When Trellick Tower was completed for the GLC (Greater London Council) in 1972, it was the tallest social housing block in Europe. The 98m high 31-storey structure is iconic for its bold bush-hammered concrete frame with slender service tower, linked by precast access bridges at every third floor.
The scheme, with its utilitarian form, use of raw concrete and inclusion of a single dominating tower, exemplifies the industrial, brutal aesthetic for which Ernö Goldfinger has become known.
The Cheltenham Estate lies to the east of Kensal New Town in north-west London, an area bound by the Grand Union Canal to the north and Great Western main line to the south. Despite its situation on the northern border of the affluent Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, this pocket had some of the worst examples of post-war slum housing and poverty and the decision was made to add the ‘Kensal New Town Redevelopment’ to the 1943 County of London Plan.
Following the clearance of the Victorian terraces in the 1950s, the first stage of the new scheme, covering 6½ acres between Golborne and Bosworth Road, was planned by Sir William Holford and Partners. This practice designed the first phase of the Kensal New Town estate, comprising four-storey maisonettes, shops and two modular 14 storey tower blocks. The second stage (1964) which included Holmfield House, was by Julian Keable and Partners.
The final stage was planned by Ernö Goldfinger and Partners, who designed Trellick Tower and the Edenham Street housing, which formed the Cheltenham Estate, comprising 317 homes was completed in 1975.
While studying architecture in Paris during the 1920s, Goldfinger was influenced both by the modernism of Le Corbusier and the structural rationalism and large-scale planning taught at the École des Beaux Arts under the urbanist Léon Jaussely. Though it is Auguste Perret, champion of the trabeated, concrete, classical form, to whom most accredit as Goldfinger’s strongest inspiration. Perret believed that the expression of materials and means of construction was the essence of architecture – and it is these principles which are most apparent in Goldfinger’s dramatic bush-hammered concrete housing blocks.
Goldfinger was committed to the idea of the high-rise and integrated living along with the modernist mantra of ‘soleil, espace, verdure’ (‘sun, space and greenery’). At the CIAM conference in 1933, he presented a scheme for a fifteen-storey block set in an expanse of open space, including a restaurant, nursery and infant school.
During the war, Goldfinger had worked on a number of exhibitions which focused on planning, including three for ABCA (Army Bureau of Current Affairs), ‘Planning your Home’, ‘Planning your Kitchen’ and ‘Planning your Neighbourhood’, in which much of the logic behind his later designs is revealed.
Goldfinger believed that “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.” His idea of placing link-bridges between a service tower and flats, thus creating ‘streets in the sky’ was first used in his 1956 design for his first local authority housing commission at Abbotts Langley and would be later used at Trellick Tower.
After the war, many authorities turned to social housing schemes to provide a modern solution that would tackle issues of overcrowding. For the final phase, 7.65 acres of the site in North Kensington was zoned for residential use at a density of 100 persons per acre, in line with recommendations published in the 1943 County of London Plan (a concise version of which was published in 1945 for which Goldfinger was co-editor). The Plan also addressed issues such as traffic congestion and segregation, urban sprawl and provision of open space. These issues led to a solution of building the high-density high-rise social housing developments set in parkland that Goldfinger advocated.
The design for Trellick Tower was an advancement of Goldfinger’s previous scheme at Rowlett Street in East London, the 27 storey Balfron Tower. Both are based on the idea of containing lifts, plant rooms and utilities within a separate service tower to the main slab block and linking them by access bridges which act as a barrier between the living spaces and the noisy services and machinery.
Goldfinger famously lived on the top floor of Balfron following its completion in order to test his design. Ultimately, this led to developments such as the provision of an extra lift at Trellick Tower. Other changes focused more on appearance and scale, such as the rotation of the service tower by 90 degrees, giving the block a slimmer profile and enhancing the overall monumentality.
Goldfinger was appointed to design the Cheltenham Estate in 1966, which was designed as a whole and built in two phases. Phase I began in 1968 and comprised Trellick Tower – ‘Block A’ (175 flats) and the adjoining perpendicular seven-story ‘Block B’ (42 flats) along with a three-storey garage and tenants’ stores (now demolished) which were completed in 1972. At ground level along Golborne Road, shops, a doctors’ surgery and other amenities were included.
An additional 100 homes were built on Edenham Street during Phase II. Between 1969 and 1971, four of the five rows of three-storey ‘Block D’ terraces with their own private gardens were built, as well as two mid-rise six-storey blocks of flats and maisonettes (Blocks C and E) and a single storey garage with a planted allotment roof. There also stood an old peoples’ home, but this was demolished in 2008. A final, fifth row of terraces were built in 1972-3 after the re-routing of Kensal Road away from the canal, creating a green belt of open space behind the estate.
