Trellick Tower was completed in 1972. It has spent fifty years splitting opinion. To some it is a brutalist monstrosity. To others it is a powerful symbol of home and community.
Plenty of us in West London love Trellick and that is why we are celebrating its fiftieth year, in 2022/23, including the publication of two pieces by local historians.
We present here a previously written piece by Jerome Borkwood from his 2002 local history book.
And an Exclusive piece by Tom Vague on the social and cultural history of our beloved icon, complete with images sourced by Tom Vague and Toby Laurent Belson.
Happy Fiftieth Birthday Trellick.
'Tales of the Inner City’
by Jerome Borkwood
Trellick Tower, when built, was the highest residential building in Europe [it remains the tallest building in Kensington & Chelsea]. The Edenham Estate, designed by the Hungarian born architect Erno Goldfinger, was to be ‘an integrated living unit’ containing, in addition to the tower with 175 flats, terraces of houses, a residential home and sheltered flats for elderly people, shops, a nursery, a playground, a doctor’s surgery, a pub and an underground car park. A striking feature of the 31 storey block was the linked service tower containing lifts, stairs, rubbish chutes and, at the top, a cantilevered boiler house. The building aroused conflicting feelings from the moment it was built. Some hated it.
The Financial Times, in 1984, rated it one of the ugliest buildings in the world.*
Brian Westbury remembered: “When Trellick Tower went up it was very unpopular. It didn’t matter whether it was by a famous architect or not. People generally hated it. It was seen as soulless and an eyesore in relationship to the largely human scale three storey buildings. Also there were problems with lifts breaking down, electricity, water, whatever it was, it always seemed to be something. There were problems with the nursery school below where people threw bottles out of windows, but I think a lot of people’s objection was aesthetic – they just didn’t like the look of it.”
Others loved the tower, which was opened to the first tenants in 1972, referring to its austere beauty and fortress-like quality.
Campaigns by the residents’ association, which was formed in 1984, led to major improvements to the electricity and heating, and to the security of the building. A number of tenants bought their own flats and, over the last decade, Trellick Tower has come into its own. Flats now change hands for substantial sums of money and, to crown the transformation, English Heritage has made the tower a Grade 2 listed building.
- From 'Kensal Village to Golborne Road: Tales of the Inner City’ by Jerome Borkwood (Kensington & Chelsea Community History Group 2002)
* FT redeemed itself with the following linked article in 2016, entitled Myth of the brutal, blighted concrete tower.
"The middle-class invasion of brutalist former council flats belies the myth that postwar estates were a failure. The razing of other estates comes from a longstanding bias against both modernism and public housing that fails to distinguish between good and bad. It also releases valuable inner-city land on which developers can build at greater density, with more cramped internal space standards, erasing green spaces and established communities."
- FT, January 2016. The writer is the author of ‘Concretopia:
A Journey Around the Rebuilding of
A Journey Around the Rebuilding of
Trellick Tower opening 50th anniversary: Big up Goldfinger
by tom vague
In the 1967 film ‘Bedazzled’, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore appear on Southam Street in Kensal, near the site of Trellick Tower.
As Pete leads Dudley to his Rendezvous basement club-office, Dudley asks: “Where are we? Is this hell?” Pete (playing the devil) replies: “Just my London headquarters.”
Southam Street was renowned as the site of the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959 and the street photographs of Roger Mayne featuring Teddy boys and West Indian rude boys.
When Jimi Hendrix was staying in a purple painted house on Westbourne Grove which inspired ‘Purple Haze’, Erno Goldfinger said ’scuse me while I kiss the sky and began work on Trellick Tower. Goldfinger’s 322 feet high Brutalist masterpiece was his last and favourite job. He designed the 31-storey slab block; with a walkway-linked service lift auxiliary tower, 175 flats in the tower block, and 42 in Block B down below: 217 flats in total; to house 650 people and a kestrel population on top of the service tower.
The coloured plate-glass foyer windows were designed to create sunlight patterns on the floor, and the lift tower windows to resemble a medieval castle’s archer’s slits.
Each flat has huge windows and balconies with a panoramic view. There were also shops, a doctor’s surgery, youth and women’s centres, and Goldfinger’s own office on the ground floor, which he kept until his death in 1987.
The tower was built to exact specifications between 1968 and 1972; when it became the tallest residential block in Europe. Trellick was Goldfinger’s follow-up to the smaller 26-storey Balfron Tower in Poplar which opened in 1967.
