Skip to content

Erno Goldfinger

Updated Monday 26th November 2001

Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower would be the building to discredit an entire movement.

Erno Goldfinger Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Date:
(1902 - 1987)

 

Nationality:
Hungarian

Famous Buildings:
1 - 3 Willow Road, London
Alexander Fleming House, London
Trellick Tower, London

Learning From the Masters

The long career of Erno Goldfinger in many ways mirrors the fortunes of the Modern Movement in his adopted country during the 20th century. He struggled to gain acceptance in Britain before World War Two, and only became truly prolific in the 1950s and 1960s, when high-rise was adopted as the official solution to Britain's chronic housing problems.

Yet his monumental tower blocks of this era became icons of everything that the British public disliked about Modernism, and his reputation as an architect became indelibly tied to the fortunes of these later Brutalist projects.

Erno Goldfinger was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1902. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, his family made their way westward, with the young Erno eventually settling in Paris. Here he attended the prestigious Ecole National Superieure des Beaux-Arts in 1923. Goldfinger spent fourteen years in Paris, years which would shape his life and career.

It was here that he met Le Corbusier, and it was here as part of a group of young architects, dissatisfied with the old-fashioned conservatism of the Beaux-Arts, that Goldfinger worked with Auguste Perret, the French architect who was among the first to champion reinforced concrete.

Perret also believed that architects should 'expose' elements of their buildings: a structural honesty which would later come to characterise the work of Goldfinger as well as influential British architects Alison and Peter Smithson.

The Lean Years

In 1934, Goldfinger moved to London with his new wife, Ursula Blackwell. As part of the Crosse & Blackwell food empire, Ursula's money meant that Goldfinger was now financially secure. Which was just as well, because he struggled with commissions, like many other Modernists in pre-war Britain.

His three houses at Willow Road in Hampstead (one of which became his family home), encountered much local opposition, something he would come to know well in his career.

Like many Modernists, Goldfinger was an avowed leftist. This put him very much in the political mainstream immediately after the Second World War, yet his commissions remained meagre; the headquarters of the British Communist Party and the offices of the Daily Worker, both in London hardly made up for his conspicuously small role in Modernism's biggest public fanfare to date, the 1951 Festival of Britain. Several of Goldfinger's former apprentices actually had bigger roles in the Festival than he did.

Modernism's Last Stand

But Goldfinger persisted, and with public authorities keen to encourage high-rise (a premium on building above five floors was included in the 1956 Housing Act), Goldfinger found himself in greater demand.

The decade from the end of the 1950s onwards was his most productive. In this period, he completed his three most famous projects: Alexander Fleming House, Balfron Tower, and its sister, Trellick Tower (all in London).

Balfron and Trellick are two of Britain's most striking buildings, and arguably two of the ugliest. Trellick was completed in 1972, four years after the collapse of Ronan Point and one year before the first shock would signal the end of the long post-war boom.

In many ways it is brutalism's last stand; Goldfinger himself had spent several weeks living on the top floor of the older Balfron Tower in order to demonstrate to a sceptical public the joys of high-rise living, but he was fighting a losing battle.

His reputation suffered as the Modern Movement itself hit the skids, with Trellick in particular becoming a byword for Modernist folly.

Today, thanks largely to the efforts of former colleague James Dunnett, recent years have seen a new appreciation of the work of Erno Goldfinger; and a very un-British architect whose work is central to the story of British Modernism.

The Modernist Architects

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Trellick Tower Creative commons image Icon Ben.Harper under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Trellick Tower

How did the Trellick Tower become "the tower of terror"?

Article
Canary Wharf Creative commons image Icon Rodolfo França under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Canary Wharf

The Canary Wharf development got off to a wobbly start, but has now become iconic.

Article
Britain's Great War: Download your free 'The First World War Experienced' booklet Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license article icon

History & The Arts 

Britain's Great War: Download your free 'The First World War Experienced' booklet

From casualties to commemoration, explore the realities of war with this free booklet.

Article
The making of The Young Victoria Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Kate Williams / Tony Cohen article icon

History & The Arts 

The making of The Young Victoria

Kate Williams, writer and presenter of Timewatch's Young Victoria programme tells of her work on the production; how the programme evolved and some of the events along the way

Article
Park Hill Estate Creative commons image Icon adeltoclarencedock under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Park Hill Estate

Park Hill achieved the dream of streets in the sky - just as the dream was souring.

Article
What is heritage? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images article icon

History & The Arts 

What is heritage?

Heritage is constantly changing in the light of the present, explains Rodney Harrison.

Article
Peter and Alison Smithson Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Copyright article icon

History & The Arts 

Peter and Alison Smithson

A shining reputation had to swim against a turning tide of taste.

Article
War Memorials Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Russell Higgs under CC-BY-NC-SA licence article icon

History & The Arts 

War Memorials

Learn the secrets of the past, revealed by clues on the high streets of today

Article
The profits of slavery: James Wilson - Whitby and Sneaton Castle Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

The profits of slavery: James Wilson - Whitby and Sneaton Castle

James Wilson, made a fortune as a plantation owner. After abolition he started a new life as a pillar of Yorkshire society. One of his slaves, Ashton Warner, is the source for the information.

Article