LONDON — When Barbara Heksel and her family moved into Trellick Tower in 1981, their friends thought they were crazy.Known for its uncompromising brutalist design and crime in gloomy concrete corridors, the 1972 London public housing project has won The tabloid nicknamed the “Tower of Terror”.
But for Heksels, Trellick was an opportunity. It offers a spacious two-bedroom apartment with sweeping views of west London, a major upgrade from the cramped studio the family has always lived in.
“We’re going to make it our own,” Hexel, 70, recalls telling her husband the first time they saw their place.
Ms Hexel has lived there ever since, enjoying a home in a building that has ranged from geeky to iconic. Designed by Hungarian-born architect Ernö Goldfinger, his buildings, legendary, so offended Ian Fleming that he named one of his Bond villains after him, Trelick enjoying cult status. Its apartments were snapped up as soon as they hit the market; its location is close to Notting Hill, one of London’s most expensive areas.
Now, though, residents fear Trellick’s success has made it vulnerable. Last year, they narrowly halted construction on a 15-storey tower the developer had hoped to build between Trellick and the neighbouring Edenham Way neighbourhood.
“It was 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 ruin that wonderful skyline.”
But for Kensington and Chelsea Royal Borough Council member Kim Taylor Smith, who has signed with New Tower, there is no choice. “It felt like it would be better to have a tall building and lots of open space,” he explained.
Given the severe shortage of affordable housing in London and the precious real estate occupied by Trellick, it is almost certain that someone will build on the site in the future. But residents want their say.
“One thing we want is collaboration,” said Keith Benton, 72, who has lived on the 31st floor with his wife since 2014 and helped lead the campaign against the new tower project.
Residents want to preserve the architectural quirks that give Trellick a sense of community.For example, plans for a new building will require partial, if not full, demolition The Manor’s “Graffiti Hall of Fame” — Freestanding wall at the base of Trellick, a concrete canvas for street artists for over 35 years.
The wall has deep emotional value: part of it has become a memorial to the 72 people who lost their lives in a catastrophic fire at nearby Grenfell Tower in 2017. Every June, around the anniversary of that tragedy, residents gather on the city walls for a “memorial jam.”
“After Grenfell, the council promised us that if there was anything in the plan we objected to, they would redo the plan,” Mr Benton said.
Over time, Trellick became safer and more attractive to potential buyers. There’s even a dedicated concierge service. But the growing desirability has residents worried. Many fear the building will only attract more developers to the surrounding community, undermining the character of the site.
“They claim it’s not, but it’s gentrification,” Mr Benton said of his changing views on existing buildings.
Concerns about the new tower proposal prompted residents to organize a “Save Trelick” campaign last fall. They shared information via social media and took turns standing at the tower entrance to petition. All told, they collected more than 3,000 signatures and held a meeting with local government representatives at Chelsea’s Old Town Hall in December.
Trellick’s plan to meet postwar housing demand soaring in the late 1960s was supposed to represent a utopian future in which families could live above the smog, with all conveniences within easy reach. Goldfinger designs include nurseries, corner stores, bars, medical clinics and even nursing homes.
Today Trellick, 50, is seen as an icon of brutalist architecture, with its striking design linking a thin service tower — housing laundry, elevator shafts and a trash chute — to each of the three via “sky bridges”. floor of the main block.
This structure makes the duplex apartments larger, maximizing living space and reducing noise in what would otherwise be a “vertical village”. The 217 units are connected to each other with Escher-esque precision, which means, in Ms Hexel’s words, “my upstairs neighbour is actually two stories taller than me.”
In 1998, the government granted Trellick Landmark status, guaranteeing that the tower will be protected. “Trelick’s notoriety has always been exaggerated,” Ms Hexell said, noting that “it’s fashionable to give it negative press.”
Five years ago, the local government demolished the Trellick nursing home, which was not under the same protection order, citing not enough restrooms.
The decision upset residents, who pointed out that Goldfinger was inspired by the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier to create a building that would meet the needs of a lifetime.
“It’s beautifully designed and people love 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 do you want to be close to someone you love?”
Developers have proposed building new towers on the nursing home site. In addition to bifurcating the complex, residents believe it will lead to overcrowding, straining already limited resources.
They also said the public consultation on the project had not been conducted transparently, leaving many feeling blindsided.
“It’s all happening during lockdown,” Ms Hexell said. “Consultations are conducted virtually. Many residents are older and less tech-savvy.”
The lingering fear among many of the tower’s residents is that they could suffer the same fate as the original inhabitants of another Goldfinger tower, in Balfron, east London. The block is now almost entirely privately owned, the result of property legislation passed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1980. Council emptied the tower when it sold it, promising residents the right to return, but that turned out not to be the case.
The UK’s housing crisis has boosted the drive to build more homes, especially in London. Around October 2021 An estimated 250,000 people are on the waiting list City Council housing. But Trellick residents say the local council’s efforts to develop the site around the tower are motivated by profit: They point out that the council receives £100,000, or about $120,000, from the Mayor of London for every new public housing unit built.
In an interview, Mr Taylor-Smith conceded, “We have a statutory obligation to make sure our books are balanced each year.”
“The only way to pay for improvements,” he said, “is to build new homes.” The improvements include custom tweaks to now-obsolete features.
Emotions ran high during a December meeting with local government representatives. Residents argue that the design of the new tower violates the council’s own guidelines, which stipulate that additions to the existing estate must be only four to six storeys high, and that further demolition of the building should not be required.
A few weeks later, those plans were withdrawn, with the council promising that any future development would be more of a collaboration.
But while the Residents won that round, they didn’t rest easy.
“All we did was stop them for a few years,” Mr Benton said. “There’s no guarantee they won’t try again. We have to continue to focus on what we want.”