Row houseSlab, corridorSlab, gallery-accessSlab, corridorSlab, gallery-access, skip stopTower
Trellick Tower
Goldfinger, Ernö | London, England | 1972
Image of Trellick ...
Tower, south facade and lower service spaces

ProjectTrellick Tower
ArchitectGoldfinger, Ernö
AddressGolborne Road, W10
Building TypeRow house
Slab, gallery access
Slab, gallery-access, skip stop
Number of Dwellings317
Date Built1972
Dwelling Types1,2,3 BR flats; 3BR maisonettes
No. Floors31
Section Typeskip-stop
Exterior Finish
concrete, wood, metal
Construction Typepoured concrete cross walls, pre-cast concrete
Ancillary Serviceselderly center, nursery school playgrounds, shops, garage

Ernö Goldfinger was a member of an important group of European émigré architects that arrived in London in the late 1930’s. His work of this period was limited to a few small commissions, the most notable of which was a group of 3 row houses on Willow Road overlooking Hampstead Heath where the architect and his wife lived until he died in 1987. Goldfinger began to receive larger commissions in the years following WWII when he began to actively promote the design of high-rise apartment buildings and his reputation rests mostly with several high-rise projects and buildings designed between 1959 and 1972. The Trellick Tower is the largest and latest of these projects, a 31-story apartment slab, part of a complex of several buildings in North Kensington called Cheltenham Estate, built for the Greater London Council. When it was built, Trellick was one of the tallest buildings in Europe and it came to epitomize all that was thought to be wrong with modern housing and urbanism following the wave of negative public sentiment about this kind of high-rise apartments that swept many countries in the 1970’s.

As Gold finger’s practice began to grow in the 1950’s he designed several small buildings that stand out as precedents to Trellick and provide links between earlier CIAM interests and Willow Road, and the tall Brutalist projects of the late 1960’s. This group of buildings includes the headquarters for the Communist Newspaper, the Daily Worker Buildings, 1946, a 5-story block of flats on Regent’s Park Road, 1954, an office building on Albemarle Street, done in 1956, and a small factory for the furniture manufacturer Hille of 1956. These are all examples of late Functionalist buildings that express an architecture of exposed concrete structure and infill panels, details, and materials. While these buildings were the result of the modest commissions available to a small office, Goldfinger also continued his interest in skyscrapers dating from a 1933 proposal done for the CIAM exhibit in Athens for the design of a 22-story, freestanding apartment block. In 1955, Goldfinger and H.T. Cadbury-Brown, designed a 28-story office block at Moorgate that was done as a way of exploring the design issues of a tall building. This project continued the preoccupation with frame and infill, but also added several new design features that would become Goldfinger trademarks: the external expression of vertical service cores, a differentiated base and top, and the hierarchical division of the façade into horizontally differentiated zones. The perspective rendering of the Moorgate project is a reference to Le Corbusier’s Algiers tower of 1938 and the early schemes for the unité d’habitation in Marseille of the late 1940’s although the façade depth is achieved through a process of erosion of the frame as compared to the additive brise soleil employed by Le Corbusier. The following year Goldfinger designed a 13-story, residential slab at Abbots Langley where access galleries were used at every third floor.

The commercial complex at Elephant and Castle, designed in 1959, although not housing, is the first completed example of the mature Goldfinger articulated frame high-rise building. This was the result of a limited architect/developer competition. The first stage included a 17-story slab, three lower 8-story slabs, and a theater arranged around a tight courtyard. The articulated frame is now expressed in both additive and subtractive modes in addition to a more developed pilotis, the banded horizontal striations, external service cores, and developed roofs, details that became Goldfinger leitmotifs. Unfortunately, the exposed frame and balconies provided an attractive roost for pigeons and Elephant and Castle was subsequently covered with wire mesh. Another similar office complex for the north end of Bedford Square was proposed two years later that included a 33-story tower to be built on axis with the square. While these projects were office complexes and a certain amount of criticism was leveled at the architect for manipulating the building exteriors in a way that suggested something other than homogenous interiors, they are clear prototypes for the two large housing projects that come at the end of Goldfinger’s career, London County Council’s Rowlett street housing, that included Balfron Tower (1963-68) that was 27-floors high, making it one of the tallest apartment buildings in Europe, and the GLC Trellick Tower, that was part of the Cheltenham estate, at 31 stories, making it the tallest public apartment building in Great Britain, finished in 1972.