Erno Goldfinger was born in Budapest; he lived in Vienna, went to school in Gstaad and studied architecture in Paris. He was influenced by Le Corbusier’s housing projects in Marseilles and Algiers with shopping and service areas.
He moved to England in 1934 to escape the Nazis, and married Ursula Blackwell of the Crosse & Blackwell family, making him a relative of Chris Blackwell of Island Records.
Ian Fleming named the 1964 James Bond film villain Goldfinger after Erno built his Modernist home on Willow Road in Hampstead near Fleming’s residence.
In the photo of the Westway opening re-housing protest in 1970, Trellick Tower can be seen nearing completion in the background.
In the 1970 film ‘Freelance’ Ian McShane is chased along the canal under the tower. The North Kensington urban wasteland was illustrated in the underground paper Frendz with a view of Trellick along the canal from Great Western Road, captioned ‘looking north towards an area with no redeeming social features.’
The Situationist Sub 71 newsletter by Michel Prigent gave Trellick another bad review, describing a picture of the tower as ‘architecture of pornography: council houses under construction on Golborne Road W10.’
A letter to Oz magazine from Crispin and friends predicted: ‘In 10 years time they say there’s going to be a housing estate of multi-storey buildings stretching from Maida Vale to Shepherd’s Bush and three-storey roundabouts and stuff. There’ll need to be, to keep all those people apart and boxed up watching telly instead of rioting or freaking or spreading an epidemic.’
Subterranean homesick blues W10 – The lifts don’t work ’cause the vandals let off the fire hydrant: Shortly after the first residents moved into Trellick Tower, the lift-shafts were flooded when a fire hydrant was let off by vandals, leaving the building without power at Christmas 1972.
The Ned Gate paper reported ‘Tower tenants fight back’ with a picture of Trellick falling apart: ‘In the last issue we described the high rents, the falling flower pots, the lack of amenities and the lack of space for kids in Trellick Tower. But the real troubles were yet to come... now read on... As a result of GLC inefficiency, many of the 1,200 or so tenants of Trellick Tower spent Christmas in darkness without water, without toilets and without lifts. Trellick is the highest residential block in the UK. For four days over the holiday the tenants on the top floor had to walk down 900 stairs in the dark to use a tap in the street – and then had to walk back. Many friends and relatives who had come to spend a first Christmas with the tenants in their ‘lovely’ new homes didn’t want to set foot in the place and went away horrified.
‘What happened? On Christmas eve, a fire hydrant on the 15th floor was smashed and flooded the lift system. The water, the lifts and the lights were then cut off, the whole lot wasn’t fixed till four days later – December 28.
But why was it the GLC’s fault? Because they had been asked during the summer to fix metal safety plates over the hydrants as a precaution against vandals. This is a special need in Trellick, where the hydrants are ‘wet risers’ – they are always full of water, whereas in most tower blocks they have ‘dry risers’ – empty pipes where the water is switched on as soon as there is a fire.
The GLC refused to fix the plates saying it was against fire regulations, even though the tenants can’t use the hydrants anyway because there are no hoses. But now, after the disaster, metal plates have mysteriously appeared over all the hydrants, and the caretaker says they were stocked up in the basement six weeks before Christmas.
It took only one hour to fix everything after the tenants fought the GLC, the water board and the electricity board to make their homes liveable again.
‘Tenants action. Since then the tenants have decided to take the matter into their own hands. On December 28 they had their first tenants’ association meeting. Representatives from each floor were elected on to a committee and the following demands were decided:
1. For an independent generator to be installed for use in any emergency, so that essential amenities, like lifts, lights, heating and water can still be used during a crisis.
2. That security measures be put into effect to reduce damage by vandals.
3. More resident caretakers and engineers.
4. The opening and maintenance of all existing facilities, such as the drying room and proper central heating.
5. Additional safety structures for children where the present structures and fittings could prove dangerous.
6. Internal recreation facilities for all age groups be immediately made available (like play rooms and the club room).
Free rent. In addition the tenants are asking for one week’s unrebated rent for all the inconvenience caused to them over Christmas.
The Council however is only interested in ‘horror-tested’ benefits. It wants to find out how many hours tenants spent in the block over Christmas before it offers its graded compensation. So far, the tenants’ association is holding out for a fair settlement on terms they and the tenants have decided. If you live in Trellick Tower or want to support the tenants in any way, contact: Steve Mitchell in 21-11 or Mrs Margaret Irribarren in 27-11.’
