(1902 - 1987)
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.