Elain Harwood’s huge achievements extended beyond history and conservation to debates around the wider values of the Modern Movement, writes Emma Dent Coad
It was Erno Goldfinger who brought Elain Harwood and me together. When I joined RBKC Council in 2006 after three decades of design and architectural journalism, many of my friends and colleagues were surprised. But when I told them “Trellick Tower is in my ward”, they instantly got it.
I had been an active member of Docomomo UK for some years by then, knew Elain by repute, and had met her a few times. Then as a board member of the now infamous Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO, 2008-12), that was planning a refurb of Trellick, including the installation of digital cabling, she became an invaluable ally.
Having written and assured the listing of Trellick Tower in 1994, Elain knew every nook and corner of this extraordinary building – and there are many of them. So when they decided to drill through concrete floor plates to run the cabling, she was incensed.
I learnt a lot about Trellick Tower that had been lost over the years from James Dunnett, who had worked with Goldfinger, as well as from Elain. The boiler room equipment had been made in pieces small enough to be demounted, lowered into the top lift lobby by a pulley that is still in place, and would fit the bits into the lift.
There were panels accessed from every balcony that ran the full height of the building, more than adequate to run future pipework and cables. There was also a shaft running up the rear of the building that had held gas pipes that had been removed after the Ronan Point collapse.
We fought long and hard, but KCTMO insisted on drilling through concrete floorplates to install their cabling, an utter waste of time and money and an insult to Goldfinger who had done his utmost to future-proof his building. Then there was a fight about replacing fire-stops, which thank all the gods we won.
Around the same time, the council was coming after the only Goldfinger residential care home, Edenham, that was intrinsic to the Cheltenham Estate with its two Trellick blocks, row housing, sheltered housing, nursery, GP surgery etc. – a proper cradle-to-grave complex that was in danger of being dismantled.
Elain was all over this threat to the care home, but frustratingly we were too late to get it spot-listed. There had been additions and alterations, and it was demolished in an act of vandalism that these days will come as no surprise from the ‘Grenfell Council’.
I then heard, from a chance encounter with Terry Farrell at an RTPI conference, that he’d been contracted to produce a feasibility study on the ‘regeneration’ (demolition) of Edenham Way – Goldfinger’s row houses and sheltered homes next to Trellick. We all leapt into action, working relentlessly with residents, the Twentieth Century Society, James Dunnett, and Elain.
We were delighted to have thwarted an infuriated council
It took a while and a lot of detailed background work – but we finally succeeded in listing Edenham Way Grade II in 2012. We were delighted to have thwarted an infuriated council in their plan to rid yet another patch of Kensington of the ‘unworthy’ masses.
I had numerous conversations with Elain at the time, about our shared frustrations of buildings and sites being turned over for ‘improvement’ for alternative uses. We discussed the possibilities of being able to list ‘social purpose’.
I began writing about it, and this kicked off a whole cycle of work relating to keeping social housing within the social sector. As James Dunnett put it, Docomomo ‘promised to be as much concerned with the promotion of the ideas and values of the Modern Movement as with conserving its fabric.’
I put this into a project I called Soft, Hard and Plastic, about the lived environment that buildings and estates create, the architecture that makes it work, and – with my illuminating experience at KCTMO of how badly social housing is managed – how it is repaired, managed and funded. A whole complex of inter-related issues that need to work together, but that are separated into silos of specialism, and thence disfunction.
My various exchanges and discussions with Elain over the years shaped and refined the experiences I was accumulating in local – then national – politics. While not pretending we were close in any way, Elain Harwood was a huge influence on me at a time that was challenging and confusing, and for that I am eternally grateful to this wonderful woman.
Rest in power, Elain Harwood.
Also read >> Tributes paid to Elain Harwood