02 May 2007

On A High Rise Estate

For years the view from my bedroom window in London was dominated by the unlovely behemoth to your left. In a city replete with gigantic architectural blunders, the Trellick Tower was perhaps the most notorious of all. It was built between 1968 and 1972, the same period during which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Victorian terrace houses were leveled by the Council to make room for what was optimistically called "social housing."

"Antisocial housing" might have been a more apt description of what the tabloids took to calling the "Tower of Terror." Perhaps architect Ernö Goldfinger was too concerned with creating a legacy or adhering to the principles of modernist/brutalist architecture to pay attention to the pragmatics of creating a pleasant, livable environment; almost immediately after it was opened for occupancy, things started going wrong.

Fixtures fell off or were broken off by vandals and never replaced; windows and door glass were kicked in and similarly left like so many festering sores. It was not unheard of for chunks of concrete to break lose and come tumbling down when and where you least expected it. Many of the problems were of the kind that are commonly found in public housing estates (projects, as the Americans say), but the Trellick's difficulties were exacerbated by its design, which must have looked fabulous on paper, but in reality left vast stretches of the building unmonitored and unprotected, virtually guaranteeing that they would be taken over by the feral elements of the population.

I attended a late night after-the-pub party there in 1976; even in my rather inebriated state, I was shocked by the shabby and menacing aspect of what was almost a brand new building. Most of the corridor lights were missing - had been smashed, to be more precise - and none of the lifts were operating, leaving us to walk up 19 flights of urine-stained stairs. "You don't want to trust the lifts even when they are working," our host advised us. "The kids jam them somehow so they can hang out in them, and you never know when or where they're going to stop. You could be stuck for hours. Days, even, the way things work around here."

One thing that could be said in favor of the Trellick Tower was the view it afforded its residents. Even on the 19th floor you could see right across London. Those who lived in the near and not-so-near vicinity weren't so fortunate: all they got from the Trellick's commanding stature was an eyesore blotting out the horizon.

Granted, there were those (apart from the architect) who claimed to see a certain beauty in its muscular concrete lines, but most of us saw only an instant slum, its squalor and degradation raised like a banner for British decline and failure. It wasn't until years later, when I visited Eastern Europe and saw similar tower blocks that I understood how little, ideologically and esthetically speaking, had separated Britain's socialists from their counterparts in the Soviet bloc. In both cases, function ran roughshod over form, and the human beings who had to live in these brave new enclosures were mere ciphers in some apparatchik's Grand Design.

In the 90s someone got the bright idea of planting a row of fast-growing evergreens behind my building, and within a few years, they'd blotted the Trellick Tower from view, along with deadening the perennial noise from the Westway, the Underground, and the Paddington railway line. Every so often people on the upper floors would complain that the trees had grown too high, the tops would be lopped off, and part of the Trellick would slide ineluctably into view, but within a year or two we'd be back to the illusion of living in a forest glen (apart from the junkies and the prostitutes who'd come sidling in to take advantage of the privacy it afforded). We even had a fox who took up residence in the hedgerow and could be seen in the wee hours, a glazed look in his eyes as he darted between the rubbish bins at opposite ends.

And though the Trellick Tower and its slightly more diminutive cousins still ruled the skyline looking north to the hardbitten precincts of Queens Park and Brent, it gradually receded from my consciousness. On our side of the Westway, few buildings were more than three stories high, the majority of them dating back to the mid to late 19th century. When I'd first come to the area many were in a state of advanced decrepitude, abandoned or occupied by squatters, but they've since been renovated and re-occupied by the burgeoning class of media and professional people flocking to what suddenly became the very trendy Notting Hill.

Many of these houses - which in the 70s were slated for demolition by the same authorities who gave us monstrosities like the Trellick - now sell for in excess of £1 million ($2 million). Unfortunately, my house - flat, I should say - was not among them. Here and there, interspersed like so many broken teeth in an otherwise presentable jaw, the Council had had its way, replacing Victorian terraces with council estates that, if not as spectacularly as the Trellick, degenerated just as quickly into yellow and red brick slums.

Our building opened in 1974; within a couple years the elaborate intercom/door entry system had been demolished and the doors themselves ripped off the hinges to facilitate entry for clients of the ubiquitous drug dealers. I first arrived there in 1975, and already the institutional green paint was chipping from the walls and the corridors reeked with what Orwell's 1984 described as "the usual boiled cabbage smell."

The years were kind to our little block of 104 flats: following Thatcher's right-t0-buy program, about half the flats went into private ownership, some of the worst drug dealers and criminals were evicted or imprisoned, and eventually we became a tenant-run cooperative, which succeeded for the most part in keeping the doors on and crime limited to the usual noise complaints and petty vandalism. Even the boiled cabbage smell receded, overpowered by the curries of the increasingly numerous Asian residents.

We were becoming a normal building, almost, but you needed only to look at the harsh lines of the 1970s architecture, the make-do quality of the fittings, to know that underneath still lurked the soul of a council estate. I counted my blessings, though, when I had to cut through the estate across the road, as I did most days. It was much larger than ours, and more poorly designed. Half its apartments faced inward onto what had clearly been meant to be a delightful green space - no doubt inspired by the "Garden City" school of public architecture, which held that the poor and shiftless would be ennobled and inspired by being exposed to grass and trees - but more often functioned as a haven for muggers and gangs.

In the midst of the estate was the only tower block on our side of the Westway, a mere 10 stories or so, but it still stood out as a monument to a failed era. Even on the calmest and pleasantest of days, vicious wind currents would come swirling around it, rendering the whole vicinity unwelcoming and unlovely. And for years, I could never walk past it without, somewhere in my brain, hearing those Smiths lyrics, where Morrissey sighs in his world-weary way about "a three-day debate on a high rise estate."

By the time I left London, nearly all the council estates, at least in our relatively genteel part of town, were greatly improved. Even the Trellick, through the miracle of marketing, had been transformed into a somewhat desirable location, despite still being ugly as sin and on the wrong side of the Westway. The tower block over the road from me was in the midst of a couple year's worth of renovations, and a coat of green paint applied to many of the building's external facades gave it an almost cheerful mien. But I would still get a slight chill walking around its base, and even today, 3000 miles away, I can't picture it in my mind's eye without Morrissey's mournful tones intruding to remind me that "amid concrete and clay and general decay, nature must still find a way."

4 comments:

kristina said...

The Tower of Terror is my favorite ride at Disneyland.

Anonymous said...

I do no its reputation as i only live down the road from it, i do not no what the estate looked like back in the 70's - 80's. You can imagine what it 'Did' look like, as you can see a bit of the broken bridge that went over the football pitch thats there now, also they have just put gates and brick walls over what used to be ways of getting in & out of the estate. What i want to know is, the garages in the estate why was they abandoned, bricked up and left? I climbed into the garages about a week ago and what i saw was just a waste it looked like the place was MUCH bigger. Do you no anyhting about it? please Reply.

Anonymous said...

Elllo..??

Anonymous said...

Seems that No ones home?????