diamond geezer

 Monday, September 24, 2012

plaque at Lewisham stationOpen House: Trellick Tower

Few social housing projects are instantly recognisable, but the silhouette of West London's Trellick Tower couldn't be anything else. Nothing else apart from the Balfron Tower, that is, its smaller sister in Poplar. Both were designed by Erno Goldfinger, the Hungarian architect, whose home at 2 Willow Road I told you about a while back. Trellick's widely agreed to be his masterpiece - a commission from the Greater London Council in 1966 - and the embodiment of his Brutalist concrete-loving style. To get inside you need to buy, or rent (most people rent), or else have very good friends who live in this thin highrise tower. Or you need to wait for Open House weekend and get lucky. I got lucky.

Yet again, the Open House pre-booking system proved incredibly flaky. I tried for a Trellick ticket during the only hour the online booking system was vaguely operational (so much frustration, so many refreshes), and thought I'd been unsuccessful. Then two different emails arrived each telling me I'd got a ticket, but both with the same ID code, so really only one. When I turned up at the tower yesterday the concierge buzzed me in and gave me a leaflet, but no names were checked and nobody ever asked whether I had any right to be here. Our tour was under-attended (I guess the hideous weather battering North Kensington put some people off) so anyone could have walked in off the street to make up the numbers. Even you. I'm not sure how Open House could organise pre-bookings better, but it seems they could hardly organise them worse.

It looks lively enough at Carnival, but the top of Golborne Road's no place to be in a September gale. The street lay empty as the rain beat down, and only the foolhardy were still dogwalking in nearby Meanwhile Gardens. One man sheltered in the doorway of the off licence, another two were chatting under the overhang by the betting shop. It was rammed to bursting in the Trellick Lounge, which sounds like it ought to be an upmarket eaterie, but was instead a cafe cum social club where local males congregate to watch big screen TV. The entrance to the Trellick Tower is currently mounted with scaffolding, above which rises a narrow cliff face specked with slit windows. This is the lift tower, used by residents to gain access to the upper floors of the adjacent accommodation. And sticking out at the tip is the plant room where the boiler and hot water storage tanks reside, or used to until made irrelevant by the 70s oil crisis.

The entrance hall used to be open access but now there's a controlled door and a concierge, which has done wonders for the block's previous unsavoury reputation. The lobby's narrower than you might imagine, but then the whole thing has to fit inside the footprint of the lift tower so there's not much space. A noticeboard alerts tenants to important issues (do not feed the squirrels!), while the far wall is brightened by a geometric pattern of stained glass rectangles. At some point in the last 40 years a CCTV camera has been added, and even that's been done semi-sympathetically within a bold green square, such are the demanding requirements of Grade II* listed status. As each new face entered the lobby it was fairly easy to identify who was a resident and who an Open House visitor. Trellick Tower's not the uniformly aspirational living space many would believe, with a relatively small proportion of the 217 flats owned by eager architecture aficionados.

The lifts are currently being upgraded, with only two out of three in service which delays progress up and down the building. They stop only every third floor, due to the peculiar way the main building is laid out with longitudinal corridors on multiples of three only. On reaching your target floor you exit into a double height lobby with six slit windows in the wall to your right. The attention to detail is impressive, for social housing, even down to the tiling which is a different colour on every floor. A solid-looking doorway leads off to the left, with curved concrete surround and a blocky tinted lintel. Step through and you're into the connecting tube, suspended umpteen storeys high looking down over Kensal Town and the Westway. If you've no head for heights, best live somewhere else.

Each corridor is bright and well-maintained, leading eventually to a second emergency staircase at the very far end. One wall's glass, and canal and rooftops, while the other is lined with more than the usual number of front doors. Cleverly all the flats on floors x+1 and x-1 have their entrance on floor x, with stairs beyond either up or down to the appropriate living space. Some are two-storey maisonettes, others rather smaller one-bedroom dwellings, but all somehow fit together in a complex multi-level jigsaw.

For Open House we were kindly allowed entry into two flats, of very different scales. They were neither exactly as built, nor would you expect them to be, but several original features remained. Each had a certain boxiness, though with plenty of space, a true sense of light and a larger kitchen than I might have imagined. Communal heating, paid for out of the service charge, allows residents carte blanche to pump out warmth all year round. And everyone gets a balcony, south-ish facing, which I'm told helps create a perfect elevated suntrap. In yesterday's grim weather, however, the sliding doors were best kept shut to keep the wind and driving rain outside.

The two owners of the Open House "show flats" clearly love living in the Trellick Tower, in one case infectiously so. I'm not quite sure I'd be so keen, more because of access arrangements than architectural quibbles, and because I couldn't afford to buy. If this has whetted your appetite then Chris currently has a flat for sale on the 21st floor, and a bespoke website that'll entice you still further. You'll need half a million pounds, which is bloody good going for a former council flat, plus a substantial wodge of cash to pay for upcoming blockwide refurbishments. But how cool to live in Erno's iconic tower, overlooked by nobody, king of the sky.

» photos: 11 from me, 25 from McTumshie from OH2011, 18 from Hoosier Sands from OH2009

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