The first thing I did when I moved in to my flat on the top floor of a twelve story building was rip up all the carpets and chuck them off the balcony. The sound of dead weight meeting ground at high speed reverberated across the street; a kind of echoing thwack in which nightmares of squashed children played a large, but fleeting part.
In the centre of the concrete floor of my living room, revealed by the removal of the carpet, was a curious patch of hastily applied plaster. I thought nothing of it and got on with the usual business of nurturing a personalised moving-in neurosis.
The person who owned the flat before me came round a few weeks later (he misses the view) and asked if I'd noticed the plaster bit in the middle of the floor. It turned out that when he'd moved in, seventeen years previously, he'd discovered a hole leading right through to the downstairs neighbours' bedroom. Know thy neighbour, indeed.
It was then that I fully registered the layered texture of living space. I imagined an entire block of inhabitants drilling holes in their floors hoping to catch the peep show of their dreams, seeing nothing but another body lying flat on the floor staring at another body lying flat on the floor staring at another body lying flat on the floor, ad infinitum. It was like discovering a tower block equivalent of Borges' Library of Babel.
The English don't like the idea of living in tower blocks; it goes against the tradition - not to say instinct - of our privileged privacy and possessive individualism. Compared to our continental counterparts, a larger chunk of our social status is attached to the ownership of a plot of land, which can be defined, hoarded and labeled as something which belongs to us. Living in a tower block transgresses the sense of secure 'grounding' which has become synonymous with ownership; instead, tower dwellers are offered the more ephemeral idea that they are inhabiting space.
When I went to see my solicitor in order to 'exchange', she read out a ream of words which drifted off somewhere between my head and the window. "....you are making the purchase of the flat on floors nine and ten of said block....". I caught this bit and said "Er no, sorry, it's not floors nine and ten actually, it's eleven and twelve..". Solicitor: "No, you're buying the flat on floors nine and ten..". Me: "No, really...". It took months (twelve, I think) to receive a paper from the council certifying that I had bought the top floor flat and not the one beneath. (I toyed with the idea of moving in to the top floor flat and chucking the people downstairs out of their flat, on the grounds that I owned it). But it seemed rather churlish to be arguing over which floor my flat was on. After all, when you look at a tower block from the outside, the flats all look the same; there is very little display of the individuality of the people who inhabit the block.
Outsiders often assume that this lack of external individuality is relayed onto the people who live inside the block: a faceless morass of sad and desolate people who are to be both feared and pitied. But when you enter the space of one of the 'cells', this feeling of uniformity and isolation is immediately inverted. You look out at the view and feel like you're the centre of the universe. You look down on the masses and the world appears yours for the taking.
From my balcony I can see St Paul's Cathedral, the Wheel, tower blocks by Lasdun, Goldfinger and Lubetkin, Kay's City Sauna emporium at the end of my road, TV aerials, the Dome, kids playing football, kids abusing other kids, cars, buses, women pushing prams, the Virgin helicopter on top of Royal London Hospital, trees, sky (lots of sky), buildings being built, buildings being neglected, fireworks, sky storms, airplanes, gas towers (exhaling and inhaling throughout the day), washing, clouds, dogs shitting and pigeons courting. And trains, of course: they thread together the elements of this scenic smorgasbord, weaving their way through the mostly static blocks of the city, creating a visual and audible beat which we might once have been able to set our watches by. All this from the balcony. Even when I retire to bed I am presented with an exquisite, uninterrupted view of the Lloyds building. Sex and architecture. I'm sure Mr Rogers would be delighted.
Fellow tower block dwellers come to my flat and we scour the landscape for their buildings. We draw notional pathways across the city joining our abodes and somehow we feel they belong to us - an imaginary set of lines suspended above the tangled web of buildings and lives down below. It's a pleasing conceit which perhaps comes from the satisfaction of being able to locate yourself in a landscape.
All buildings have rhythms, but the rhythms of a tower block are made explicit by the sheer density of people living in it. I can tell the time of day by the rhythm of my block: by the movement of people walking past my front door, by the smell of other people's cooking drifting in through the windows (a mixture of curry and boiled vegetables), the sound of rubbish being deposited into the rubbish chute and by the soft hum of the lift as it collects and deposits it's passengers. This rhythm is a constant reminder of the space between me and the ground.
