Interiors: Moving on up

Built as social housing, Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower is now described as the home of urban cool. Julia Bueno gets the low-down on the high-rise
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The Independent Culture
ONLY FIVE years ago, few visiting Portobello market would have taken any detailed note of Trellick Tower which dominates the sky at its northern end. If they did acknowledge it, it would probably have been with a cultivated concern, as Trellick used to be a stark reminder of all the stereotypical problems associated with high-rise council living: violence, vandals, drugs, rape, general deprivation. Yet now, its imposing geometry is revered, and Trellick, unlike other council high-rises in Britain, is not destined for destruction, but is set to remain on both the geographical and Modernist map.

The history of Trellick is the subject of increasing numbers of architectural and social history dissertations. Two centuries ago, the site was occupied by a grim semi-industrial estate a stone's throw from the "Potteries", a slum where pigs outnumbered humans alongside brick-fields and tile kilns. The creation of the Ladbroke Estate in the 1840s drew in the middle classes, but slum conditions returned over the next hundred years, as houses were divided up into flats. Overcrowding intensified as thousands of immigrants arrived in the area.

In 1968 the council took action and put the site of Trellick out to tender. The charismatic Hungarian architect Erno Goldfinger won it: planners were seduced by his ability to work swiftly and within budget, and sure enough, within four years, the 322ft high, 31-storeyed concrete rectangular slab was ready for inhabiting. Goldfinger did not receive universal accolade for his first major building, though, and it was strongly criticised the minute the concrete was dry.

The notion of creating a community in the sky - especially in Britain, where privacy and back gardens are hallowed ideals - was almost unthinkable at the time. Many saw Trellick as an incitement to typically "urban" anti- social behaviour, and unfortunately, for a decade, they were proved right. In the 1970s, before the installation of 24-hour porterage, anyone could walk off the street and into the heart of the Tower. And everyone did: tramps, prostitutes, drug-dealers and truants. As a result of relentless campaigning by an interested few, the Powers that Be eventually took note of the deterioration of Goldfinger's work and agreed to invest in improvements, the most important being security. The lifts, originally designed to carry a coffin at maximum, were also expanded and refurbished in graffiti-resistant aluminium.

Last December Trellick Tower received a (controversial) English Heritage Grade II* listing, and was hyped as the "New Place" for the urban cool to live.

The 200-odd units now house over a thousand people, each benefiting from some of Goldfinger's trademark space-saving devices. His sliding doors, for example, in glass and wood, aim to open up or partition off space according to living requirements. And each bathroom and lavatory is of minimum dimensions, as he saw washing as a necessary adjunct to living rather than an integral part of it. Goldfinger has created a clever jigsaw of light and airy "living units", modelled on those of Le Corbusier's L'Unite d'Habitation.

The service core, an adjoining slimmer tower, incorporates lifts, stairs and refuse shutes as well as a projecting boiler house at the top. Lifts stop on every third floor, and lead through covered walkways to tiled corridors. The floor you are on decides whether the flat you enter will, in Trellick-speak "go up or down" - in other words, whether the bedrooms are above or below the entrance level.

Trellick may be the place to live for the new urban cool, but the urban cool have not succeeded in infiltrating very far. The majority of flats are still council-owned and there are only a handful of property owners who are in a position to sell. The hopefuls who have pinned their cash offers for the desirable high-level flats on the communal noticeboard in the entrance lobby are in for a long wait.

Overleaf: Trellick residents tell their stories

BINA AND KAREEMA MANGARAM

Bina Mangaram (shown with her daughter, Kareema (two), right), a single mother and council-tenant, moved from a women's hostel in nearby Ladbroke Grove into her two-bedroom flat on the third floor of Trellick Tower nearly two years ago. At this level, the views are mainly of cars and concrete, and her kitchen balcony is overshadowed by a smaller section of the Trellick estate, which is attached to the tower on the first five levels .

Bina, who is 29, has come round to living here, in spite of having grown up in a house with a garden. "When my name came up for Trellick, I was unsure. Although I knew nothing about it, there is such a stigma attached to towers."

A friend persuaded her to look, and she decided to take it on the spot. "It was so spacious and had so much character. I now think it has to be one of the safest and well-kept towers I have come across. Originally I saw it as a 'step-ping stone' but now I know I'm in the right place. Also, as a single parent, the facilities on offer around here for Kareema are so good."

