Style: The absolute height of chic

After decades in cultural Siberia, the tower block is coming in from the cold. Dominic Lutyens reports from on high
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Belt out a rendition of Shirley Bassey's Bond movie theme song at the mention of "Goldfinger" in chic society and you will automatically score two brownie points. It might sound like a faux pas of massive proportions but Ian Fleming's villain was, so legend goes, modelled on his neighbour, the revered architect Erno Goldfinger. (You can explain this to anyone who looks disapproving.) And while Fleming loathed him for erecting one of his uncompromisingly modernist buildings near his home in Hampstead, today's hip Britons view Goldfinger in a different light: as the genius synonymous with Trellick Tower, the architect's dizzyingly high tower block looked up to as an icon of urban cool.

"Goldfinger is God" is the name streetwear label Born Free gave to a cute, sleeveless T-shirt screenprinted with close-up shots of Trellick - a staple at Covent Garden shop Duffer of St George. On a more serious note, Arts Minister Alan Howarth listed Trellick last December, on the recommendation of English Heritage. "The postwar years have produced many buildings of outstanding architectural quality," he announced solemnly at the time. "Such quality should be recognised. Given the modern pace of change, it's important to identify the best of modern architecture and give it the protection it deserves."

But Trellick does more than inspire cool designers or, more grandiosely, crystallise postwar architectural excellence. After years in the wilderness, its renewed popularity reflects a celebration of tower blocks as both the ultimate symbol of urban chic and a cool place to live. Born Free also emblazons its clothing with Goldfinger's Alexander Fleming House, in Elephant & Castle, and Centrepoint, by architect Richard Seifert - both tower blocks in London. Designer Emma Christmas is working on a new collection featuring images of Fifties Cuban tower blocks. In addition to Trellick, Point Royal, a tower block in Bracknell, and Roehampton's Alton Estate were listed last year, too.

All of which is amazing, if you consider that, less than a decade ago, tower blocks (which in the public consciousness are inescapably connected with local authority ownership) were written off in most corners as a blot on the landscape. Actually, living in one would have been unthinkable. In the Eighties, performance artist Leigh Bowery lived in a Stepney high-rise flat decorated with Star Trek wallpaper and curtains made from his friend Lucien Freud's discarded rags, though few people thought it was the height of cool then.

The image started to change in the early Nineties with the birth of grunge. Photographer Corinne Day paved the way for tower-block chic with her fashion shoots for The Face, set in interiors which hinted at seedy high-rise hotels. Two years ago, Juergen Teller photographed men surreally falling from tower blocks for a Jigsaw Menswear catalogue and, today, London-based Sharon Elphick designs wallpapers featuring close-ups of tower blocks. Meanwhile, Modern Britain 1929-1939, a mammoth exhibition at London's Design Museum, which opens on Wednesday, includes a section on architecture. It features drawings of such modernist buildings as Berthold Lubetkin's high-rise Highpoint Flats, in Hampstead, and Brighton's Embassy Court, designed by Wells Coates. The exhibition is symptomatic of the grand revival of modernism in the Nineties, tower blocks and all. But has this encouraged upwardly mobile hipsters to live in them? Is it a short step from loft-dwelling to high-rise living?

Not according to Marcus Field, editor of design magazine Blueprint. "Some people want to live in them as an architectural experience. But there is a split between the media's glamorous image of the tower block and the social reality of living in one. A few years ago, English Heritage listed an East London block by Denys Lasdun. Middle-class media types were attracted to living in a building by a great architect but were put off when they discovered how much work needed to be done to the flats."

So how did high-rise living come to be romanticised in the first place? "It has a lot to do with a Nineties nostalgia for the Utopian architecture of the Sixties and Seventies, even of memories of Mary, Mungo and Midge, the Seventies cartoon characters who lived in a tower block," says Field. And, he believes, tower-block chic comes to us via the rose-tinted filter of a nostalgia for America's super-sleek, high-rise blocks, idolised, particularly, by interiors glossy Wallpaper*. "Its editor [Tyler Brule] is North American. His aesthetic comes from growing up in Toronto in the Seventies. Living in a high-rise block here is different from living in an America one. They're better maintained there."

Simon Alderson, who co-owns London shop Twentieth Century Design, which sells classic postwar furniture, agrees. "Britain lacks good examples of modern architecture, compared, say, with New York or Chicago. It's in short supply in London, which is why Trellick is an icon."

Finally, Field attributes the trend to "a Nineties obsession with all things urban". Indeed, Emma Christmas of Born Free says: "As a streetwear label, we like to use urban imagery. We were inspired by Trellick because it overlooks Porto- bello Market, which is where we started out." David Thorpe, who showed at the recent Die Young Stay Pretty show at the ICA, in London, produces collages of brutally monolithic concrete blocks yet romanticises them, bathing them in soft twilight or depicting them in "glittering skyline" mode. "I live in South London," he says, "and see all these tower blocks at night. They look space-age, exotic, impressive. When you see them at dusk, you can't see the grime."

But while tower-block chic is inspired by architecture originally designed to improve social housing in the postwar years, it is itself curiously depoliticised - style stripped of context. It doesn't discuss what it actually feels like to live in one of these places. And yet part of the reason for their renaissance is the fact that the classic image of a local authority block - as a magnet for crime and vandalism - is becoming outdated.

Rather than pay huge sums to demolish and replace half-empty blocks, local authorities are spending a fraction of that money on improving security and, increasingly, buildings are linked up to 24-hour computer centres. Concierges are armed with computer logs, videos and phone links. The upshot is that more and more blocks are becoming desirable as places to live, not just look at. "It is not exactly the Manhattan phenomenon," says Dr Brian McGrail of the Open University, who has researched high- rise flats, "but it has changed these places from ghettos to respectable places."

Jonathan, an architect, lives on the 17th floor of a tower block in Kennington, South London, with his girlfriend, Sue, a barrister. "I've lived here for 16 years," he says. "I moved in as a student because the GLC wouldn't house families with children above the sixth floor."

Jonathan lists three reasons for why he loves lives living there. "First, there's the horizon. You can see Crystal Palace, Earls Court and Heathrow Airport's radar. You get a great sense of space. Then there's the location: it takes us half an hour to get into the West End, yet it's very cheap to live here. And then there's its flexibility. We've got 750 sq ft, so potentially, and with permission, we could make the flat open-plan which we couldn't do in a terraced house."

Do visions of a Towering Inferno scenario ever haunt them? "There's only been one serious fire while I've been here," says Jonathan. "But the firemen dealt with it by flooding the central stairwell with water from the water tanks." What about burglaries? "I was burgled once, but Lambeth Council have recently installed a great security system."

Can he and Sue think of any disadvantages? "I used to be scared of heights,"says Jonathan. "but I'm not anymore." "You do lose contact with trees, and you sometimes see a startled bird," jokes Sue. "And going out for a pint of milk is a hassle. But there are advantages: we have total privacy as no one can look in. Which doesn't mean we haven't got binoculars - we can see when Jeffrey Archer is in his Millbank penthouse."

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