Failed Utopia of the Baby Boom Era

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. 

One letter to the Glasgow Herald begged the town planners to be reasonable: “Human beings are not bees or ants. Why in the middle of the 20th century should they be denied their simple wish for a little home of their own on God’s earth? Letchworth and Welwyn have shown what can be done.”

In 1948, Mass Observation conducted a survey of working-class people and their homes. This response from a 50-year-old working woman living with a husband and four children in an upper-floor tenement flat was typical: “I’d like a sitting-room-kitchen, so that you could have meals in it, and a nice garden at the back for vegetables and chickens, and a flower garden in front.” From interviews such as these, the report concluded: “the ‘dream home’ of the majority is still the small modern suburban house.” Such views were steamrollered by men like the influential economist Philip Sargant Florence who wrote that “architects and planners must give the lead and the target must be placed higher than the inarticulate yearnings of the average working-class housewife.” The battle had been lost. The little home with a garden full of chickens was replaced by the 28th-floor flat with a balcony.

The hero of the high-rise was the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who seduced a generation of British architects with his visions of tower blocks 60 storeys high. Le Corbusier’s disciples gave us Park Hill in Sheffield, Cruddas Park in Newcastle (where the 15-storey towers were given improbable names like the Poplars, the Hawthorns and the Sycamores) and the 11-storey blocks of Cumbernauld on a wind-battered promontory in North Lanarkshire. In London, Le Corbusier’s legacy was responsible for the 22-storey Ronan Point, which famously collapsed after a gas explosion in 1968, and Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron and Trellick Towers, 27 and 31 storeys respectively.   

Goldfinger was a Hungarian émigré with a take-no-prisoners architectural practice. He was a notorious bully who routinely fired recruits on their first day and behaved appallingly towards women. In Concretopia, John Grindrod quotes the account of one site agent who had worked with the architect and predicted ominously: “One day he will fall off a roof.” Architect James Dunnett who worked for the practice in the 1970s told Grindrod: “I didn’t expect anything less. I thought that anyone who designed buildings with that amount of punch in them is not going to be a sop.”

And punch you they do.

Trellick Tower glowers over west London. Anyone driving into the city along the Westway does so beneath its forbidding hulk. It has a mechanised, military silhouette, like an AK-47 balanced on its stock. Its defining feature, shared with its twin Balfron Tower, is a 394ft detached lift shaft linked to every third floor by an aerial walkway. Today its poured-concrete facing is pitted and pock-marked. 

Did this Brutalist building brutalise the people who lived in it? There were problems from the moment it opened its door to tenants in 1972. A fire hydrant was deliberately opened, flooding the lifts with thousands of gallons of water and cutting off power to the whole building. A 27-year-old woman was dragged from the lifts and raped. A young mother killed herself jumping from one of the balconies. An 11-year-old girl was attacked in the chute room, where residents disposed of their rubbish. Vagrants moved in and condoms, syringes and broken bottles littered the corridors. 

The residents pleaded for security on the main doors to keep rough sleepers out. The Greater London Council rejected plans to have a concierge in the lobby. It would have been “fascist”, they said, to snoop on residents. They had complete faith that this city in the sky would be a socialist utopia. Goldfinger was unrepentant. “I built skyscrapers for people to live in and now they messed them up. Disgusting.” 

Such callous disregard for the families who had to live in his buildings brought him enemies. Ian Fleming borrowed Goldfinger’s name for one of his James Bond villains. The architect, citing anti-Semitism as well as defamation, threatened to sue. Fleming retaliated with an instruction to his publishers to change the character’s name to Goldprick. Fleming wasn’t the only writer to attack Goldfinger in print. J.G. Ballard’s dystopian science fiction novel High Rise, published in 1975, is set in a 300ft-high housing block with 1,000 flats. “People in high-rises,” writes Ballard, “tended not to care about tenants more than two floors below them.” The tower descends into chaos as the residents rape, murder, enslave and cannibalise each other. “I’m frightened to step into an elevator by myself,” says one mother. The building’s star architect Anthony Royal, who lives in the penthouse apartment, forces the desperate female residents into his harem and makes their children his servants. 

This was a deliberate strike against Goldfinger, who had briefly lived in a flat on the 25th floor of Balfron Tower. “I want to experience at first hand,” he explained, “the size of the rooms, the amenities provided, the time it takes to obtain a lift, the amount of wind whistling around the tower, and any problems which might arise from my designs, so I can correct them in the future.” He lived in Flat 130 for two months before returning to his large, detached house in Willow Road, Hampstead. His residents had no such choice. 

