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
Goldfingers 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
Goldfingers surname for his famous villain.
The furious architect took legal action and made the author
add to his book a statement saying Bonds 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 centurys most influential architects.
Open University academic and Cambridge university PhD Dr Nigel
Warburton has untangled the philosophy behind Goldfingers
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 peoples lives.
As Dr Warburton explains, Goldfingers 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,
Bomb damage had created a large hole in the street, and he designed
a block of flats that had the hallmark Goldfingers 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 Frys
Sun House. Many of the residents despised this invasion of modern
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
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 wasnt 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 Goldfingers 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: Goldfingers
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.