“You propel yourself into the arms of god, and christ and all the angels,” remarks folk singer Emmy the Great on “Trellick Tower”. It’s far from the first thought to circulate the mind when Notting Hill’s famous social housing block is put under the spotlight. The colossal monument to Brutalist architecture reigns over the skies of the West London dwelling like an imperial giant.
Trellick Tower is a remarkable building. A decadent of another era – one where it was acceptable to build housing without a consideration of its own functionality. Trellick’s residents live in what can only be described as an urban maze. For one, the defining service tower is no-doubt architecturally interesting, but rather purposeless. Moreover, my last visit to the building saw me trapped at the top of a staircase leading purposedly nowhere – forcing a humiliating U-turn. Although this occurrence could easily be construed as part of my own ignorance.
Ernő Goldfinger’s structure would surely be rejected if in the planning stages today – especially from a council perspective. The maintenance, upkeep, and security cost more than would be acceptable in 2013. That’s because the 1980s saw the tower turn into a notorious crime hotspot with multiple rapes and assaults. Meanwhile, from an aesthetic viewpoint, witnessing 100 meters of concrete shoot up from the ground is enough to make anyone nauseous these days. So why praise it?
Well, its ugliness translates into beauty. The Love London Council Housing blog gives a good explanation of the ‘retro cool’ phenomenon. My own personal feelings towards Trellick Tower hark back to my interests and youth. My fascination with modern eastern European culture and history naturally associates itself with the social housing of the former Soviet republics. On a recent trip to East Berlin, I was one of few in my group who openly admired the formality of such buildings – albeit it from an outsiders’ distance. Saying that, for the younger years of my own existence, I grew up in council housing of a similar ilk. Despite my open disdain for that suburban monster, I also slightly miss the communality of living in a block with numerous families.
At a time when ‘affordable housing’ has quickly become the new slang, and council housing continues its slump into history, Trellick also reminds us of the big ideas we had for society in the pre-war period. Such buildings came after a national conversation about what type of country we wanted to live in. The UK chose a welfare society back then – a fact quickly ‘forgotten’ by subsequent Labour and Conservative governments. Ken Loach’s documentary The Spirit of ‘45 reminds us of this debate.
Emmy the Great’s “Trellick Tower” understands the brilliance of this beast in the same way as me. Recognising the tower’s soul and purpose, her song harnesses the building as a reference for the theme of lost love, ambition and heartache in a bare, stripped back manner.
It’s attempt to make sense of things which have past can be taken as a socio-political message as much as a romantic one; “Can I spend my life trying to climb you?” The residents of the tower have historically been immigrants, descendants of immigrants, and poor – despite a recent supposed influx of artists and hipsters. The opportunities of scaling to the top of the ‘tower’ for them is small.
I can only urge everyone and anyone to visit Trellick Tower if you get the chance. I guarantee it’ll put your life in perspective.
“Trellick Tower” yields from Emmy the Great’s 2011 album Virtue. Also take note of her short film for “God of Loneliness“, featuring Isy Suttie as a resident of the tower. Imagine that lift actually not working!
Jordan Rowe is a freelance journalist covering culture, world politics and the built environment. He writes for The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/profile/jordan-rowe), is Politics Editor at Pi Media (http://www.pimedia.org.uk/author/jordan-rowe), and you can follow him on Twitter @jordanmjrowe