The design of the tower is striking and defensive in appearance. Characterised by the cantilevered boiler house at the summit of the service tower, the slim ribbon window has been likened to a cyclopean eye, whilst the slits running down the tower have been likened to those of a fortress. Aesthetically, the design does not concede to any softening or redundancy common in modern architecture of this period. Instead, Goldfinger skilfully uses mathematical proportions such as the golden section to break up the elevation so it can be easily read and in doing so avoids a sheer, intimidating façade.
The plans show nine main dwelling types, ranging from two-room flats to five-room houses. Each flat is spaciously planned – some with double height spaces. Trellick’s balconies are positioned facing south-west and every flat has windows on at least two sides to maximise sunlight. Photobolic screens, were also used in an attempt to better distribute light deeper into the plan.
Lavish colours and materials adorned communal areas, from cedar boarding, marble and stained glass in the entry lobby, to colour coded floors inspired by Goldfinger’s childhood memories of the brightly coloured tram system in Budapest.
One principle of the design was to provide space at ground level for green areas and open spaces, circulation for pedestrians and road traffic as well as to integrate amenities into the scheme. These included a nursery, old people’s club, hobby rooms, a laundrette, a doctor’s surgery and various shops. Rather than locating these midway up the block as Le Corbusier professed was most convenient for a high-rise, Goldfinger wisely placed them at street level, a natural thoroughfare for all residents.
Provision was originally made for a pub at the base of Block B at 19 Golborne Road, but in later designs this was replaced by an architect’s office. The interior continued the bush-hammered concrete materiality, complemented by a palette of greys, earthy reds and white. It was from here that Goldfinger operated his own practice until his retirement in 1977. Like at Rowlett Street, this was an opportunity for the architect to gather first-hand information from residents.
The second phase of housing relates to the first visually, with a consistent material palette of bush-hammered concrete and buff-sand coloured brickwork as well as the cedar panelling used both as facing for the houses and to line the balcony reveals on the tower. The detailing on the lower blocks are more refined and tactile than the dominating tower - intended to be appreciated at a different scale. The terraces are brick cross-wall structures, thickened at either end to lend weight to their design and finished with rounded bull nose bricks.
When the brief was given for the Cheltenham Estate, high-rise housing was still considered a fresh, post-war housing solution. But soon into the next decade, opinion had begun to turn against such ideologies – the Ronan Point disaster (1968) did much to damage public perception, instigating both safety and social fears – and by the time of Trellick’s completion in 1972, the design was already felt to be somewhat anachronistic. By the early 1970s, high-density low-rise schemes became more typical and their layout more homogeneous compared to the variation of scales and typologies comprising the Cheltenham estate.
At first, residents, many of whom had been relocated from slum housing, were proud of their new homes – spacious, bright and well equipped with modern facilities. However, it wasn’t long before a swathe of issues was to plague the estate, many of which can be attributed at least partially to poor management and maintenance. The council were unwilling to provide a concierge (despite being included in Goldfinger’s plan) and there was a lack of preventative measures to deter crime. Living in the tower became dangerous, and at its worst, this constant threat of crime led some elderly residents to stay within the confines of their own flats.
In response to the criticism of the management of the site, a number of updates have been made in the last decades. A residents’ society was set up which has been active in campaigning for better upkeep. CCTV cameras have been installed, a concierge presence has been instated and previous areas where people were found to loiter in circulation zones have become restricted exit routes.
At ground floor level, social enterprise schemes and local businesses are beginning to flourish, such as ‘Goldfinger Factory’ which provides workshop facilities and training to young, local artisans. The four acres of park space created behind the blocks has become ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ which meanders along the canal connecting to different paths of the estate, with pockets of dense greenery and wildlife, a play area, skate park, formal planted gardens and open space scattered with large trees. The garden was established in 1976 and is now run as a non-profit organisation that hosts several community projects for the area.
In 1998, Trellick Tower was the first post-war housing to be listed and achieved a Grade II* status. Following campaigns from the residents’ association and various heritage bodies after fears it could be removed to make way for higher density housing, the Edenham Way Estate was also listed (Grade II) in 2012. The listing recognises the importance of the setting this lower housing creates, integral to the mixed-use scheme, declaring the estate Goldfinger’s best work and “the best crafted example of a mixed development scheme of any date.”
Despite this, concerns persisted regarding the management of the estate by Kensington & Chelsea’s Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) and following the Grenfell Tower Fire, the estate was handed back to the council to run on a temporary basis. Currently, the tower is undergoing £7.6 million refurbishment works which began in 2017. These have included concrete repairs and restoration work to balcony windows, doors, timber panelling and exterior decoration as well as replacement of windows in communal areas. Plans to refurbish the entrance foyer are underway. Proposals include reinstating the original frameless glass entrance doors, stained glass rear windows and the coffer ceiling in addition to replacing floor and wall tiles and alterations to existing mechanical and electrical services.
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Feature by Stephanie Johnson