Trellick Tower inspired JG Ballard’s 1975 novel ‘High-Rise’, which begins: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months...’ As described in ‘The Descent of Man’ introduction: ‘Within the concealing concrete walls of an elegant 40-storey tower block, the affluent tenants are hell-bent on an orgy of self-destruction. Cocktail parties degenerate into marauding attacks on ‘enemy’ floors and the once luxurious amenities become an arena for technological mayhem. Human society slips into violent reverse and the inhabitants, driven by primal urges, recreate a world ruled by the laws of the jungle.’ The first chapter titles are: ‘Critical Mass’, ‘Party Time’, ‘Death of a Resident’, ‘Up!’, ‘The Vertical City’, ‘Danger in the Streets in the Sky’, ‘Preparations for Departure’, ‘The Predatory Birds’ and ‘Into the Drop Zone’. According to the Sunday Telegraph review: ‘What he shows, to devastating effect, is the way in which human beings cannot bear too much order for too long.’
JG Ballard contributed to Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds science fiction magazine, which was based at 307 Portobello Road, and Hawkwind had a ‘High-Rise’ song featuring the line ‘It’s a human zoo, a suicide mission.’ Ballard’s urban myths of the near future also influenced punk and post-punk groups such as the Clash and Joy Division. After the first Clash ‘18 Flight Rock and the Sound of the Westway’ NME feature by Barry Miles, Tim Lott’s tower block syndrome ‘Head On Clash’ report in Record Mirror featured Paul Simonon reminiscing about high-rise hooliganism, and being evacuated from the Wornington Road school “because the top of Trellick Tower was crumbling.” Lott added: ‘That was in North Kensington, Westway-land. Simonon went to school in the miserable shadow of Trellick Tower, the ugliest building in London. When will it fall?’
Mick Jones told the NME’s Tony Parsons: “Each of these high-rise estates has got those places where kids wear soldiers’ uniforms and get army drill. Indoctrination to keep them off the streets… and they got an artist to paint pictures of happy workers on the side of the Westway.
Labour liberates and don’t forget your place.” In ‘Up in Heaven’ on the ‘Sandinista’ album, Mick laments ‘the towers of London, these crumbling blocks’, asking ‘how can anyone exist in such misery?’ – accompanied by the sound of a lift going down.
Trellick Tower, the Westway and the surrounding urban wastelandscape was immortalised in ‘Don Letts’ Punk Rock Movie’ Notting Hill Film Production and Lech Kowalski’s ‘DOA’ Sex Pistols film as the iconography of punk London.
In a classic North Kensington post-punk photo, prag VEC posed as if they were lying down under Trellick. In 1980 the Passions posed for a photo by Mike Laye by the canal next to the tower. Madness were under Trellick in the videos of ‘The Return of the Los Palmas Seven’ – in the Venus cafe on Golborne Road – and ‘Grey Day’ – in Emslie Horniman’s Pleasance Park in Kensal. The Department S ‘I Want’ video featured Vaughan Toulouse under the tower alongside the Great Western Railway line. Aswad were recorded ‘Live and Direct’ from the 1983 Notting Hill Carnival, in Meanwhile Gardens by the canal under Trellick.
When Mick Jones resurfaced after the Clash split for Big Audio Dynamite’s ‘The Bottom Line’ debut in 1985, he posed in high-rise noon style in Wild West 10, on Golborne Road in front of the tower. The third BAD album ‘Tighten Up Volume 88’ featured a Paul Simonon painted sleeve depicting a blues party under the Westway and Trellick. The 1994 Big Audio ‘Higher Power’ album cover featured Trellick again. Transvision Vamp also posed in front of the tower.
Over the last 50 years Trellick has appeared in numerous films, TV series and adverts. Films featuring the tower include ‘Freelance’, ‘The Scorpion’s Tail’, ‘The 14’, ‘Steptoe and Son Ride Again’, ‘Withnail and I’, ‘For Queen and Country’, ‘London Kills Me’, ‘Shopping’, ‘Revelation’, ‘Never Let Me Go’, ‘Kidulthood’, ‘Adulthood’, ‘Paddington’ and ‘London Fields’.
In Martin Amis’s ‘London Fields’ novel and the film the anti-hero Keith Talent is a Trellick resident. In the film the Earl of Warwick pub under the tower appears as the Black Cross, which was based on the Golden Cross (now Ukai) on Portobello Road. The ‘High-Rise’ film was shot in Canada. The Portobello Film Festival features a Trellick logo, images of the tower on programme covers and golden Trellick awards.
In ‘The Squeeze’ film, Stacy Keach plays an alcoholic detective with Freddie Starr as his sidekick searching the Golborne area under Trellick for a kidnapped girl.
