Don’t teach me

Gillian Darley

  • Ernö Goldfinger: The Life of an Architect by Nigel Warburton
    Routledge, 197 pp, £30.00, November 2003, ISBN 0 415 25853 7

Architects don’t come much angrier than Ernö Goldfinger. Even among his own disillusioned generation, he seemed perpetually crosser than most. Towering, handsome, self-assured (‘Everyone always seems to have known me’), this Hungarian emigrant was quite unlike the pallid, fish-eyed Professor Otto Silenus, Evelyn Waugh’s caricature Modernist. Silenus had come to the Home Counties spouting aphorisms from the Bauhaus via Moscow, invited by Margot Beste-Chetwynde, who had fallen on his designs for a chewing-gum factory in a progressive Hungarian quarterly. Margot wanted ‘something clean and square’ to replace her irrelevant Tudor mansion.

In 1937, Goldfinger designed a terrace of three houses on Willow Road, facing Hampstead Heath. The central house was for his own family: it was flat-roofed and concrete-framed, and replaced some derelict cottages. Local opposition, orchestrated by the future Conservative home secretary, Henry Brooke, was fierce. Goldfinger – assisted by such influential neighbours as Roland Penrose, Flora Robson and Julian Huxley – successfully defended his design, citing its kinship to the formal articulation and clarity of the Georgian terrace. ‘Only the Esquimeaux and Zulus,’ he said, ‘build anything but rectangular houses.’ The houses were duly built, became widely admired as a paradigm of architectural virtue, and, when 2 Willow Road was presented to the National Trust in the mid-1990s, it was Henry Brooke’s son Peter, the heritage secretary, who performed the ceremony.

Ernö Goldfinger’s professional life was full of such ironies. By the 1970s, he was a misrepresented figure, demonised (he felt) for his part in the high rise architectural attack on London. His wish to put the record straight made him, in the critic Alan Powers’s words, ‘an angry old man, not a grand old man’. After he finally closed his office, and to ensure that his claims would not be forgotten, he lodged five hundred boxes of his papers with the archive of the RIBA.

Nigel Warburton is not an architectural historian but a philosopher of aesthetics, who became intrigued by his subject after living in two very different Goldfinger buildings of the 1960s, the 27-storey Balfron Tower in the East End and the Motz House in Oxford. In this brisk account, he draws an understanding picture of Goldfinger’s background and formative experience, which offers some explanation of his sense of being a prophet without honour.

Goldfinger was combative, worked on the assumption that he was unerringly right and had a domineering manner which did him no favours – ‘Don’t teach me,’ the small boy once snapped at his mother. No sooner had he achieved some architectural renown than he was caricatured, at least in name, as Ian Fleming’s villain. Sensing anti-semitism, he sued and was placated out of court with his costs, an agreement that ‘Auric’ always be used in front of the villain’s name, and half a dozen copies of the offending novel. Which didn’t stop a stream of pranksters telephoning him in silly voices when the film was released.

Goldfinger was brought up in affluence on one of the faultlines of Europe. The family lived in Budapest and summered on the family estates in the southern Carpathians – which Patrick Leigh Fermor has called ‘the most resented frontier in Europe’. With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the onset of political and racial turmoil, the Goldfinger family moved to Vienna. In 1920, Ernö went to Paris, by then as a Polish national according to the territorial adjustments made in the Trianon Treaty.

Initially interested in engineering (the family business was forestry and saw-mills), he began to consider architecture after coming across Hermann Muthesius’s Das Englische Haus (1904-05): English domestic architecture as observed by the German cultural attaché in London from 1896 onwards. In Muthesius’s pages, Arts and Crafts emerges as a style in which modernity and tradition, contemporary needs and vernacular skills sit effortlessly together. Goldfinger never forgot Muthesius’s insights, and fifty years later was still recommending the book.

In Paris he enrolled as a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in the atelier of Léon Jaussely. Lectures provided the theoretical basis for a rigidly academic architectural education, but the studio-based system allowed students to acquire practical skills and exposed them to different influences. Jaussely had translated the writings of the English architect and urbanist Raymond Unwin into French, and so once again the shadow of the Arts and Crafts movement fell across Goldfinger’s path.

The next step is best told by Goldfinger himself, as quoted by Warburton:

So there I was in the Beaux-Arts, I’d finished my second class and had two valeurs in premier class. And here came out this absolutely staggering book, unreadable, but fabulous: Vers une architecture. So all these things we were doing wasn’t really architecture. So said Corbusier. We are going towards an architecture . . . Not a new architecture, not an old architecture, just towards architecture.

No slouch, Goldfinger approached the master to see if he would supervise their atelier. The response was that he didn’t teach but would pass the request on to Auguste Perret, his own former mentor. Flattered, Perret readily agreed and offered the students free studio space as well as his time and attention. He was that rare figure in Goldfinger’s life, a man whom he unreservedly admired: ‘Perret for me is logic.’ The pre-eminent expert in reinforced concrete structure, with a background in construction as well as design, Perret proved to be an inspirational figure: his hat sits in Goldfinger’s study at Willow Road.

