In Brutal Presence

Documentary photographer,  captures the residents of Trellick Tower – a social housing estate in London’s wealthiest borough

Trellick Tower.

Trellick Tower, a 322-foot shield of high-rise council flats, sits at the end of Golborne Road in North Kensington. It was completed in 1972 by Hungarian architect Ernő Goldfinger, a few years before Grenfell Tower, during a time when the popularity of high-rise estates had decreased and negative stereotypes surrounding them had escalated.

However, Trellick Tower managed to avoid the fate of demolition that so many other brutalist high-rises incurred in London’s race to “revitalise” the inner-city, after becoming a Grade II listed building in the 1990s for its’ unique brutalist architecture.

This protected the estate from private developers and preserved the high-rise under the guidelines of the English Heritage organisation, safeguarding the tower and its council tenants from regeneration projects that would otherwise demolish the building and/or decant its’ council tenants.

As a result, Trellick Tower has inadvertently become an evolving symbol as a last stance against the waves of the negative aspects of gentrification that can carelessly occur when these estates sit in desirable property markets. Thanks to a series of fortunate trends in pop culture, Trellick has been absorbed into the affluent fabric of Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, counted as one of London’s iconic buildings – and yet – still remains 80% council flat tenants.

Using interviews and portraiture, this series shares the perspectives and insights of Trellick’s council flat tenants as they reflect on living in the richest borough of London. It is a chance for us as outsiders to be invited in to hear their stories.
It is also a meditation on the resilience of council flat residents in London and proof that estates are living, breathing, communities that can fit within the gentrified fabric of the city if they are properly looked after and valued, as they were intended to be.

Edith, 33 years resident, 27th Floor.

“London was like drinking a glass of water for the first time. [I left Jamaica because] my mind just run and run and run, and I have to go, I have to go… ya… and I just go.””

Edith is one of the oldest social tenants and residents in the brutalist high-rise estate. She immigrated to London from Jamaica and soon became a nurse. Now in her 90’s, Edith lives alone in her apartment and is only visited by nurses.

“You just have to get on with it, you just have to get on with it… You know, you’ve got to get on with it.”

During the 60’s and 70’s, North Kensington was filled with immigrants from the West Indies and the Caribbean – where the origin of Notting Hill Carnival began. Trellick Tower in particular had many families from the islands living there, as they could not afford to go anywhere else. Now almost all those families have left due to the ever increasing cost of living in the borough.

Family Portrait.

An old photograph hangs in the home of long term resident, Edith. It is a portrait of her mother and father in Jamaica taken during the early 1900’s. It has hung in the same place since Edith moved into her flat in the 1970’s; not even the yellow wallpaper has changed.

Damani, 22 years resident, 18th Floor.

Damani is second generation Dominican and first generation British in his family and has lived in Trellick Tower all his life on the 18th floor. His father Cameron originally moved into the block during the late 1970’s, when the estate use to be called the “Tower of Terror” – infamous for its’ seedy reputation when the community was mostly slums.

But unlike his father, Damani lives in the estate during a time when the building has gained iconic status. However, this poses as another threat, one that he explained as “gentrification at its finest.”

“You can’t afford to live here anymore, rent prices are ridiculous and the main people you were originally living here with – you’re not really seeing those types of faces anymore or those types of people. They feel possibly threatened I guess, like you don’t belong here. Why would you want to stay here? I am pretty sure our rent has gone up at least a fair bit every year that we’ve been here. I am not sure if it’s gone up a lot, but mum’s out of work and dad is the only source of income at the moment – so that renders a bit of a tricky situation.”

Cameron and Adia, 30 years resident & 12 years resident, 18th Floor.

Cameron Pierre sits with his 12-year-old daughter Adia in the living-room of their apartment. Cameron moved into Trellick Tower with his mother in the 1970’s; the two of them had migrated to London from Dominica.

“When I first came to England, the people who lived in Trellick Tower were what you would call ordinary working class people, you know, normal folks. And then something happened during the late 80’s early 90’s when Trellick Tower just became a place that people loved.
Basically a load of people just started buying apartments in here. And honestly, over night, the so called working class people had been pushed out and this semi-kind of middle-class type of people started moving in with the sole purpose of buying property. And within five years… they were gone.
It happened suddenly and for me the thing that disturbed me the most, is that these people had no idea about the community; it just didn’t exist in their minds at all. It was just this profit thing.”

Sue, 33 years resident, 18th Floor.

“I originally lived in Hackney before I moved over here, and when we got off the train, it was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s this!'”

Sue moved into Trellick Tower on the very first day it opened in 1972. During that time no one wanted to live in the apartments, so many were being given away to the first candidates in need of social housing. She was only 19-years-old and a single mother with her infant daughter. They were allowed to pick their floor and flat.
Sue has always been a huge fan of the Tower, but is also aware of its evolving symbolism, and “rags to riches” story.

“Trellick comes in and out of fashion, and we’re in now, and a lot of people do buy flats in here and then they can rent them out for whatever. I mean this is a fabulous block. I suppose at the time, people loved it or hated it in my mind. And they started calling it ‘Brutalist’ and I’ve only just learnt what the means, it means something like horrible, doesn’t it…?”