Balfron and Trellick towers have much in common. Both were part of staged projects that included other types of housing, community buildings and public open spaces. Both share the concept of the articulated tower that had been developing in the Goldfinger oeuvre during the late 1950’s and 60’s and both are similarly sited and share similar architectural details and organizational ideas. On each site, a separate lower slab placed at right angles to the taller tower forms an “ell” that helps define the interior of the site. The tower is seen as a tall vertical element that dominates each site. Unlike typical zeilenbau siting, these slabs can be sited on either a north/south or an east/west alignment and, because of this, more effectively enclose the community spaces on the interior of the block and define the perimeter of each site. Balfron faces east/west while Trellick faces north/south. The sectional organization features an enclosed gallery at every 3rd floor with entrance and stairs to flats or maisonettes above and below the access level. The galleries connect to a detached vertical circulation tower with bridges at every 3rd floor. The circulation element is rendered as a separate small tower and, in addition to elevators and stairs, contains mechanical equipment, including the boiler, as well as shared community spaces. The bridge elements between slab and tower are insulated with neoprene pads to achieve sound and vibration isolation. The opposite end of the building is expressed as a vertical zone of walls and different windows reflecting the presence of the 2nd stair and a zone of different dwellings that occupy the end of the building as compared to the side. Goldfinger was critical of the shopping floors in the Marseille block. But he included a zone of maisonettes with “pulpit” balconies (a la Le Corbusier)--at mid-building in Balfron and at the two-thirds point in Trellick--that is expressed as a horizontal interruption to the vertical continuity of the south façade. The gallery facades are expressed as alternating horizontal bands of gallery windows or fully glazed dwellings. The pilotis–styled base is expressed as a higher zone of community spaces although the jardin de toit so precious to the Corbusier prototypes is conspicuously missing in the English version of the unite.

Trellick has a mix of 9 different flats and maisonettes. All dwellings are through apartments with windows on both sides of the building that are entered from the gallery with stairs connecting to the floors above or below. The kitchen and dining area are located at the gallery level of the maisonettes and open to large balconies facing south and the stair connects to the level below where rooms open to both sides of the building. Goldfinger was known for careful detailing and Trellick has many design innovations such as the sound-proofing (Goldfinger wanted double glazing to help control the noise from the trains leading into Pancreas Station), lighting, windows that pivoted for cleaning, large rooms, individual fan-coil units for heating and there were spectacular views across London. Goldfinger used proportional systems in his buildings applying a modular grid and regulating lines to achieve more harmonious results. Apparently, the added 4 floors in Trellick and the repositioning of the horizontal band of maisonettes were done to improve the overall proportions over Balfron. The rendered axonometrics that were an office trademark showcase the precise proportions of these deep, gridded facades.

Goldfinger was an advocate of hi-rise living and was committed to the Ville Radieuse concept of the tower in the park. He even wanted to replace Hampstead (where he lived) with 40-story skyscrapers to be placed around the perimeter of the park. Goldfinger and his wife lived in flat no. 130 on the 26th floor of Balfron for two months as a publicity stunt when the building was opened to promote the idea of tall buildings for social housing. He made the point that this was done to experience what he had designed and Ernö and Ursula were featured in the national press and on T.V. & radio poised on their balcony. The Goldfingers threw parties for the tenants and Ursula kept notes of the experience. And, he discovered problems from this experience, that the 2 lifts at Balfrond were not enough and that there were problems with the heating systems.