Paris in the 1920s gave Goldfinger the chance to observe the international avant garde at first hand. His own account, characteristically, places him centrally. He frequented the Dôme, the café where the tiny, deaf Adolf Loos (‘ornament is crime’) held court; he knew Man Ray and Lee Miller; Berthold Lubetkin lived in the same building; he was good friends with the photographers Andor Kertész and Bill Brandt as well as most of the leading painters and sculptors. But an enduring sense of his own superiority (as a child, after a poor exam result, he raged that ‘the imbecile failed me’) meant that he wasn’t prepared, as he put it, ‘to kowtow to Picasso’. Nor, when he began to work in partnership as an interior and furniture designer, and took on employees, was he any more generous-spirited. One young American who worked with him briefly, and in whom he had no interest (and of whom he had no memory), was John Cage.

Goldfinger claimed to be a lifelong Marxist, but he never joined the Communist Party. In 1931, he met Ursula Blackwell, a woman of enormous resilience and wit who was then studying painting with Amédée Ozenfant. They married in 1933 and moved the following year from Paris to London, where he became more of a St James’s Marxist than a Hampstead socialist, his commanding frame set off with handmade shoes and expensive tailoring – Ursula had a substantial trust fund (from the Crosse and Blackwell empire). Soon after their meeting, he toyed with going to the USSR to build factories, and she unhesitatingly offered to go with him. Goldfinger was now caught up in the heat of mainstream European architectural Modernism, becoming the French secretary of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), but he was, in truth, a very junior figure on the wider scene.

He took his time moving to England. Before he could marry Ursula he had a long-standing lover to get rid of, an office to close and a delightful life as a left-wing flâneur to turn his back on. He had already worked in London, in 1926, designing a radical glass and steel frontage for Helena Rubinstein’s salon in Mayfair. His first completed building after the move was a small, single-storey house at Broxted in Essex (surprisingly not mentioned by Pevsner in his Buildings of England but noted in the Essex Shell Guide). Although the remarkable garden made by his client, the painter Humphrey Waterfield, has gone, the house and surrounding landscape remain inextricably linked, reflecting Goldfinger’s view that ‘the most significant thing about a house is the view from within it.’

Ursula, ahead in England while Goldfinger was cruising the Mediterranean with his colleagues at CIAM IV, surely the most luxurious architectural conference ever held, found herself in Grafton Street. ‘We passed Rubinstein’s today. I was all thrilled – as if I saw a bit of you.’ In 1936, he redesigned a shop and showroom on Wimpole Street for more appreciative clients (Rubinstein had refused to pay), Paul and Marjorie Abbatt, the pioneering educational toy manufacturers. The materials, abundant high-quality plywood and full-height glazing, as well as the subtlety of the scale and detail of the interiors, demonstrated Goldfinger’s increasingly sure touch. The store was designed to be highly visible from the street, with a set-back, sheltered entrance, allowing children to peer in without blocking the pavement or getting wet. The interior was mesmerising, bright and uncluttered.

Willow Road, designed just after the Wimpole Street shop, shares many of the same qualities. There, as well as the clever plan and sure handling of colour and materials, his practical ingenuity is evident at every turn. A spare bed folds into a wall cupboard; shelves slide below the apron of the sitting-room floor; rooms are flexible with partitions and folding doors; skylights and louvres admit natural light into the darkest corners; tambour-fronted furniture allows cupboards to slide open; drawers and chair backs pivot. Goldfinger’s architectural apprenticeship in interiors and furniture design served him, and his now growing family, well.

With Willow Road, Goldfinger staked his claim to serious attention. Financed by Ursula’s trust fund, with the aim of becoming self-financing through the sale or rent of the two ‘book-end’ houses, it was, compared to the startling bleached modernity of the nearby Isokon Flats or Maxwell Fry’s Sun House, a classic reinterpretation in brick and bold horizontal fenestration of the 18th or 19th-century London terrace. Despite his admiration for the Modernist housing exhibition outside Stuttgart, the Weissenhof, which he had visited in 1927, the realities of London and the development of his own mature style – which was far from being a blind pursuit of empty architectural rhetoric – led to a very different outcome.

Goldfinger claimed that it was Loos who had taught him to value the formal elements and subtle proportions of the Georgian street, so hated by the Victorians but much celebrated by such overseas observers as Steen Eiler Rasmussen, whose London: The Unique City was published in English in 1937, not long before Willow Road was completed. Later, when designing for infill sites, Goldfinger remarked on the importance of what he termed ‘urban decency’, that sense of propriety which he felt glass curtain walled buildings didn’t, and couldn’t, possess. Vividly, he compared them to the stocking masks worn by bandits.

