High living -

Keith Benton and Gill Kernick

Date of photography: 7th September 2017

Almost 8% of Londoners currently live in tower blocks.   That number would be much greater, of course, if more of the luxury flats that are stacked up into the ever more numerous ‘glass palaces in the sky’ were actually occupied - most remain dark and empty, seen only as an investment by their overseas (offshore?) owners.   For Keith and Gill, living in Trellick Tower is living in what they perceive as a fabulous ‘vertical village’;  they love it.   For many others, particularly following the ‘towering inferno’ that was once the nearby Grenfell Tower, it would be the very last thing they’d want.  Since the Grenfell disaster, tower blocks are once more being seen as an undesirable form of social housing;  yet, at the same time, the London skyline is being frequently pierced by yet more new towers of luxury apartments for the super wealthy, costing many millions apiece.  Would it be too obvious to conclude that it might well be poverty and social inequality, and not the inherent characteristics of tower blocks, that are the root causes of the problems we have come to associate with ‘high living’?

The full story:

Almost 8% of Londoners live in tower blocks and the number would, of course, be much greater if more of the luxury flats, housed in the ever more numerous ‘glass palaces in the sky’, were to be actually occupied - most remain dark and empty, seen only as an investment by their overseas (offshore?) owners.   (An article in this project is dedicated to this very topic;  please refer to, No-One at Home.)   Having lived myself for a number of years in the late 1970’s on the 21st floor of the iconic Balfron Tower in Poplar, in East London, I was keen to cover a topic that often generates controversial responses whenever housing is discussed.   Then, during the night of June 14th 2017, Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block in North Kensington, turned quite literally into a towering Inferno, a fire that resulted in the death of 72 residents and the serious injury of over 70 more.   This catastrophe put an inevitable slant on my proposed story;  it is an event that will undoubtedly reverberate for many years to come, affecting each and every debate about the desirability of ‘high-rise’ living,

To tell this story, I attempted to interview the current occupants of my old flat in Balfron Tower, but that building is at present undergoing major renovations and I understand it is to be transformed into luxury dwellings, for sale to wealthy homeowners and, I daresay, to rich investors from overseas -  I will return to this topic later on.   I was therefore exceptionally fortunate, and honoured, to be invited into the home of  Keith Benton and Gill Kernick, who live on the 15th floor of Balfron’s ‘sister’ tower, the Trellick Tower, in West London - broadly similar in design, both were the work of Ernő Goldfinger.   The sinister, charred remains of Grenfell Tower can be seen from their balcony and I discovered that, by an extraordinary coincidence, Keith and Gill had previously lived for a number of years on th1st floor of that ill-fated building.   They moved out having succeeded in purchasing their existing flat in Trellick.   Keith comments:  “From our balcony, we watched our old home burn and so did almost everyone here.   Many Trellick residents had families and friends who died in that dreadful blaze, numbers of them are now profoundly traumatised, and some children are unable to sleep at night without the light on, even now, many weeks later.”  

Both Balfon Tower, designed in 1963 and built in 1965-67, and Trellick Tower, completed in 1972,  were the work of the extraordinary, Hungarian-born architect, Ernő Goldfinger.   He studied at the famous École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris and, while he was greatly influenced  by Auguste Perrett and Mies van der Rohe, his principal muse was the famed Le Corbusier himself.   He married Ursula Blackwell, heiress to the Crosse & Blackwell fortune, and much of his professional work was thus destined to be in the UK.   Most of his architecture has been associated with so-called ‘Brutalism’ but he belonged to a generation of architects who had a clear vision of how humans live within an architect-designed townscape, architects who have had a profound influence on architecture and town planning all over Europe and worldwide.  

Following the Second World War, in which over four million homes were destroyed or seriously damaged, governments and local authorities of the time embraced high-rise buildings as one potential solution to what was a general housing crisis and thus the 27-floor Balfron Tower and the adjacent seven-storey Carradale House grew from the ruins of bomb-damaged East London slums, to be followed by the 31-floor Trellick Tower, in Kensal Town, a few years later.

