Yet the council flat is still used as a synonym of social descent. Newspapers were quick to report that the late fashion designer, Ossie Clark, lived in one towards the end of his days, and that the nightclub artist Leigh Bowery inhabited an East End tower block. Many have mentioned that Christine Keeler ended up in one, the implication being that a council flat is just reward for moral turpitude.
So how come this type of housing is now shaking off its piss-and-pitbull aesthetic, reawakening to the modernist dream of streets in the sky? "The actual residents of these places often really like them," says Elain Harwood of English Heritage. "I hate this notion that council estates are terrible places." She receives frequent calls from people interested in the architecture of council flats, and finds increasing numbers of "artistic and designey people" keen to live in them. "Many are well-located and are a good size, especially for single people. And they are built to rigorous standards, which private developments aren't held to." Harwood nevertheless draws a distinction between the 1950s estates and the ones of the late 1960s and early 1970s. "There's a difference in scale which becomes significant, especially with system-built developments on the edge of town like Broadwater Farm." These, alas, may never be rehabilitated.
Many council flats are ideal for the increasing tide of urbanites who wish to live centrally but cheaply. "People think that council housing is for the underprivileged, but there is a great need in London for affordable housing," says Geoff Marsh of London Property Research. "There are some extraordinarily well-located blocks that are good value. Some of these councils are sitting on great assets." Indeed, for I live in a central London council estate, and last year had American friends to stay. "This is project housing?" they said, impressed by the sturdy tenement with its quaint enamel notices reading No Ball Games.
When the great council flat sell-off began, Tory authorities like Wandsworth tarted up tower blocks to masquerade as penthouse developments. "They sold to junior yuppies in the 1980s, but the buyers couldn't sell them on," says Marsh. Some have now re-entered the bottom end of the lettings market.
But their diminished status is largely because they are not architecturally exciting, especially when compared to the sought-after council gems such as Spa Green in Islington, the Alton Estate in Roehampton, the Millbank Estate in Pimlico and the Golden Lane estate in Barbican, which when it was built in 1959 was feted as "the estate where the tenants pay by cheque". Also popular are the atmospheric workers' estates built by pre-welfare philanthropic trusts: Vivienne Westwood dwells in a building of this type. Perhaps the most venerated council address in the country, however, is Trellick Tower. Designed by Erno Goldfinger - Ian Fleming nicked his name to use for his Bond baddie - this 30-storey, Grade II* nominated tower stands sentinel-like over Trustafarian territory in North Kensington. "Trellick is very special," says Michael Merhemitch, an architect who lives on the 21st floor. "I suffered from vertigo when I got the flat, but loved it so much that I was instantly cured. In fact, I can't stand to live on the ground any more. Everyone has beautiful south and north views. And it is low-maintenance."
Merhemitch - whose father lives in a Soho tower block, above Jeffrey Bernard - has found that attitudes have slowly changed towards his home. "The preconception of the tower block as urban deprivation is a historical one and outdated. There is no obvious urban decay here. People think it's sinister, but in fact it's a very optimistic building. Visitors always leave in love with it." Flats in Trellick have been valued at pounds 110,000 but they don't come on the market very often.
Architecture and design critics make a distinction between good and bad council estates. "The good ones have clear interior spaces with lots of light, without the mess of conversion," says Jane Withers of Elle Decoration. "They can be great things to live in as long as you're not forced to live in them," adds Rowan Moore, editor of the architecture journal Blueprint. "The views can be fabulous, and unlike private developments, the prices do not rise as you get higher up. I think these estates will lose their stigma, like warehouse conversions. You start with a few adventurous professionals, then others follow."
Elsewhere, social housing is now part of recherche taste. Le Corbusier's unites d'habitation in France, the original "machines for living in", are now being hailed as masterpieces, with artist and designer-types competing for apartments. "You can see the attraction," says Jane Withers. "They have roof-gardens, sports and nursery facilities and a hotel for guests: the kind of communal facilities the British have so often stripped away."
In this country, middle-class parvenus who have council flats often enjoy periods of self-censure. "I'm deeply against it on principle, even though I've done it," says the novelist Joanna Briscoe. But buying an ex-council flat was the only way to buy in Bloomsbury, her area of choice, without being a millionaire. "I laughed at it from the outside, but the moment I walked in I thought, Yes," she recalls. "The layout is good, it's well- lit, it's got a good community atmosphere, and it looks over a Georgian street." And friends of hers point out 1950s design touches like portholes and glass-bricks. That said, her block is hardly one of those dirtball estates where the cars sit on bricks.
Sometimes council flats sit slap-bang on top of prime real estate. Henry Shires, a fundraiser who lives in a 1970s block in west London's Holland Park, says: "We are right in the middle of Holland Park, just a minute away from Julie's, where Prince Charles had his stag night and where Madonna takes tea." So, whenever Shires needs to let a room, he gets "bombarded by young Japanese women who know five words of English, two of which are 'Ladbroke Grove'." The downside, he adds, is that old standby of council- flat life - piss in the lifts.
Council flat folk may relish the more picturesque aspects of close-knit community life. Clive King, a scriptwriter who lives in a block in Rotherhithe, south-east London, says "People have remarked that my block seems almost continental, with people hanging out at weekends and washing lines hanging everywhere." And, again, he appreciates its design qualities. "I actually genuinely like the 1930s municipal architecture. It's solid and purpose- designed."
Other council flatties perceive that they are now considered fortunate. "There used to be a stigma that you were some kind of scuzzy crusty," says Charlotte Lindsay, an artist, who lives in a block in Islington. "Now loads of arts-related people on variable incomes live here."
Annalisa Barbieri, fashion guru for this paper, lives in an ex-council flat in a smart part of west London. Some people are snobby about it. "They say, 'Gosh, how interesting', and pretend it's cool, but secretly they're horrified." One guest was surprised to see a Mercedes in the parking lot, and visitors often ask if it is safe to park. "Taxi drivers sometimes won't drive into the estate," she moans.
Matthew Glamorre, singer with the group Minty and manager of the West End club Smashing!, has lived in his Islington council flat for nine years. "Having lived on the street before, I consider myself extremely fortunate," he says. "I told the council I was having a nervous breakdown so they put me in a retirement block. The day I moved in I had a party and invited 300 people." This did not endear him to the neighbours. Fortunately Glamorre has found a way for taxis to pull up very close to the entrance to his block.
The net curtains may be coming down in municipal Modernism's newly fashionable fortresses but, as Rowan Moore says, "It would be sad if they were entirely integrated into the property market, as having some local authority housing is good for the social mix of an area." Design icons they may be, but it is as a continuing social experiment that the council flat should be properly remembered.Reuse content