Trellick Tower - a giant among high rises
'Gouldfeingeur speaking,' announced the impostor's voice, to the delight of the staff around him. 'Wrong,' boomed the voice on the other end of the telephone. 'This is Goldfinger, and you're fired.'
True or false matters little, for this legendary story, which allegedly sealed the fate of the hapless assistant, captures the essence of Erno Goldfinger's abrupt personality. I first met him when, nearing the end of his long life, this giant among architects was introduced to me by his daughter, who was my client.
Clutching his walking stick tightly with both hands, he looked me over, then said ponderously: 'So you're the young man who thinks he's an architect.' Awesome stuff that can only be satisfied by a brutal or witty response. I managed neither, to the obvious relief of his family.
But I liked Erno very much, which is why I was so pleased that the bbc included a feature on his masterpiece Trellick Tower in last week's Home Front programme. You know the format: they send the occupants away while their home is 'done up', and then the owner is filmed, predictably exclaiming wonder at the transformation.
Well, this time Lloyd Farmer applied his skills to Zena's flat high up in London's tallest block of council flats, that landmark alongside the M40 flyover. Even Goldfinger, notoriously so restrained in his praise of others, would have applauded the result. Gone were the curtains, three-piece suite and wallpaper with clashing patterns, and instead Zena found bold blocks of colour - duck-egg blue and putty cream - to two main walls. These contrasted well with the textured copper leaf (£100 all up) that adorned one partition and the concrete finish revealed on another to 'mirror the outside . . . ' An especially nice touch was added by the 'Goldfinger' chairs, now reproduced to order by his grandson.
'Mr Goldfinger would be very proud of you,' announced Zena's mum who moved into the building on its completion in 1972.
Of course, Trellick Tower is a great block - so much so that Jonathan Glancey includes it in his new book on 'structures that shaped the century'. There, alongside Gio Ponti's Pirelli Tower, the Seagram Building, Foster's Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, and the luxurious Highpoint One by Lubetkin, Goldfinger's entry is the only municipal tower block.
His work, both here and in Poplar where a similar scheme marks the north exit of the Blackwall Tunnel, stands head and shoulders above those other miserable high-rise schemes that came to epitomise the poverty of this genre.
Based on the 'scissor' sections of Le Corbusier's L'Unite d'Habitation which I had the pleasure to visit last summer, this heroic and Brutalist 'product of structural rationalism', with the rich and varied rhythms and majestic form that distinguish its facades, is, says Glancey, an increasingly coveted address for 'the fashionable young things living around the Portobello Road market of the 1990s'.
But we should spare a thought for those other less successful municipal high-rise blocks: their failure is not all down to bad design. Indeed, if we could simply shake the unhappy families out, and relocate those buildings in some fashionable Regent's Park address, most of the problems would simply fade away.
Problems that surely would never have been anticipated by Clement Attlee who, when as prime minister opening London's first post-war housing estate, said with what now seems like sickening paternalism: 'I am hoping that you will all be good neighbours.'
Neither the architect, nor neighbourly behaviour, could have survived the problems of poor management, inadequate maintenance and defunct lifts that were to beset these buildings, to say nothing of the social changes that were to materialise around tenure.
But, as Lloyd Farmer said, 'councils are learning to manage these buildings again'.
In the case of the more distinguished municipal schemes, we may well hope that they are not too late. There are still plenty of people around who like to be the first to see the sunrise and the last to see it set.