It is worth noting that Ernő Goldfinger was genuinely concerned about the people who would live in his buildings;  he insisted on the highest quality of workmanship and he himself lived for several months in an apartment on the 24th floor of Balfron Tower, inviting residents up to give him their comments on the building and to suggest improvements - many of these suggestions were subsequently incorporated as changes to the design of Balfron’s sister tower, Trellick.   Goldfinger had seen at first hand the appalling quality of life imposed upon people living in the East London slums and he believed that a decent standard of living should be available, not only to the rich but to everyone else.   It was his belief that good architecture, well-considered and well-executed living environments could resolve many of the social ills that were so prevalent in London’s slums, and indeed the early experiences of tenants proved him to be right.   When East London families first moved into Balfron Tower, they could hardly believe how well-designed and well-built the flats were, how comfortable, how light and airy, how conducive to good living.   Ursula Goldfinger’s diary, dated 24th March 1968 (now part of the RIBA Archive) recorded verbatim, first-hand comments from the Balfron residents of flat number 139, a Mr & Mrs MacDonald (these have been slightly condensed):  

Mr. M:  “I’ve made some new friends that we never would have met before and we are very happy here. The heating is something we looked forward to for a long time and it can be altered;  [some] thing[s] they will improve when the teething troubles … are getting sorted out. There has been a lot said about being lonely in these tall flats - well - I don’t think so. My wife doesn’t think so either. We have made new friends which we would never have met before. Our own neighbours even in the old houses delighted in being behind curtains and watching things but in this place they will come to the door and say “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” and even ask you different things even with your family but they’re not sitting behind the curtains.”

Mrs. M:  “I’m perfectly happy here I wouldn’t change it for all the world, the people are very nice and my flat is beautiful.  I don’t need to have the electric light on at all because the place is so beautifully light. In fact, I wished I‘d had the chance to come here many years ago, had it been built.”

Mrs. M:  “Views are absolutely marvellous, I really and truly pray for the evenings so that I can stand on my balcony and look at the beautiful lights. I’m perfectly happy here and I wouldn’t change it for the Queen’s own Buckingham Palace. I was born here and I know everybody and any body that I know in these flats says that they are perfectly happy here. There’s nothing to find fault with, it’s beautiful.”

Asked if living at Balfron felt less friendly, Mrs M replies: “No we’re all friendly, everyone you speak to is ever so nice, No we’re all a friendly lot of people.”

And Goldfinger himself wrote in a press report of 13th May, 1968:

“The success of any scheme depends on the human factor - the relationship of people to each other and the frame to their daily life which the building provides. These particular buildings have the great advantage of having as tenants, families with deep roots in the immediate neighbourhood. In fact, most families have been re-housed from the adjoining streets. Of the 160 families, all except two, came from the Borough of Tower Hamlets.”

“The nine access corridors form so many East End pavements, on which the normal life of the neighbourhood continues.  On 7 of these pavements there are 18 front doors while, on two levels - the ground floor and the 15th floor where there are maisonettes, there are 8 front doors. As far as possible, people from the same area were re-housed together - street by street.”

“The people who occupy these flats continue to work in the same jobs as before they moved; children go to the same schools as before.”

“The future:  Provisions which are lacking, which are partly in the process of being remedied, are the common facilities. This is a delicate point which has been plaguing housing for half a century - the difficulty of deciding how much of the common facilities are attributable to housing proper and how much comes under other headings. This is, of course, an organisational problem which I had better not enlarge on….”

Ernő Goldfinger was not just an architect, he was an urban planner:  he maintained that it was essential for Balfron Tower, and Carradale House next door, to be surrounded by green spaces, planted areas, trees, playgrounds and facilities for mothers and toddlers.   The lower part of his buildings were to have spaces for social activities, meeting rooms, and garages too.  All this was in his plans but much of it never became a reality;  as is ever the case, the money ran out, local planning authorities objected, and vested interests came into play.   When financial constraints had to be introduced, the posts of resident caretaker and concierge were cut.   Unsurprisingly, such decisions saved money in the short term but resulted in far greater costs over time.   Without supervision, vandalism soon became a nasty, unchecked reality, with tenants facing problems every day, and with no-one to intervene on their behalf.  

Tragically, only a few years after its opening, Balfron Tower was starting to be perceived pretty much as a ‘vertical slum’.  By the middle of the 1970’s, barely ten years after the building’s completion, some of the flats stood empty;  with no new tenants willing to move in, these flats became places where the Local Authorities dumped problem families, further impairing the perception of the building in the eyes of the community.   The general maintenance of the building, of the lifts, and of other essential facilities became poor or non-existent.   It is essential to emphasise that the Balfron and Trellick Towers were outstanding examples of high-quality architecture, providing well-designed dwellings for Londoners;  they must be differentiated from the many profoundly second-rate imitations that mushroomed across the capital.   Such cut-price high-rises were often badly designed, poorly built and cheaply constructed;  some were actually structurally unsound, like the notorious Ronan Point in Newham which partly collapsed in 1968, following a gas explosion, only two months after the first tenants had moved in.