Throughout the 1970s, Trellick continued its downward trajectory. It was known as the Tower of Terror or Colditz in the Sky. The MP Alan Johnson, who grew up in tenement housing at the far end of the Golborne Road, described Trellick Tower in his memoirs This Boy as “casting its gaze across the capital like the Eye of Mordor”.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Tower’s fortunes began to change. CCTV cameras and an entryphone were finally installed and a concierge was employed to monitor the lobby and deter the homeless men who had slept in the tower’s corridors. In 1984, a new residents’ association was formed. They campaigned for new lifts, a children’s playground and an improved water heating system. 

And, of course, Margaret Thatcher’s Right To Buy scheme, introduced in 1980 began slowly to change the make-up of the tower. Former residents, disenchanted with the tower moved out; yuppies, taken with the idea of living in an “icon” of 20th-century Modernism moved in. The tower’s place in architectural history was assured when it was Grade II listed in 1998. Today, just over 20 per cent of Trellick’s flats are privately owned. At the time of writing, a two-bedroom flat was on the market for £400,000.

Interior designer Bella Huddart, 50, is typical of the new tenants. She is evangelical about Goldfinger’s design. The narrowness of the tower ensures every flat is double-aspect. The bedrooms get the light from the east in the mornings; the kitchen and sitting room see the sun setting over the Westway in the evening. The views from her 16th-floor flat are indeed spectacular. 

She says it is a mistake to think of Goldfinger’s design as a uniform gunshot grey. On a tour of the building she points out the coloured glass inset into the walls of the lobby and the different tiles on each floor: lemon yellow, royal blue, cream, ivy. When I visit she is in the middle of painting her bathroom a characteristic Goldfinger green. And she points out his eye for detail: the brushed metal light switches and door handles, which, since the building was listed, cannot be changed. 

She insists she has never felt threatened. If the hoodies who loiter outside the main doors cause trouble they no longer do so on home turf. She does, however, point out the number of flats with locked metal grills in front of their doors, a legacy of the bad old days. 

When Amber Guinness, a 24-year-old art student, first moved in last year, her mother sent her a newspaper clipping about needles on the floor and residents being stabbed in the lifts. But she has come to feel fond of Trellick’s emerald green doors. “I used to see it from afar and think it was hideous. But it becomes more beautiful when you move in.”

She speaks warmly of the artists who are drawn to the tower. An “upcycled” furniture shop, the Goldfinger Factory, has opened in one of the ground-floor units. Next to it, Redemption, a “mocktail” lounge, sells non-alcoholic drinks and vegan dishes. Sweet potato and celeriac curry and plantain pancakes with agave syrup are on the menu the night I visit. Rellick, a vintage clothing boutique, sells Ossie Clark dresses and Valentino ballgowns to starlets to wear on the red carpet. Smart homeware boutiques on the Golborne Road offer tea-towels printed with graphic silhouettes of the tower.  

Barrister Richard Samuel bought his flat in 1999. His is one of the coveted end-of-corridor flats with triple-aspect views. After 15 years he is moving to Fulham. What was ideal in his twenties has become less desirable in his forties. “That’s a problem with Modernism as a whole — it isn’t really designed for families.” He admits that the common parts remain grim and oppressive. On the January evening that I visit, the long, under-lit, concrete corridors and aerial walkways are indeed chilly and unwelcoming.  

But, says Samuel, “If you put aside the common parts-failures of Modernism all around-the flats are stupendous. You’re surrounded by light-almost too much light-and the horizon. And how often do you see the horizon in a city?’ 

In the closing chapter of his immensely readable — if unfailingly positive — account of postwar architecture, John Grindrod draws the conclusion that Trellick was one of its success stories. But a success in whose eyes? For design students, architects and historians of the Brutalist movement it is a triumph of Modernism. For those who lived there in the lawless 1970s and 80s, especially those with young children, it was purgatory. 

Alan Johnson is convinced that tower blocks were a “disaster”. The condemned tenements he grew up in along the Golborne Road were replaced by tower blocks that presented as many problems as they solved. “You took a very poor community and put them in a vertical community that just didn’t work. Cities in the sky seemed like a bright idea but they became breeding grounds for crime and anti-social behaviour.” The working-class housewife who dreamed of a garden in which to keep chickens, grow vegetables and watch her children play, was betrayed by the failed utopian visions of Le Corbusier and Ernő Goldfinger. 

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