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Last edited 20 Oct 2020
An influential figure in the British modern movement, Ernö Goldfinger (1902-1987) was born in Budapest and studied architecture in Paris. After moving to London in 1934, he won praise for austere, yet sensitive projects, notably his Hampstead home, and drew controversy for ambitious schemes at Elephant and Castle and Poplar.
When the tenants moved into Balfron Tower, the first of three blocks of council flats on Rowlett Street in Poplar, one of the neediest areas of east London, in 1965, they discovered that Flat 130 on the 26th floor was occupied by the architect of the building, Ernö Goldfinger, and his artist wife Ursula. The Goldfingers had decamped from their home in leafy Hampstead (2 Willow Road) to spend two months there finding out what the flats were like to live in.
Balfron’s tenants were summoned to Flat 130 for a glass or two of champagne, a great extravagance in the east London of the 1960s. As the champagne flowed, the Goldfingers discovered exactly what their neighbours did – and did not – like about their new homes. Tokenistic though a two month stay in a tower block may seem, when Goldfinger started work two years later on the design of a larger block of council flats, Trellick Tower in west London, he incorporated many of the observations made by the Balfron tenants to the new project.
Lighter and airier than Balfron, Trellick is warmer in style. Cedar boarding lines the balcony reveals to soften the concrete, and the boiler house is cantilevered playfully at the top of the lift tower. Equipped with its own nursery school, doctors’ surgery, old people’s club, laundrettes, hobby rooms and shops, Trellick is an automonous living unit, which after a stormy start is now prized by its residents and regarded as a west London landmark. Goldfinger even planned to add a pub to Trellick, only to convert that space into the office where he would work for the last five years of his career.
Popular though Trellick is today, it took years for Londoners – and even its own residents – to warm to it, and other Goldfinger projects proved equally contentious. His monumental 1959-1963 scheme for Elephant & Castle in south London is frequently cited as one of the worst examples of soulless post-war developments. The terrace of three houses that included his own home on Willow Road in Hampstead proved so unpopular with the locals in its early years, that it is said to be the reason why the author Ian Fleming chose the name Goldfinger for one of the villains in his James Bond novels.
As imperious as he was uncompromising Goldfinger regarded controversy as part of his role as a modernist pioneer. Among the most prolific of the émigré architects who sought exile in London from continental Europe in the 1930s, he played an important part in the development of the modern movement in Britain. In his early years in London he did so as a founder member of radical architectural movements, such as the MARS (Modern Architectural Research) Group and in modest architectural projects such as the Willow Road houses.
During World War II Goldfinger presented his vision of a meritocratic post-war Britain in a series of exhibitions for the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. After the war he applied the modern movement principles to which he had adhered since his student days in 1920s Paris to the design of housing, schools, shops and offices, as well as headquarters for both the left-wing Daily Worker newspaper and the Communist Party.
Born in Budapest in 1902, the son of a wealthy Austrian lawyer, Goldfinger lived in Hungary until 1919 when, the country came under communist control after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His family moved to Vienna, where he was educated for a year before going to school in Switzerland and then moving to Paris to complete his studies.
Originally intent on sculpture, Goldfinger settled upon architecture and won a place to study it at the prestigious Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. His later work benefited from the Beaux-Arts’ emphasis on technical and theoretical rigour, and clarity of planning, but he rebelled against its conservatism and was one of a group of students who broke away in 1925 to form a radical new atelier. When their first choice Le Corbusier declined to run it, they chose Auguste Perret, a pioneer of reinforced concrete construction, whose rationalist style and passion for the sculptural qualities of unadorned concrete was to have an enduring influence on Goldfinger.
While still a student, Goldfinger opened an architectural practice with a fellow Hungarian, Andras Szivessy, later renamed André Sive. Together they worked on commissions for interiors and shops. When their practice dissolved in 1930, Goldfinger continued alone with similar projects, notably the design of the Central European Express travel agency in Paris and a Helena Rubinstein beauty salon in London. Supported by his family’s wealth, Goldfinger led an indulgent, yet intellectually stimulating life in Paris. Travelling widely, he became a devotee of the influential CIAM conferences. His friends and mentors included Le Corbusier, whose 1923 book Vers une Architecture Goldfinger described as “a terrific revelation”, the Austrian architect Adolf Loos and artists such as Max Ernst, Fernand Léger and Man Ray.
In 1932, he met a young British artist studying in Paris, Ursula Blackwell, whose family owned part of the Crosse & Blackwell food group. Two years later they were married and moved to London. Goldfinger’s early British projects were modest ones, such as a shop and exhibitions for the toy makers Paul and Marjorie Abbatt, while a more ambitious scheme to modernise Seaford on the Sussex coast was unrealised. He made friends with London’s architectural radicals, notably Wells Coates, Maxwell Fry and fellow members of the MARS Group. Goldfinger also befriended the European émigrés who were flocking to London at the time including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy from Germany, and the Russian architects Serge Chermayeff and Berthold Lubetkin.
The Goldfingers lived in Highpoint, the deluxe north London apartment block designed by Lubetkin, while their own house was being built at Willow Road. Long an admirer of the elegance and harmony of Britain’s Georgian housing, Goldfinger conceived the three houses at 1-3 Willow Road as a contemporary counterpoint to the best of the surrounding Georgian homes.
