in her diary during their brief Balfron stay

Unfortunately for Goldfinger and his modernist principles of high-rise design, public opinion on this form of social housing shifted following the 1968 Ronan Point disaster. In Canning Town, a 22-storey building partially collapsed due to a gas explosion, killing four people. Though the block differed from Trellick Tower and nearby Balfron, utilising a panelling system that saw the prefabricated concrete elements to the tower bolted in place on-site, a differentiation was not afforded to Goldfinger’s designs. 

The uniqueness of Goldfinger’s imaginings is clear. His separate service tower with an internal lift provided access to every third storey. A distinctive design, flats above and below corridor levels have an internal set of stairs. Within each residence, there is a balcony, from which large windows allow ample natural light to flood the rooms. With space at a premium, Goldfinger opted to make use of sliding rather than swing doors. The door frames upon which they were attached had integrated light switches, one of many decisions aimed at decluttering the appearance of the flats and improving the day-to-day lives of residents. His dedication to space-saving is clearest in the use of a service tower, a key feature of the design, that maximised the living space within each flat by having a communal launderette, as well as housing the heating system and water tanks in the plant room. This control centre made use of gravity, reducing the need for expensive and vast piping systems. The plant room houses oil-fired boilers that became obsolete due to the 1973 oil crisis. Electric heaters took their place, but the oil-fired boilers sit as a relic in the unchanged plant room. 

Nine years after the opening of Balfron Tower, Trellick Tower welcomed its first residents on the 28th of June 1972. Shortly afterwards, ownership transferred from the Greater London Council (GLC) to the council of the Royal Borough Kensington and Chelsea.

A man walks his dogs close to Trellick Tower

The decline of Trellick Tower preceded its opening, as vandals took to flooding lifts and cutting the electricity supply. More serious crimes followed. With no concierge or intercom service, in part due to the exorbitant final cost of the build, people who did not live on the premises could enter the tower at will. This caused significant harm to the tenants of the building. There were stories of drug smuggling, serious assault and rape in the elevators; the tower rapidly developed a dangerous reputation. 

“I built skyscrapers for people to live in there and now they messed them up. Disgusting.”
Erno Goldfinger, in response to news of violent crime taking place in the tower.

Goldfinger was unwavering in the belief he had in his designs. He could find no fault in the tower's completed form, but rather in its degenerate inhabitants, lacklustre management and inadequate maintenance. These opinions were shared by the Conservative party, led by Margaret Thatcher. Council estates were portrayed poorly in their speeches, social housing was depicted as squalid and in need of revolutionising. The ‘Right to Buy’ scheme of 1980, one of Thatcher’s legacy projects, saw a number of flats bought by their tenants. Such was the popularity of the scheme that a long list formed of those willing to buy within the tower. The impact of private ownership within the tower was clear, as by 1984 a new residents’ association was formed. The pressure applied by the association to the council saw a number of vital upgrades made to the tower. Finally, an intercom system was installed and by 1987, a concierge was hired. The use of security cameras also improved living conditions markedly. 

Goldfinger died in 1987 when the fortunes of the tower were beginning to reverse. A slow shift of opinion had begun to take place.

Helping to change public perception was a documentary by Sand Helsel, a professor of architecture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Aired on the BBC, the documentary’s release coincided with the gentrification of Notting Hill, a process that began to change the social structure of the Golborne Road area. Property prices rose significantly, favouring those within the block that had purchased their homes via ‘Right to Buy’. The majority of flats, however, remain as was intended within Goldfinger’s image, as social housing. Protected by Historic England, Trellick Tower was awarded Grade II listed status in 1998. The recognition was granted not just to the block, but its adjoining row of shops and amenities; the Doctor’s surgery within the block ‘retains the original shop front and the majority of the original internal plan layout and fittings’, as any request to alter the image and use of space within the building requires Listed Building Consent and wide consultation.

The general opinion of Goldfinger’s work has shifted in recent years. Brutalism, as an architectural style, has benefitted from the reputation of estates such as The Barbican, whose existence as a cultural hub continues to attract thousands of visitors to its concrete confines. Built according to the same building principles as Trellick Tower, the Barbican Estate did not adhere to the same values of affordable, social housing. They were instead marketed at professionals, indeed ‘in its early years, a substantial number of high-profile politicians, lawyers, judges, and bankers’ both rented and bought property on the estate.

Other social housing estates in London, modelled on principles that Goldfinger inherited from Le Corbusier, failed to provide good quality, enduring social housing to their tenants. In the case of the Aylesbury Estate, a post-war modernist council estate in Walworth, the process of demolition has been ongoing since 2015. Since being built in 1963, the blocks that border Burgess Park have faced similar prejudices to those attributed to Trellick Tower by politicians and media outlets. The telling difference between the case studies is Goldfinger’s profoundly unique design. By experiencing life within Balfron Tower, and collaborating with tenants to understand their likes and dislikes, the architect worked to ensure that Trellick would be a feature of London’s skyline for generations. Within a constantly shifting landscape, with social housing removed and rarely replaced, Goldfinger’s legacy is to a London that provides affordable living to all.

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