34 x 26 cm, C-print Fuji Matt Crystal archive paper, © 2007
Dark, imposing and derelict. London s tower blocks are widely regarded as eyesores on the face of the capital infested with crime and misery. Attempting to get a glimpse of the lives and stories behind the narrow windows lining the bleak façades, eight months have been spent exploring the capital heights. Immersed in this alien environment these accommodations appeared to be the perfect shelter for single people. Dear Madam/Sir resident on higher floors’- trying to keep the eyes fixed firmly on the wall as I blue-tack yet another note to the narrow strip of wall separating the elevator doors. How many of these papers have been plastered across London’s tower blocks yet each building grips its own way. At this moment, on the 27th floor of Trellick Tower, West London, fighting about of vertigo in the thin adjacent strip containing the building’s elevator shafts. While Trellick has become distinctly fashionable lately, its history is clouded by tales of murder and crime as residents tell me proudly. While the tower has enjoyed a surge of popularity elevating it out of the grey misery, the general view of this type of living is still associated with antisocial behaviour and track suited banter. For months now on a journey exploring London’s heights. While initially, it was intended as a documentary of the capitals socially and financially challenged, it has indeed turned into a far more surprising and multi-faceted experience. What has been found on each trips up the narrow elevators not only changed the perception on the social demographics of the average tower block resident, but also made a new understanding at what can be seen as the high living philosophy. Indeed, what it seemed it is that the new scenario has surpassed social boundaries. Residential high rises first appeared in London in the aftermath of the Second World War. As nearly one in three houses had been destroyed in the Blitz, towers were embraced as a near-utopian vision of a new urban life, serving as affordable and practical accommodation. Throughout the 50s and 60s, dozens, mostly brutalist buildings sprouted across the capital casting their shadow over what had been a homogeneous cityscape for centuries. People made homeless as a result of the war were re-introduced to a fundamentally altered landscape. Barry Michael Each, who has been living in the city for over 60 years has seen four story houses give way to the Petticoat Estate, dwarfed by Petticoat tower where he now occupies a top-floor flat. He is am man of an overpowering passion for his environment, able to point out every building and alleyway in a two-mile radius whilst lovingly reciting anecdotes for each. He has played in the post-war ruins, shared a single room with his family and cared for his sick mother on the estate site. Now, marked by serious illness, he has refused to leave the block and won his right to remain where he spent all his life. He has never been what would be considered a wealthy man, yet every sentence and every item in his basic flat reveal this man’s treasure is his memory and history. Barry is not alone as an older person choosing to stay in his familiar environment. Elderly and widowed people constitute a substantial part of tower block residents, often having lived in their flats since their inception. Typically, financial restrictions and attachment to their home keep these residents from leaving the estates, even as the condition of the buildings often deteriorates dramatically over the years. The real gravity of the situation came to light as Ronan Point in Newham, East London collapsed in 1968. Since, many blocks have been demolished or refurbished to avoid similar disasters. The fortune of the tower block may have taken a plunge, yet the idea of high rise living is more popular than it has ever been. What these residents, despite their age, profession and status appeared to share was not concrete or material, but rather a state of mind. Despite the dark entrance halls, the antisocial behaviour and the temperamental elevators of the poorer estates, once inside the flats even here there was an atmosphere of complete separation from the world below, and indeed even the rest of the building. The geometrical layouts and the views create a truly otherworldly space. When asked what they most valued about their environment, the residents’ replies were synonymous: the view, the freedom, the detachment. There seems to be a quality in the views that allows to let go and step back from the hustle and bustle of city life. While living on the ground in a city as densely populated as London at times can deepen the state of denseness and self-centeredness people feel, living up high seems to lift this heaviness, allow people to distance themselves from themselves and their problems. In this respect it appears it can indeed widen horizons. It is, thus, not by coincidence a substantial number of artists, media folks and creative people reach for the skies. The lightness and freedom is a unique source of inspiration, each tower, flat, apartment and window offering a unique perspective on a constantly shape-shifting city. It is a place that allows you to feel different, agrees Tony Lane who bought his lease-hold flat in Bowsprint Point on the Barkentine Estate in the Docklands. Having worked as an agricultural scientist throughout the world, Tony reinvented himself as a transvestite and dancer when he moved to London ten years ago. Eccentric, intelligent and impeccably well-spoken, he has stepped out of the conventional, choosing freedom as his main objective. While he does admit there are occasional problems with antisocial behaviour and bullying, he feels an integrated part of the estate community. While London is in a constant state of change and evolution, and many of our familiar landmarks will give way to new structures, we can be certain that the residential tower is far from dead.