‘The Sweeney’ were on Golborne Road under the tower, keeping the Venus Cafe under surveillance, on the trail of a gang planning a heist for a terrorist group infiltrated by a secret service agent.
‘The Professionals’ episode ‘The Madness of Mickey Hamilton’ was filmed in a flat in the tower.
In ‘Withnail and I’, Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film set in 1969, Richard E Grant and Paul McGann are chased out of the Tavistock Hotel pub on Tavistock Crescent towards the footbridge under the Westway and Trellick.
Denzel Washington appears under the tower in ‘For Queen and Country’.
Blur’s classic suicidal indie dirge ‘Best Days’, on ‘The Great Escape’ album from 1996, contains the line: ‘Trellick Tower’s been calling, I know she’ll leave me in the morning.’ Trellick subsequently appeared in Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz videos for ‘Tomorrow Comes Today’ and ‘Sleeping Powder’ and on the cover of their ‘Meanwhile’ EP. Damon formed his animated punky hip-hop concept group incorporating Trellick and the Westway with the ‘Tank Girl’ cartoonist Jamie Hewlett in Buspace studios on Conlan Street, off Middle Row in Kensal (also used by Aswad).
In 1996 the Guardian’s Kester Rattenbury reported: ‘For years tower blocks have been written off and pulled down. Not any more’, as ‘the management of the 31-floor Trellick Tower, which overlooks London’s Westway, will be handed over to its residents.’ In 1998 the tower was awarded a Grade 2 listing. As the last Notting Hill Carnival of the 20th century featured Damon Albarn and Destiny’s Child in Kensal’s Emslie Horniman park, the Carnival stage and sound-systems brought Kensal New Town into Notting Hill; Trellick became a Cool Britannia pop style icon and lost its negative punk ‘Tower of Terror’ image. Around this time the tower appeared in a Blackthorn cider ad.
At the start of the 21st century Trellick was evacuated and Golborne Road sealed off after there was a gas leak in the tower. In 2001 Kate Moss famously bought World’s End pirate boots from Rellik, the vintage fashion shop under Trellick at 8 Golborne Road (on the corner of Hazlewood Crescent).
The tower appeared in ‘Revelation’, Stuart Urban’s holy grail conspiracy thriller, along with Heathcote Williams from Frestonia. The following year it was in the abduction thriller ‘Silent Cry’.
So Solid Crew were under Trellick on the cover of the 2003 Carnival Time Out; inside Ben Watt of Everything but the Girl and Neighbourhood was pictured on the roof of Westbourne Studios next to Trellick.
In 2006 scenes in Lily Allen’s ‘LDN’ were shot under the tower. Noel Clarke appeared in front of Trellick on the 2007 ‘Adulthood’ film poster and Cathi Unsworth’s 2007 Goth noir novel ‘The Singer’ features scenes in a Trellick flat.
The alternative-rock anti-folk singer Emma-Lee Moss aka Emmy the Great has a ‘Trellick Tower’ track on her 2011 ‘Virtue’ album. In the ‘Black Mirror’ episode ‘Bandersnatch’ the game developer Colin Ritman's flat is in Trellick. The tower appeared in the credits of the children’s TV show ‘Incredible Games’ and in the idents of the BBC’s coverage of the 2012 Olympics. When ‘London Fields’ was being filmed, the Goldfinger Factory community recycling centre was established under Trellick.
As the Southam Street photographer Roger Mayne died, local history timeline steps were installed by Toby Laurent Belson on the corner of the Golborne Road Great Western Railway bridge, under Trellick, opposite the site of the Kelso Cochrane murder and Roger Mayne photo location – accompanied by the ‘Wild West 10’ Golborne youth project film. In 2018 the Laylow bar, formerly the Prince Arthur pub under Trellick, was frequented by Rihanna.
Since the Grenfell Tower fire, Trellick has been illuminated during Green for Grenfell commemorations. A fire in Trellick in 2017 was contained due to the concrete structure being listed so it couldn’t be covered with cladding.
Trellick Tower is currently under threat from a nearby development plan involving the demolition of neighbouring buildings and the construction of a 16-storey block by the tower. The renowned graffiti gallery at the southern base would also be destroyed if the plans go ahead.
The Open City charity called the plans ‘the latest in an ongoing programme of incremental demolition of Goldfinger’s world renowned social housing estate which has already seen the neighbourhood’s Edenham Residential Care Home knocked down’, and added Trellick to its ‘Buildings at Risk’ list.