Shortly after the couple moved back to their house in Hampstead, a new concrete high-rise apartment building at Rowan Point partially collapsed after a gas explosion in the kitchen of a flat on the 18th floor. One corner of the building sheared off, several people were killed and there was a lot of damage to the building. This event was not wasted on Goldfinger who felt that the prefabricated concrete system employed in the construction of Rowan Point was too weak, that poured in place concrete was better. But the Rowan disaster, turned public opinion against high-rise apartments in general and, coming as it did at the beginning of the construction on Trellick, portended trouble ahead. The site had been slum terrace housing before the GLC began Cheltenham Estate and the new site was never properly managed. The GLC did not provide security or access to the staircases, elevators and other public areas with the result that the project was vandalized even before the building was opened. Trellick was regularly featured in the tabloids as “The Tower of Terror”, and there were stories of women being raped in the elevators, children attacked by drug addicts, and homeless squatters setting fire to empty flats. The underground garages were especially dangerous. Just before Christmas in 1972, vandals opened a fire hydrant on the 12th floor landing releasing thousands of gallons of water into the lift shafts and all heat and electricity was out for several days.

The building was refurbished in the 1990’s and under new management the use of closed circuit TV, more security, and a concierge system, living conditions have improved. Few dwellings come up for sale, and residents generally like the large well-lighted flats, and spectacular views. Much of the 1970’s critique of high-rise modernist housing still apply at Trellick, problems with supervising children, the scary balconies, the harshness of the public spaces, the problems with parking and so on. As an exercise in the urban planning of a late CIAM ensemble, Trellick remains a shockingly tall intrusion built on an island of modernist blocks inserted into a difficult site with little formal or physical connection to the surrounding neighborhood. The preoccupation with the tower lends some credence to the Villa Radieuse concept of building in a park although there is not much of the park in the densely packed 11-acre site. The scene from the tower maisonettes, however, is incredible, an elevated aerial view across the vast urban landscape of London.

Trellick may have been the inspiration for the novel, High-Rise, written in 1975 by the English science fiction writer J.G. Ballard. The last of a trilogy of books (Crash, 1973, Concrete Island, 1974) exploring common dystopian themes about the impact of modern technology on the human physic, High-Rise is a bleak apocalyptic tale about the social and physical disintegration of a community of 2000 people living in a 40-story apartment tower in London. Much of the description of the tower in Ballard’s novel seem to have been derived directly from Trellick, the extended height, the facades and balconies, the articulated stairs and elevators, and the general Brutalist quality of the” concrete landscape”. Ballard’s description of the tower as “an architecture built for war” certainly seems apropos vis-ŕ-vis the Brutalist quality of the complex.

By the time High-Rise was published, there was already heightened public antagonism towards the typical modernist social housing development of the 1960’s and an accompanying fear of high rise buildings in general. Incidents like the explosion in the Rowan Point tower in 1972, and the release of disaster films like The Towering Inferno (1974), a story about a fire in a 102-story office tower, and the earlier demolition of the Pruitt Igoe slabs in St. Louis in 1972, all contributed to a growing popular rejection of high rise-housing types.

While other earlier examples of GLC 1960’s housing estates may also have provided examples of dystopian scenes (Brandon Estate, for example, a group of 5, 17-story towers), none were as tall or quite so starkly modernist as Trellick. The deterioration of Ballard’s’ tower as the tenants slip into a state of complete anarchy and start eating each other’s dogs (and eventually each other), and most of the other problems that characterized Terllick’s early years are described here: the social stratification related to the location of one's apartment, problems with the elevators and stairs, noise, objects thrown from the balconies, muggings and assaults, fires, and the overwhelming lack of security. Like Goldfinger at Trellick, the architect who designed High-Rise, also lives in the building, there ostensibly to promote the bourgeoisie imagery of the place. While Ballard uses the high-rise building and its occupants as a metaphor for the problems of culture in general, and of man becoming the victim of the technology he creates, an embedded theme is the destructive, alienating qualities of modern architecture and especially high-rise housing.

Architect's Journal, 19/1/73, pp. 21-9

Architect's Journal, 23/11/87, pp. 28-9

Dunnett, James, Architect's Journal, Nov. 20, 1997, pp. 32-8

Dunnett, James, Ernö Goldfinger: Works, London Architectural Association, 1983

Jones, Edward, & Christopher Woodward, , Van Nostrand Reinhold, N. Y., 1983, pp. 74Architect's Journal, Nov. 20, 1997, pp. 32-8

Warburton, Nigel, Ernö Goldfinger: The Life of An Architect, Routledge, London, 2003

Colquhoun, Ian, RIBA Book of 20th Century British Housing, Butterfield- Heinemann, Oxford, 1998, pp. 100-101

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