LEE, Carpenter - 18th FLOOR, BURWASH HOUSE KIPLING ESTATE, PECHAM
People imagine living somewhere like this must be claustrophobic. When you come into the bottom of the block you’ve got this big imposing building but once you get into the flat it’s a completely different world. But it’s true, this block is not very nice. You wouldn’t want to get old here. The worst thing is the lack of care in the communal area, the dirtiness of it. People not taking care of their own environment depresses me. It’s possible to live hear for years and meet people in the lift you have never seen all this time. It would be nice if people had more consideration for their neighbours.
TONY, Former Agricolturist, now Dancer - 20th FLOOR, BOWPRINTPOINT ESTATE, TOWER HAMLET
I was waiting for the council. I wasn’t even going to view this flat because I thought 22nd floor there is no way I am going to take this. Then I came up, walked into here which was half falling down but it was just the window. And that was it. Next to here they got the new blocks and the top flats there are going for 5 million, and here I was. You’ve got a lot of really old people who are here form when it was first built 37 years ago, you’ve got quite a lot of different Muslims- at different festival times you get to see quite surprising things about the religions and nice little community things. There is a lot of activity here. You get little snippets of bits about peoples’ lives that you wouldn’t otherwise necessarily get if you lived in a long place where you just waked last each other. There is a mad guy downstairs. You can tell when his illness is getting really bad because he will turn his music up and shout out of the windows, but then after about three days you’ll hear nothing for about three months until you hear he is back. The worst people are actually on the lower floors because they have doctors certificates saying they might just out of a window, are drug addicts or alcoholics. There are a lot of old drunken people, and they all believe in god. When 7/7 happened I looked out of the window, and a few times I have thought if a bomb was to go off in the middle we’d be the bit that just kind of collapsed. But I am not actually really worried about it.
CHRIS, Architect - 17th FLOOR, SELWORTHY TOWER, BATTERSEA
When I came I was very pleased. Then I refurbished the whole thing. When you are up here you are disconnected from all the buildings around it, and it gives you an edge. Once there was a wall of snow moving towards me, that was a wonderful experience. You are much freer here. I don’t have much of a sense of neighborhood here. I’m comfortable with this.You are free, you are far away, you are like a bird flying high. It gives you freedom.I need to have a view, I am used to have a view. It kind of brainwashes you. It’s an ever changing scenery.I would never live on a lower floor flat - maybe a house but not lower floor.
I lived in a ground floor studio flat before. This is something different. You can relax, you can chill and you can watch your friends at the bus stop from here. When they come here they are like: " You got a wicked view, you are lucky you got that". Nothing bothers me. When you are young it is good opportunity, but if you are old you must to live on the ground floor.
I have lived here all my life and I have seen many changes over the years to this particular area. 8 years ago, after a serious illness, I had an operation done which has left me with disability. Last year my late mother tragically passed away, her name was Rose. I have no brothers and sisters. Since, I’ve lived in this flat on my own, just over a year now, but I’ve lived on the estate for 60 years. The old flats here were about 4 or 5 storeys high- in fact, they were like something out of a Dickensian Novel. There was me up to the age of 14 sharing the same bedroom as my late parents… The city has always been my playground, and now I have a beautiful panoramic view of the city that when I knew it as a young boy was mainly bomb-sites. I can’t think for one moment of anything that’ bad about living here. My friends and neighbors, we spent our lifetime here. So in a way we are like a family.
STUART, Dj, writer and barman, WAYNE, DJ and music producer - 19th FLOOR, SIMAL HOUSE , LAMBERTH
I am always thinking that I am going to be moving quite soon, but I have thinking that for twenty-five years. The series of space and freedom, the sense of being alone up here. You cannot see anybody as long as you want to and that suits me quite well at the moment. Tower blocks are very isolating. I am looking out into nothing and I am not aware of the people who are my neighbors.
London Single Views, Gigi Cifali, 2007