Bina hadn't heard of Goldfinger before she moved in, but she is now a fan. "He thought of everything - for example, our bedrooms don't face the railway line so we don't get disturbed at night."

Inspired by visits to flats upstairs, she would like to go higher and is considering applying for a move. "I've heard of people who are quite well-off and are dying to buy flats on the top floor. I know I should be grateful for what I have, but I do feel as though I am missing out. The views are amazing from up there, especially at night."

Bina thinks that although Trellick provides a safe home, it lacks any sort of community.

"People tend to keep to themselves, and unless you are introduced to somebody it is difficult to start friendships. Most of the time you don't even see the same face twice, and I was recently asked if I had just moved in."

JENIFER CORKER AND PETER MARTIN

Jenifer Corker (shown with family on previous page) moved into her 18th- floor flat as a student nearly 15 years ago, with two friends. She had put her name down for three London areas on the council list under the old Mobility Scheme, but felt uneasy when offered a flat in Trellick.

"I was terrified of heights and spent the first two weeks on my hands and knees. But the views at night are so pretty and I soon realised that it wasn't scary at all."

The friends have since moved out and her partner, Peter Martin (a graphic designer), has moved in. Two years ago she bought the flat, and transformed it into a "clean and modern" home for their three children: Phoebe (five), Quentin (four) and Jasper (two).

"I felt that what I should do should be in keeping with the ethos of the place. I saw it as an investment. At the moment there are very few Trellick "enthusiasts" living here, but the people who buy tend to be keen Modernists."

The re-vamp is suitably Goldfingeresque. Wooden cupboards fill one wall of each "living space"; a tan parquet floor was drilled into the concrete floor tile by tile.

Jenifer says that living in a tower block is isolating, yet admits that this is mainly her fault as she became a "bit of a Rapunzel", burying herself in her work. As a student, she left the taps on one night and flooded the entire floor. She returned home to crowds of people tutting, but no one had broken in to turn the taps off. "People would have been scared that I might have taken legal action for intruding. They tend to keep to themselves."

As the flat fills one end of the 18th level, the floor-to-ceiling windows allow a near-360-degree view, which the children enjoy. "We say good night to the bus station, the canal barges, the herons, the kestrels, the geese - everything we see. One night Phoebe couldn't sleep, so rather than counting sheep, we counted the cars on the motorway."

Jenifer won't move until the family gets too big for the flat. "I have always felt safe here. I don't know how well I will live on the ground. I still find it shocking when I step out of a front door on to the street."

LEE AND COLUM BOLAND

Lee Boland and her husband, Colum, (see right) moved into the 18th floor in 1972, and up to their three-bedroom flat on the 24th floor in 1988. Since raising their two daughters to adulthood, they have been able to devote more time to a book they are writing about the history of the area.

Lee is clearly a Trellick force to be reckoned with, and her sense of pride in the building is enormous. She heads the Trellick Tower Residents Association and fields scores of tourists and students sent to her by English Heritage.

The Bolands' flat "goes down", and the door opens to reveal the most seductive feature high-rise living has to offer: a spectacular view across London and the north Downs, weather fronts included. The generous terrace, with sliding doors leading out from the kitchen, is clearly a focal point for the family. It is disorientating to sit among all the normal paraphernalia of a back garden - barbecue, garden furniture, plants - while being manifestly "suspended" in the air, but the novelty has worn off for Lee, who seems equally oblivious to the roar of the traffic below.

She agrees that the unique views have boosted Trellick's status as a desirable west London residence, but is emphatic that the hype about the gentrification of Trellick is grossly inflated. She is one of only 17 leaseholders who own their flat, although another 11 are in the pipeline to buy.

"It must be remembered that Trellick is still social housing. It is only if a leaseholder has bought the flat under the Right to Buy scheme that it can then be sold, and at least 75 per cent of those living here have not bought, so cannot sell. There are still many council tenants with problems here. I like to call it a little United Nations."

Lee continues to campaign for more improvements, with deference to Goldfinger's vision. With a grant from City Challenge, she oversaw the recent installation of an all-purpose soft pitch for the younger residents to enjoy. "But I need to fence it and get goalposts. I would love to install CCTV cameras down the front stairs and corridors, to carpet the entrance, to improve the daily cleaning. If I don't do it, no one else will."

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