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Friday 29th July, 2005

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Architect Goldfinger’s Midas touch revealed

Erno Goldfinger championed modern architecture - but there is more to him than concrete, writes Dan Carrier

Erno Goldfinger – The Life of an Architect

by Nigel Warburton Routledge, £14.99

Goldfinger’s 1945 book in which he explained how he thought London should be reconstructed after the war

Erno Goldfinger in front of Balfron Tower in East London which he designed

ERNO Goldfinger earned a reputation of being a man who fought – and thought – fiercely.
When the young architect offended an uptight punter in a Paris nightclub by the suggestive way he was dancing, the pair did not merely trade insults. Erno challenged his critic to a duel – using sabres. The situation was only defused by stream of letters between the two adversaries’ lawyers.
Then there was the case of the James Bond author Ian Fleming using Goldfinger’s surname for his famous villain.
The furious architect took legal action – and made the author add to his book a statement saying Bond’s nemesis had absolutely no likeness to anyone living or dead.
He also took on – and defeated – the great and good of Hampstead when he proposed pulling down four Georgian cottages to create space overlooking Hampstead Heath so he could build his own home.
He developed a reputation as a tyrant to work for: between 1954 and 1955, his small office employed and sacked 26 members of staff. One visitor, entering the Goldfinger offices, found a party in full swing – and when he asked why, he was told with no irony that Erno had thrown it to celebrate the one-year anniversary of a secretary. According to staff, it was surprising to find some one who could put up with him for so long.
But beneath his fiery temperament, Erno Goldfinger was a deep thinker whose concepts of social justice towards others at times contradicted how people perceived him.
So it is no surprise that the first biography written of Erno Goldfinger was penned by an academic whose field is philosophy – and it means the reader does not have to have any interest in architecture to enjoy the fascinating story behind of one of the 20th century’s most influential architects.
Open University academic and Cambridge university PhD Dr Nigel Warburton has untangled the philosophy behind Goldfinger’s designs, and their impact on contemporary London.
Dr Warburton discovered Goldfinger when he moved into Balfron Tower, an East End bock of flats built by the architect. Taking his future wife Anna back to his house one night, she remarked on the similarities between his high rise pad and her parents’ home in Oxford. She told him it had been built by Goldfinger in the early 60s and it sparked his interest in finding out who the man behind these blocks were.
“It is a striking building,” he says,
“At night it looks like factory. But what many of his critics do not realise is what they are like inside: They are spacious.”
Goldfinger moved in when the tower was complete, a move aimed to not only set an example to the new tenants – “show solidarity”, says Dr Warburton – but to learn from his design. The major problem that arose was the number of lifts he had commissioned – something he put right when he built another landmark, Trellick Tower in West London.
He adds: “I found articles but they were for architects. There is more to him than that.”
Dr Warburton, whose background is in the philosophy of art, uncovered a man who married cutting edge design and technology with the belief it must be used to improve people’s lives.
As Dr Warburton explains, Goldfinger’s belief in social justice had an outlet that was practical: the 1936 housing act made it possible for people to club together and form a housing society – if they could raise 10 per cent of the money they needed, they would be able to gain a mortgage for the rest of the cost of either buying or building houses. Goldfinger worked with one such association to build a set of homes in Regents Park Road, Primrose Hill.
Bomb damage had created a large hole in the street, and he designed a block of flats that had the hallmark Goldfinger’s work.
Dr Warburton also counters allegations that Goldfinger was a ‘Gucci Socialist’, with a luxurious house in Hampstead. “He was intellectually wedded to socialism,” argues Dr Warburton.
“He treated everyone equally.”
But it was when he decided to build his own home that cemented his reputation. Now owned by the National Trust, number 3 Willow Road is accepted as an important landmark in 20th-century architecture.
But at the time it was derided, as Dr Warburton writes: “A surge of anti-modernist feeling broke out. There were already remarkable homes in the area, most notably Maxwell Fry’s Sun House. Many of the residents despised this invasion of modern architecture.
Their aesthetic objections were sometimes tinged with xenophobia, since modernism was linked in their minds with continental Europe.
“They felt they were out of keeping with the elegant Georgian and Victorian buildings that flanked them.”
Dr Warburton explains that in 1937, the Hampstead Heath and Old Hampstead Protection Society, led by the honorary secretary Henry Brooke, mounted a vigorous campaign to get his designs thrown out as they did not fit in with the area.
He says: “Goldfinger disagreed: he stressed his own designs were an adaptation of the 18th-century style. Goldfinger always found the English tendency to worry about how a building fits in with its neighbours irritating and irrelevant: for him, a good building fitted in anywhere.”
Dr Warburton has uncovered during his research a man who ‘polarised opinions.’ Dr Warburton says: “He could be very rude – but he said the same things to every one.
“Every one I spoke to had a Goldfinger story, a Goldfinger anecdote.
“But what really emerged was the fact Goldfinger was a serious architect who made a real impact on London.”
This, according to Dr Warburton, had two effects on his career: firstly, he was faced with xenophobia – he wasn’t even allowed to call himself an architect at first and it also meant he had a desire to assimilate.
“Architecture being what it is, there was a desire to put down any one who read the Daily Worker,” says Dr Warburton.
And Dr Warburton says Goldfinger’s reputation has survived – despite the fact living in high rise blocks fell far from favour in the 80s and 90s.
“People recognise he was one of the best of the bunch for social high rise living,” he says.
Dr Warburton dismisses the idea that high rise blocks, as designed by Goldfinger, were the root cause of social unrest.
He says: “Go to Chicago or New York and you find the richest people live in high rises. There is nothing intrinsically bad for humans to live in high rises, although, of course, high rises can be badly designed and therefore make social problems worse.”
The book works well for students of architecture because it tells the personal story behind, as Dr Warburton points out, one of the main exponents of modern living London has seen: Goldfinger’s ideas of social housing, his use of concrete and his building aims have all helped create the London about us today. But it is also fascinating for some one who has no interest in architecture at all; there is a racy life story packed between the pages.

All content © New Journal Enterprises, 2005