The one thing I'm still not used to is the complicated maneuver which comes with sharing that small bit of moving space called the lift. My front door leads straight out onto a public outdoor walkway with incredible views of north London. Six footsteps later I am at the lift. Inside the lift I am still in public space, but it is enclosed and moving - slicing down the layers of lives which make up my neighbours' flats. Chat about the weather, stare at the back of someone's neck, moan about the state of the lift, think about how romantic it is that someone has written 'SEX' (instead of 'FUCK') on the ceiling, talk about holiday plans. The doors open and I am at ground level, once again in outdoor public space. From private space (my flat), to outdoor public space, to very enclosed public space and finally to outdoor ground space: it gives a new twist to the concept of space travel.
I met a young girl and her mother in the lift soon after I had moved in. She spent the journey staring at me so hard that I found it difficult to ignore her. I smiled and said "I'm really tall, aren't I?" (I'm 6ft 2"). Her mouth snapped shut and she looked towards her mother for salvation. Ever since then she greets me with "You're that tall person from the lift". I like the idea of being a nomad giant, weaving my way up and down people's lives, occasionally being identified by fellow inhabitants.
But the identity of block dwellers need not be based primarily on personal characteristics, like height. Like the characters in JG Ballard's novel High Rise, people in my block are often identified by the floor they live on. My neighbour says "It's nice up here, nice and quiet. Not like the fifth floor.... all them foreigners...never used to be like that...". Instead of segregated, ground-based neighborhoods where clusters of houses are characterised by specific ethnic (and/or class) traits, my block accomplishes a kind of layered segregation whereby ethnic distribution is defined vertically rather than horizontally.
Tower blocks began to shoot up in the 1950's and 60's, built by town planners whose energy and socialist commitments inadvertently transformed ground-based slum dwellings into multiple layered slum dwellings. The working classes were moved en masse into cities in the sky. Attempts were made to install the feeling of community associated with the working class way of life: open air walkways, clusters of doorways and communal play areas, etc. But it soon became evident that this idealism was misplaced. Vandalism and alienation set in and people wanted nothing more than to touch the earth again, and retreat back to their houses.
Thatcher's Right to Buy campaign of the 1980's and the exploding property market of the 1990's created the conditions for a small minority of first-time buyers to move in to ex-council flats in tower blocks which are still considered by most people to be undesirable spaces for living. These urban professionals are members of a very specific demographic group: white, middle class, aged 25-35, child-free, generally working in the fields of media, art or architecture. Being part of this group, I am able to see the radically different take we have on living in these blocks, compared to the long-established residents. In their eyes, we are just passers-by. Many of my neighbours have lived here since 1958 when the block was built. I don't have much money, but am likely to make more in the future, and I will move on and out. The man who I bought my flat from (he is a white, middle class, professional) was leaving because he wanted to start a family: "This is no place to bring up kids" he said. There's a couple up the corridor who live in a small two bedroom flat with four children. Living here isn't a lifestyle choice for them.
Jane and Tom Bell at number 70 used to live in the council-run Lasdun tower block, five minutes walk from our building. It was condemned in 1994 and sold by Tower Hamlets Council to a private developer who converted the building into luxury flats. They're on sale now for as much as £375,000. The funny thing is that the flats aren't that different (according to Jane), they're just private with a few cosmetic displays of privileged living: a CCTV system and Mies chairs.
Consider the perceived difference between living in a private block and a public block. Take a penthouse, for example. That's the coveted open-space, life-style dream at the top of a private block where your money literally buys you a view. There's a porter who sifts the rabble from the privileged; he (I've never seen a 'she') enables the inhabitants to enjoy their view without the worry that someone who hasn't paid for it is also enjoying it. In the council block, just across the way, the reverse is true: nobody wants to live up high because the lift breaks down, the stairs stink of piss, and hormone-strung adolescents hang out at the top.
Depending on your situation or your frame of mind, living up high can give rise to a whole set of layered, oppositional experiences (verticality / horizontality, empowerment / alienation, uniqueness / uniformity, spatiality / temporality, etc.), creating an unsettling kind of love-hate ambivalence towards the place where you live.
I've been here for a year now and there are days I look down at the nice, neat, clean terraces below me with a sense of envy, yearning for the day when I no longer have to negotiate the lives of my neighbours to such a large degree, and other days when I can't bear the idea of ever leaving the place. I found a perfect representation of my frame of mind in an exhibition of Felix Gonazalez-Torres' work, held at the Serpentine Gallery in London a few months ago. In one room, two large piles of stacked paper were placed on the gallery floor. Written in the middle of each piece of paper, in very small script, was the following:
Somewhere better than this place
Nowhere better than this place