The traditional brick and graceful Georgian proportions of his terrace façaded fluid interior spaces with strategically positioned lighting for drama after dark. Goldfinger lined the walls of own house with waxed oak and obsessed over the details. Light switches and doorknobs were conveniently positioned at stomach level, and the steps of the spiral staircase graduated in height for ease of use. Willow Road lacks the glamour of the glacial white houses then being designed by Oliver Hill and Chermayeff, but has greater grace and sensitivity. To the contemporary eye it seems astonishing that so gentle an homage to Georgian architecture should have caused such a furore, yet local residents mounted a vociferous, though unsuccessful lobby to block Goldfinger’s plans.
By the start of World War II in 1939, many of Goldfinger’s fellow European émigrés, including Gropius and Breuer, had left London for North America. Goldfinger stayed even though there were few architectural commissions during the war. He prepared to play his part in post-war reconstruction, notably by developing design blueprints for different facets of life for a series of 1944-1945 exhibitions mounted by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. From Planning Your Neighbourhood, in which he envisaged the rebuilding of the heavily bombed London district of Shoreditch, to Planning Your Kitchen, Goldfinger’s vision of post-war Britain embraced everything from bold urbanism, to warning home owners that “jazzy knobs collect dust”.
The reconstruction of post-war Britain was considerably slower and less ambitious than Goldfinger had expected. Building materials were scarce and most of the big public sector commissions that he yearned for were given to the recently demobilised staff of local authority architectural departments. Goldfinger’s only significant post-war projects were the Communist Party headquarters at King Street in Covent Garden and the Daily Worker’s offices and printworks in Farringdon Road. His only contribution to the post-war architectural showpiece, the 1951 Festival of Britain, was a couple of kiosks. As the 1950s began, Goldfinger’s reputation seemed to be in decline, as did those of Coates, Chermayeff and other lynchpins of pre-war architecture.
Just as the uncompromising qualities of his architecture appeared raw and austere in the period immediately after the war, by the mid-1950s its purity and rigour were prized by a young generation of radical British architects. Dubbed, not always flatteringly, ‘the New Brutalists’, they were led by Alison and Peter Smithson. Goldfinger’s resurrection was marked by his inclusion with the Smithsons in This Is Tomorrow, a ground-breaking 1956 exhibition of the emerging pop movement in art, design and architecture at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London.
The previous year he had started work on a rough concrete office building for Carr & Co at Shirley in Birmingham using a variety of finishes – bush hammered, exposed aggregate and the béton brut that Goldfinger and the Smithsons so admired in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles. Goldfinger also applied the graceful Georgian proportions of Willow Road to the construction of two office buildings in a unified design at 45-46 Abermarle Street in Mayfair. In contrast to the controversy that greeted his plans for Willow Road, Goldfinger’s design for the Albermarle Street offices was praised for its sensitivity towards its Georgian surroundings.
Goldfinger won his most ambitious commission in 1959 to reconstruct five sites owned by the London County Council at the Elephant & Castle road junction in south London. The objective was to provide housing, a shopping centre, offices and leisure facilities for local residents as well as a traffic interchange which was to become an important gateway into London. Bold and unashamedly brutal, Goldfinger’s design at Elephant & Castle, won praise from fellow purists but was condemned by others as unrelentingly grim. The most admired part of the scheme was the concrete pavilion he created for the Odeon cinema, with the illuminated letters O, D, E, O and N lit up along the façade.
This typographic ploy was replicated on the glass and granite 1961 French Government Tourist Office on Piccadilly. By positioning the illuminated letters F, R, A, N, C and E along its street front, Goldfinger ensured that they could be read from both ends of Piccadilly, thereby creating a modest, but much loved landmark for London’s West End. His client was so pleased that, six years later, he was invited to remodel the façade of the flagship French Government Tourist Office on Avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris.
Back in Britain Goldfinger came under renewed attack as a standard bearer of heartless modernism. He was occupied throughout the 1960s by the design of vast public housing developments at Balfron Tower and the other blocks of council flats on Rowlett Street in Poplar and Trellick Tower in west London. Once seen as a practical answer to Britain’s post-war housing crisis, high-rise housing had fallen from favour by the time both projects were completed in the early 1970s.
Unpopular with their occupants and an easy target for conservative politicians, tower blocks were criticised as shoddy, squalid and monotonous. Unyielding as ever Goldfinger refused to accept that the concept was flawed and blamed any problems on poor construction, mismanagement and inadequate maintenance. The controversy coloured Goldfinger’s reputation until his death in 1987.
Goldfinger’s tower blocks have since confounded his critics by proving to be robustly built and imaginatively planned. The Champagne parties at which he listened to – and learnt from – the complaints of the residents of Balfron Tower illustrate the underlying humanism in his architecture. Today the flats in Trellick, many of which passed into private ownership during the 1990s, are greatly sought after.
Yet ambitious though he was for these monumental public schemes, even Goldfinger’s admirers concur that his best buildings were his smaller, beautifully proportioned and impeccably detailed projects at Albermarle Street and Willow Road where, the modern houses which once outraged Hampstead’s conservationists now belong to the National Trust.
This article was contributed by
--Design Museum 09:59, 01 Dec 2015 (BST)
- 1 -3 Willow Road, Hampstead, London
- Daily Worker Headquarters, Clerkenwell, London
- Elephant & Castle development scheme, London
- Trellick Tower, Notting Hill, London
- Balfron Tower, Tower Hamlets, London
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 External references
- Design Museum - Erno Goldfinger profile
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