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Trellick Tower: A triumph of Brutalism

On a Friday night, the pavement outside the Trellick Tower is blocked by a gang of young men. They wear heavily-padded, black, hooded puffa jackets. Two of them have Akita dogs on heavy chains, a wolf-like Japanese hunting breed. A third breaks from the conversation to shout at a Staffordshire bull terrier intent on tearing open a plastic carrier bag filled with rubbish. 

The smell of cannabis is strong and sickly. The boys hide their roll-ups in the bloated cuffs of their coats. You can see the glow, though, as they travel between cuff and the recesses of hoods. But the air is one of boredom rather than menace. 

If visitors to this stretch of the Golborne Road in west London find they clutch their bags a little tighter or quicken their pace it is because the reputation of the Trellick Tower precedes it. For decades Trellick was a byword for anti-social behaviour, crime, vagrancy and the collapse of the tower block dream. 

A new book, Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (Old Street Publishing, £25), by architectural historian John Grindrod tells the story of social housing in the decades after the war, from shoe-box bungalows to multistorey monoliths like Trellick. At the end of the war, eight million homes across the country were unfit for habitation. Seven million had no hot water and six million no indoor sanitation. In London a fifth of homes were condemned as slums. The Conservative government pledged to spend £150 million on temporary housing and Churchill promised the housing programme would be carried out with "all the speed and efficiency of a military operation".

First came the prefab bungalows of places like Catford in south-east London and Milton Keynes, built on the cheap — asbestos cladding — to cope with the immediate housing crisis. The first winter that many families spent in these low-rise houses with their lino floors and immersion heaters was that of 1946-47, the harshest on record. 

Next were the garden cities — Letchworth, Welwyn — and the New Towns — Harlow, Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead, Crawley, Basildon, Corby, Peterlee and East Kilbride. The architects and town planners of these scaled-up model villages lined the streets with detached and semi-detached houses with Arts and Crafts finishes, bay windows and brick chimneys. Low-rise blocks of five or six storeys were set in landscaped parkland. It was in these green and pleasant commuter-belts, nicknamed Pram Towns, that the baby boom generation was born. In 1956, Harlow had the highest birth rate in the country.  

Harlow's six-storey blocks were a sign of things to come. In the 1950s and '60s, architects and town planners dreamed of cities in the sky. Glasgow was the prototype. The situation was desperate, with 250,000 Glaswegians needing rehousing. The answer proposed by the planners was the high-rise. Thousands of acres of old slums in the Gorbals area of the city, south of the River Clyde, were demolished and 18-storey blocks built in their place. The locals howled. 

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Goldfinger
March 14th, 2014
3:03 PM
Fleming took against Goldfinger because he disliked the house Goldfinger built for himself on Willow Road in Hampstead, not because of Trellick Tower &c. It was Nimbyism, not social commentary!

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