Britain is a country where many great ideas are born, and where best practice is frequently imported, but its government and its financial institutions suffer from a serious, ingrained flaw - short-termism.   Politicians will often find the money for great projects, great buildings and the most innovative housing schemes but the inevitable requirement for the continuous, long-term maintenance of these projects is either overlooked completely or simply passed over to local authorities whose budgets are constrained and continually cut.   Both the Balfron and Trellick Towers are now Grade 2 listed buildings and can still be saved, but many of London’s other tower blocks are simply so poorly built that they are no longer fit for purpose.   Cladding them in cheap, stuck-on façades is just more short-termism, mere camouflage, and without the major, internal upgrade of utilities (like sound gas pipework, sprinkler and alarm systems) this approach can only be a recipe for more towering infernos and perhaps even more deaths.  

While Goldfinger’s well-designed and well-built towers could easily have become shining models of safe, high-quality, high-rise urban living, the burnt-out wreck of Grenfell Tower has instead become the most appalling and potent augury of how shameful under-investment, poor planning, penny-pinching maintenance and cut-price cosmetic refurbishment contribute to the crisis in affordable housing in London.   One might well suspect that if and when Grenfell is rebuilt, it will have mysteriously and magically metamorphosed into a block of high-rise, luxury apartments to be sold or let at the exorbitant prices that generally prevail in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the country’s richest local authorities.  

When, in the Summer of 1978, a greedy landlord evicted me from my flat in Clapham, a flat I was sharing with two friends, it was my good fortune to get myself on to a GLC list for unwanted flats around London that were standing empty;  almost overnight, I found myself living in a large, three-bedroom flat on the 21st floor of Balfron Tower.   Being but a medium ranking civil servant, I had to find two others to share it with me simply to be able to afford the rent.  

Though my new flat in the sky was simply amazing, the building itself had become neglected and vandalised, to the despair of those who had lived there from the outset.   As Tower Hamlets, the relevant local authority, seemed not to have the resources to maintain it appropriately, I succeeded in setting up a Balfron Tenants’ Association and with some other energetic volunteers, managed to energise the residents into working together to reverse the vandalism, clean the lifts, and try to recreate the old East London community spirit of positive cooperation between neighbours.   We also managed to persuade the Local Authority to replace smashed windows, to renew essential lighting, and to evict some of the most troublesome families they had ‘dumped’ there;  things were starting to look up.   However, it was clear to me that only a major injection of cash would make a real, permanent difference, with controlled entry and the restoration of the post of resident caretaker/concierge seen as a ‘must’.  

But instead of enlightened progress in the management of social housing, what we witnessed was the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC).   The Government’s preferred direction of travel was clear:  there would be wholesale dismantling of the post-war, welfare state, with the provision of housing largely handed over to ‘the market’.   One Balfron resident has described recent housing policy as “starve, run down and privatise” and he was right;  Balfron Tower has been gradually cleared of its social tenants and is now about to receive a major facelift and some long overdue modernisation.   Being a listed building with an impeccable architectural pedigree, close to the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf, its refurbished flats will undoubtedly provide homes to those who can afford the eye-watering purchase prices of large, well-proportioned dwellings close to Docklands, not to mention the expensive service and maintenance charges a building of that kind will require.  

Some observers in London have described this sort of process, repeated on many former GLC inner-city social housing estates, as ‘gentrification’;  others see it as blatant ‘social cleansing’;  I simply see it as the working of ‘the Market’.   And, while I regret that the aspirations of the great visionary architects of the past are now rubbished and cast aside by those who are driven by a mixture of short-term political dogma and greed, I am at least pleased that Balfron Tower will be preserved as an iconic high-rise building of great quality.

Keith Benton has also been watching the machinations around the future of Balfron Tower for a number of years and he now feels that, following the Grenfell disaster, the future of Trellick Tower will be secured, without a process of social cleansing.  He is, and has been for a number of years, the Chair of the Residents’ Association so, having had his finger on the pulse, his assumptions may well prove to be correct.   After many years of delays, a programme of major refurbishment is about to commence at Trellick and the scaffolding will shortly be going up, without residents being relocated or even asked to vacate their flats.   Keith is passionate about the Trellick Tower:  he sees it not only as a desirable home but also as an example of fine architecture, designed by an architect who might currently be much maligned, but who will be recognised eventually not only as a great architect but also as a visionary town planner who placed quality above everything else and the needs of residents at the very centre of all his design concepts.  