Trellick Tower at night.

Shan, 20 years resident, 15th Floor.

“It had a conscious this building and its presence really drew me, and I loved it without knowing I would ever be fortunate enough to live in it. I have had 25 years living in the sky and I would hope to continue that.”

Shan is an Irish carpenter who left his rural village of Northern Ireland to move to London in the 1980’s. He eventually found himself in Trellick Tower as a social housing tenant. Shan also reflects on the changes to the community and has accepted this as a natural part of the city’s transformation.

” There are more affluent tenants and the area has become more popular for people who can’t afford to live in Portobello Road. That ripple of money has moved into this direction and now people do consider this high-rise as a desirable place to live, in a way they would not have ten/fifteen years ago.
London just eats itself before people even notice, and then they complain of the things gone lost or changed; so it has a pace that’s pretty unique. It’s a two-sided coin, so it depends on your view and how you value that coin, because without evolution, progress doesn’t happen.”

Molly, 19 years resident, 15th Floor.

“I always see people looking at it and I’m kind of jealous. I wish I could see Trellick Tower for the first time, to feel the impact of it, to feel the shadow of it… But hey! I grew up here.”

Molly, daughter of Shan, has grown up in Trellick Tower since she was an infant. Molly loves living in the high-rise tower block and feels very proud to say it is her home.

” It be ideal if I could live here forever! I’ve kind of realised that because I live so high up I’ve gotten use to things. In the winter I can sleep with my curtains open and I don’t have to be paranoid about people looking in. Obviously I love the view…”

Molly cuts her father’s hair in the kitchen.

Dan, 30 years resident, 21st Floor.

“I moved in in ‘86. I was just happy to have somewhere to live. I mean, I had literally been staying on someones sofa for two years before that.”

Dan came into Trellick Tower at the height of the buildings infamy in the 1980’s. The high-rise was known for its drug dealers and prostitutes and theft in the apartments was something that happened almost everyday, thanks to the council’s neglect of the estate and lack of a security guard in the building. However, many of these stories were often embellished by the newspapers to further fuel the stereotypes of council estates as dangerous communities of London.
All that changed when the building was given a Grade II listing, which required the council to maintain the buildings appearance.

“I didn’t really care then. It didn’t really affect me; it was just very run down, and once they changed some of the structures, once they got the concierge downstairs, the lifts were made nicer, people started treating it better. The vibe changed.”

Ed, 23 years resident, 21st Floor.

“I don’t really remember the change, I never felt scared in the building – I just know looking back on it, its changed a lot. ”

Ed was only six-years-old when he started to live in Trellick Tower with his father Dan, and remembers how the estate used to be neglected. He believes that Trellick Tower’s absorption into pop-culture and iconicism has helped to preserve the estate and saved it from demolition.

“… I enjoy the fact that people like it, as opposed to getting negative about it. I mean the friendliness of the building, the presentation, I mean everything gets fixed and lot of people [estates] don’t get that.”

Fatouma, 30 years resident, 30th Floor.

“When I first came to London from Morocco in 1974, I came to live with my parents at 16. We lived in St. Ervans Road [opposite Trellick] and I grew up there and I got married, and then in 1986 I moved to Trellick Tower with my son. It was difficult and I hated it when I first moved in here!
Back then I had no choice, I had to live here… but I was still complaining all the time to the council because of my child. I wanted to move out from here, but I didn’t have no chance.”

Fatouma reflects on her experience as a single mother in Trellick Tower during the 1980’s:

“I was with my son all the time. My husband went to live in America, and I was a single mom with my child, so if I wanted to come here I would have to bring my family with me. We didn’t have any security guards in the building and everything that you can imagine was in this building, including lots of drugs.
… But now I love it. It is much, much better now.”

JP, 20 years resident, 15th Floor.

“When I first moved into the area, it was referred to as ‘North Kensington, the poor part of Kensington and Chelsea’. Now, the estate agents refer to it as ‘Portobello Road, and the budding atmosphere of Goldborne Road’. How things have changed since then, isn’t life a bitch!? You go from being a tramp, to winning the lottery.”

JP is a practicing buddhist, born and raised in the inner-city of London. He was once the Chair of the Residents Association in Trellick Tower in 2014, and was also on the committee that managed to register Trellick Tower as a Grade II listed building in 1990; saving the tower from being bought and sold to a private entity. He reflects and discusses how narrowly they had escaped that fate.

“In 1989, our first Chair of the Residents Association decided to get the building a Grade II listing and we subsequently learnt that because its’ such an expensive building to maintain, people were talking about buying the building and selling it.
But what happens in social housing when somebody buys the building, is they do a thing called decant, which literally means they can move you anywhere in the Borough.
But what a lot of Boroughs have done is buy places in Peterborough, in Essex etc… and with all do respect, I don’t want to live in Essex! But because it is a Grade II listed building, the council can’t sell it. So the fact of the matter is – we can live here.”

Trellick Tower stands overlooking the paddington line and the local Mosque.