London’s Trellick Tower and a development debate


LONDON — When Barbara Heksel and her family moved into the Trellick Tower in 1981, their friends thought they were crazy. Known for its uncompromising brutalist design and the crime in its brooding concrete hallways, London’s social housing project, built in 1972, had earned the tabloid nickname “Tower of Terror”.

But for the Heksels, Trellick was an opportunity. It offered a spacious two-bedroom apartment with stunning views over west London, a major upgrade from the cramped studio apartment where the family lived.

“We’re going to take it and make it ours,” Mrs. Heksel, 70, recalled telling her husband when they first saw their home.

Ms. Heksel has lived there ever since, relishing a home in a building that has gone from an eyesore to an icon. Designed by Ernö Goldfinger, the Hungarian-born architect whose buildings, legend has it, offended Ian Fleming so much he named one of his Bond villains after him, Trellick enjoys cult status. His apartments are snapped up as soon as they are listed; its location is close to Notting Hill, one of London’s most expensive areas.

Now, however, residents fear Trellick’s success has left him vulnerable. Last year they narrowly halted construction on a 15-storey tower that developers wanted to build between Trellick and a nearby small block, Edenham Way.

“It’s outrageous,” said Molly Berentson-O’Donnell, 26, who grew up on the 16th floor. “Trellick is a stand-alone tower, and I think that makes it iconic. If you build in front of it, you’ll ruin that beautiful skyline.

But for Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council member Kim Taylor-Smith, who contracted for the new tower, there was little choice. “The feeling was that it was better to have a big building and a lot of open space,” he explained.

Given the severe shortage of affordable housing in London and the valuable property occupied by the Trellick, it is almost certain that someone will build on the site in the future. But the locals would like to have their say.

“One thing we want is collaboration,” said Keith Benton, 72, who has lived with his wife on the 31st floor since 2014 and helped lead the campaign against the new tower project.

Residents want to preserve the architectural quirks that gave Trellick its sense of community. Plans for the new building, for example, would have required the partial, if not total, removal of the estate’s “graffiti hall of fame” – a freestanding wall at the base of Trellick that has been a concrete canvas for artists to street for more than 35 years.

The wall has deep emotional value: a section of it became a monument to the 72 people who died in 2017 in a catastrophic fire at nearby Grenfell Tower. Every June, around the anniversary of this tragedy, residents gather in front of the wall to organize a “memorial jam”.

“After Grenfell, the council promised us that if there was anything in the plans that we objected to, they would go back to the drawing board,” Mr Benton said.

Over time, Trellick has become safer and more attractive to potential buyers; there’s even a full-time concierge. But the growing desirability worries residents. Many fear that the construction will only attract more developers to the surrounding neighborhood, spoiling the character of the site.

“They claimed it wasn’t, but that’s gentrification,” Mr Benton said of changing perceptions of the existing building.

Concerns about the new tower proposals prompted residents to form a “Save Trellick” campaign last fall. They shared information via social media and took turns at the entrance to the tower with petitions. In total, they collected over 3,000 signatures and secured a meeting with local government officials at Chelsea’s Old Town Hall in December.

Designed in the late 1960s to meet the growing demand for post-war housing, Trellick was meant to represent a utopian future in which families could live above the smog, with every convenience close at hand. Goldfinger’s design included a nursery, convenience store, pub, medical clinic and even a nursing home.

Today, at 50, Trellick is considered an icon of brutalist architecture, with a striking design that connects a slender service tower – housing laundry rooms, elevator shafts and a garbage chute – to the main block at every third floor by “air bridges”.

The structure allows duplex apartments to be larger, maximizing living space and reducing noise in what was intended to be a “vertical village”. The 217 units are nested, nested with Escher-like precision, meaning, in Ms. Heksel’s words, “my upstairs neighbor is really two stories above me.”

In 1998, the government granted Trellick landmark status, ensuring that the tower would be preserved. ‘Trellick’s sinister reputation has always been exaggerated,’ Ms Heksel said, noting that ‘it was fashionable to give him bad press’.

Five years ago, the local government demolished the Trellick nursing home, which was not under the same preservation order, arguing that it did not have adequate toilets.

This decision greatly upset the residents, who pointed out that Goldfinger was inspired by the famous French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier to create a building that would meet the needs of a lifetime.

“It was beautifully designed and people loved it,” Mr Benton said. “Think about it: When you’re old, do you want to move six miles away, where no one can visit you?” Or would you like to be near the people you love?

The developers proposed to build the new tower on the site of the retirement home. As well as bifurcating the complex, residents argued that this would lead to overcrowding, straining already limited resources.

They also said public consultations on the project were not conducted in a transparent manner, leaving many people feeling cheated.

“It all happened during lockdown,” Ms Heksel said. “The consultations took place virtually. Many locals are elderly and tech-savvy.

The lingering fear among many tower residents is that they could suffer the same fate as the original residents of another Goldfinger tower, the Balfron in east London. This block is now almost entirely privately owned, following property legislation passed by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980. Council emptied the tower when it was sold, promising residents the right to return, which turned out not to be the case.

The drive to build more houses has been fueled by a housing crisis in Britain, particularly London. In October 2021, it was estimated that around 250,000 people were on waiting lists for social housing in the city. But residents of Trellick say the local council’s efforts to develop the site around the tower are profit-driven: for every new social housing unit built, they note, the council receives £100,000, or around £120,000. dollars, from the Mayor of London.

In an interview, Mr Taylor-Smith acknowledged that “we have a legal obligation to ensure that the books are balanced each year”.

“The only way to pay for improvements,” he said, “is to build new houses.” These improvements include custom tweaks to features that are now deprecated.

Emotions ran high when meeting with local government officials in December. Residents argued that the designs for the new tower breached the council’s own guidelines, which stated that additions to an existing estate should only be four to six stories high and should not require further demolition of buildings.

A few weeks later, the plans were withdrawn, with the board promising that any future development would be more of a collaboration.

But while the residents have won this round, they are not resting easily.

“All we did was shut them down for a few years,” Mr Benton said. “There’s no guarantee they won’t try again. We have to stay focused on what we want. »



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