Fascinated by his obvious enthusiasm, I asked Keith to tell me something more about himself, so he did:  “Milan, I am a typical Londoner, born in London with a mixed heritage, like lots of other Londoners.   My father was a lawyer, of secular Jewish Moroccan stock, who came from Gibraltar.   My mother was of both Scottish and English heritage.  Though we originally lived in London, we moved to Walton-on-Thames, where I went to school.   My mother hated it there;  she thought it stiflingly suburban, considering herself a metropolitan and Bohemian creature.   By strange coincidence, she herself had trained as an architect under Ernő Goldfinger, so when my father became the Registrar of Architects in the United Kingdom for the Royal Institute of British Architects, the circle was complete!   Creativity and architecture were woven into my own life too, though I didn’t do well at school - the fact that we moved several times didn’t help.   My parents eventually divorced and my mother took us to live on the south coast where at first, we lived in a caravan, later in a ramshackle house in Hastings.   This forced me to become a very practical person and I have worked as a labourer, bricklayer, window-fitter and ‘water miller’, though most of my life has been in the film and video business, as well as in education.   Having met and married Gill, we lived in Germany for eight years before moving back to London.”

“When we lived in Grenfell Tower, I looked out on to the iconic Trellick Tower and developed a hankering to live there, so when the opportunity arose to purchase this flat, we just went for it and we’ve never looked back.   We love living here and indeed, despite the recent horrific events, many of the residents feel exactly the same.   We see the Tower as a ‘village in the sky’.   While the building technically belongs to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, its management was handed over to the local Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), the very same body that is almost daily in the news as it was also responsible for managing the Grenfell Tower.”

Keith continues:  “The history of Trellick Tower differed somewhat from that of Balfron. Here at Trellick, too many tenants were moved in against their wishes, and that created lots of problems from the outset.   People were raped in the common parts, criminality was rife, there was a lot of drug dealing and no-one felt safe.   Within ten years of its opening, the problems here were so great that there were even suggestions that the only solution would be to have the building demolished.   However, once there was controlled entry to the building, with a concierge in place, things began to turn around.  

“But once when the lifts were repaired, when maintenance and security were improved, the residents’ attitudes started to change for the better too.   There are some people who have lived here for the whole of their lives.   The recent news that the Borough has found additional funds for essential maintenance and modernisation works has been welcomed by all of us.   Of course, we also hope that there will be a recognition of the essential need to restore and improve the area around the building as well - Goldfinger saw these tranquil, green recreational spaces as essential for the quality of life of those living here.”

“Our Residents’ Association is trying to nurture a greater sense of community and an understanding of good neighbourliness and, inevitably, it falls to us to deal with those individuals who behave irresponsibly, who are inconsiderate and noisy, or who are disruptive neighbours - in the past, it was not unknown for sofas to be tossed out from the 20th floor.”

“About 15% of all the flats here are now owner-occupied.   We have also started to notice that the KCTMO is deliberately upgrading, to a significantly higher standard, those flats that become vacant, subsequently letting them to young professionals at significantly higher rents.   All this is certainly creating a more diverse community but it also creates certain tensions which need to be understood and managed.”   One could imagine that Keith’s job as Chair of the Residents’ Association is never likely to be a dull one.

In recent years, the popularity of flats in ex-council tower blocks has increased considerably and the demand for them now exceeds availability.  They have become desirable residences for young professionals and for those who like to live in iconic buildings, like Balfron, Trellick or the Barbican.   It is clear that the companies or housing associations that manage such blocks need to ensure that there is good quality maintenance, that lifts are always in working order, and that various safety and security systems are always operating properly.   Inevitably, such necessary upgrading will come across as gentrification to some, but history has taught us that while mixed communities are highly desirable and social cleansing is a bad thing, no-one wants to live in a tower block that is continually vandalised, offers a haven for criminality and drug dealing, and does not feel safe.

Since the Grenfell disaster, tower blocks are once more being seen as undesirable for the provision of social housing, yet at the same time, the London skyline is frequently being pierced by new towers of luxury apartments for the super wealthy, costing many millions a piece.   Would it be too obvious a conclusion to infer that it is poverty and social inequality, and not the inherent qualities of tower blocks, that are the root causes of the problems we have come to associate with ‘high living’?

Text Edited: 2nd November, 2018

Page modified: 27th March 2019