War lost Goldfinger, like many of his generation, his architectural moment. His application for British nationality went in just too late and he narrowly avoided internment (while Ursula frustratingly found herself Polish for the purposes of the war effort). In a curious limbo, he rented his office to a gaggle of Surrealists who made up the Industrial Camouflaging Unit, a set-up of artists involved in farcical efforts to disguise factories from enemy aircraft. With Goldfinger they gained a lucrative commission or two, apparently without any supervision from the officials who’d dreamed it up.

In wartime his experience in exhibition design and his political views came together, in several establishment initiatives to promote Anglo-Soviet friendship. Twenty-Five Years of Soviet Progress was designed by Goldfinger and shown at the Wallace Collection. It was opened by the president of the Royal Academy, Edwin Lutyens, and led to friendship and regular lunches. Unable to build, Goldfinger also became a prolific writer (although he failed to complete almost all of the books he began), expanding on his architectural credo and restating some well-established ideas. Architecture sprang from three factors: ‘functional needs (why it was made)’, ‘constructional means (the available technological resources)’ and ‘emotional effect (how it is experienced)’ – or, commodity, firmness and delight.

One book that he did complete was the popular Penguin edition of the County of London Plan, ‘explained’ by Goldfinger and the RIBA librarian, Bobby Carter. Illustrated with Bill Brandt’s photographs, the book offered a lively interpretation of postwar plans for London, combining social and civic aspirations to impressive effect. And the first signs of a postwar upsurge in building found him ready and willing. His extensive refurbishment of the Daily Worker building on Farringdon Road announced his presence and his politics – although he omitted the name of the client from his CV. An atheist, Goldfinger did not forget he was a Jew: his dislike of Berthold Lubetkin, his neighbour in Paris and fellow émigré to London, may have had roots in professional jealousy, but it was intensified by the knowledge that Lubetkin had continually dissembled about his Jewish background, even to his own family.

Work began to come in: commissions for schools, offices and housing, as well as the inevitable promising projects scuppered by cautious planners. As one of the few unashamedly Modernist practices, Goldfinger’s office readily attracted young architects, but was blighted by his explosive temperament. An employee who arrived in early 1955 and left before the year was out discovered he was the 26th to leave in two years. Goldfinger even fired a man who was waiting in the office to have lunch with one of his assistants. He drove his builders relentlessly and was no more amenable with his clients.

A commission from a small housing society produced a discreet block of flats for ten families on a bomb site in Regent’s Park Road, again attesting to his understanding of the rhythms and fabric of a London street. A svelte office block on Albemarle Street proved, with its projections and recesses, that he could manipulate the surface planes of a terrace every bit as convincingly as Georgian builders. Yet when he applied similar motifs to a dense cluster development, the misbegotten office towers at the Elephant and Castle, the notes did not play the same tune.

It was not until the mid-1960s, twenty years after the end of the war and thirty since he had arrived in England, that Goldfinger finally gained his longed for commissions for large-scale public housing. The first, Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets, was opened just three months before the Ronan Point explosion, which was the death knell for system-built housing. Balfron Tower, and its twin, Trellick Tower in West London, were conventionally constructed, but had detached circulation towers joined by walkways to the main body of the buildings; sheer concrete and slit-like apertures set a harsh tone. The aesthetic of the towers was forbidding in the extreme, a far cry from the polite Modernism of Willow Road or Albemarle Street, as far as the Smithsons’ Bethnal Green housing was from their urbane Economist Building in St James’s. The Goldfingers’ decision to live in Balfron Tower themselves for two months was a brilliant move: it endeared them (Ursula in particular, who noted down everything) to ‘my tenants’, as Goldfinger called them; it was excellent publicity for his beleaguered profession; and it made him something of a hero to a generation of progressively minded architectural students. But it was just a honeymoon.

Notions of streets in the sky, massive concrete vertical or horizontal fortresses, quickly fell victim to the realities of bad housing management and maintenance, rising crime and lack of security – not to mention the growing distaste for the sweeping redevelopment of residential areas. After Ronan Point would come Broadwater Farm. Policy came to be dictated by drama and virulent reaction. Those who had ventured into housing – Peter and Alison Smithson, Denys Lasdun and Goldfinger, the ‘angry brigade’ of architecture – took far more than their fair share of the blame. And who could have guessed that ‘right to buy’ legislation would soon give the better London tower blocks another chance – while also draining the public estate of affordable housing? Since the early 1990s, a new generation has come to live in Trellick Tower and its peers, secure and comfortable, but this time they are residents by choice.

At 2 Willow Road, where Goldfinger’s mother came to live with his family until her death at the age of 101, in a room filled with ornate Austro-Hungarian furniture, the mutability of life, politics, fortunes and society must have offered her son endless food for thought. Faced with so much unpredictability, small wonder that on many occasions he gave vent to the frustration and anger by which he is all too often remembered.