“There are good and bad architects. I’m a good architect.” The words Ernő Goldfinger used to describe himself speak volumes of his character, strong-willed and uncompromising. It therefore comes as no surprise that a degree of notoriety and controversy followed the Hungarian-born architect and designer throughout his lifetime, due in part to his work, but also his explosive temperament.
Famously, he was the inspiration for the eponymous James Bond character which immortalized him as the power-hungry villain in Fleming’s fictitious writings. But more importantly, his legacy is seared into London’s skyline in the form of two iconic towers – Balfron and Trellick. Of his few built projects, these towers in all their bush-hammered concrete glory, immortalize the real Ernő: the architect, fervent Marxist and proponent of Le Corbusier. Balfron, Trellick and a particular house on 2 Willow Road encapsulate the story of Ernő Goldfinger: his vision and seminal contribution to British modernist design.
The Années folles
Ernő Goldfinger was born in Budapest in 1902. Coming from a family of lawyers, doctors and business people, his choice to become an architect was a decisive change in trajectory which would send future generations of Goldfingers down the path of furniture design. Ernő’s creative interests were sparked by a copy of Muthesius’ “Das Englische Haus” he received as a teenager. Fascinated by the drawings, Goldfinger expressed that somehow, it became the center of his interest. Despite knowing little about architecture, he was desperate to become an architect, which brought him to Paris in 1920.
He studied at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, at the time a highly democratic setting where students chose their teachers. 1920’s Paris was where Ernő Goldfinger crossed paths with notable names like Charlotte Perriand, Max Ernst, Pierre Jeanneret and Lee Miller. However, one particular influence stands out. If Muthesius inspired Goldfinger to become an architect, Le Corbusier roused the modernist in him. Faced with a copy of “Vers une Architecture”, it became apparent that this was different from anything he’d studied before. Ernő Goldfinger recalls: “Here was Le Corbusier advocating aeroplanes and motorcars and whatnots, and this was of course a terrific revelation for me.” With a group of colleagues, he set out to bring Le Corbusier to the Beux-Arts as their maître. Declining the position, Le Corbusier instead recommended his own teacher, Auguste Perret, pioneer of reinforced concrete. He became another important influence in Goldfinger’s formative years.
Goldfinger’s time in Paris left a lasting mark on his life and work. It was during this period of cultural and artistic prosperity – known as the Années folles – that he became acquainted with his avant-garde peers and nurtured his views on architecture and design under the guidance of his notable masters. They fueled his interest in new construction techniques and materials and furthered his preoccupation with proportions and geometric order in his work. Also, in Paris, he met his future wife, English artist and heiress Ursula Blackwell. From the thirties onward, his life and work would be based in the UK.
2 Willow Road
Today, the house on no. 2 Willow Road in Hampstead is a museum managed by the National Trust, and was one of the first modernist buildings acquired by the organization. However, in 1939, the year it was built, it was a controversial project. On one hand, it established Ernő Goldfinger as an up-and-coming designer among the avant-garde circles, while on the other, it made him a target for traditionalist critics. Ernő designed the house for himself and his family, in a way which carefully balanced the ideals of the old and new world.
The brick facade evoked its Georgian surroundings on the surface, while at its core, the concrete structure was thoroughly modern. The house – and the left-wing, cultural and intellectual elite that regularly traipsed through its doors – epitomized the spirit of Hampstead in the thirties. While the house is a masterpiece of modern architecture in itself, the interior conceals an entire modern world frozen in time – fittings and furnishings designed by Goldfinger and a significant collection of art by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Henry Moore and Max Ernst.
Goldfinger’s significance as an architect is indisputable. However, his ventures into furniture design are seldom mentioned. None of his furniture reached mass-production, meaning he gained no commercial success from his designs. Shedding light on Ernő Goldfinger as a designer is a venture into a world of potential never fully realized. No. 2 Willow Road gives a valuable insight into the influences on, as well as the design philosophy of Goldfinger’s work through a collection of core pieces that have withstood the test of time.
A self-proclaimed rationalist, Goldfinger’s approach to design was always pragmatic, with a particular emphasis on geometric composition. Once saying “jazzy knobs collect dust”, he was mindful of the way design was used and experienced, as opposed to the decorative aspect of it. He used resourcefulness in re-purposing elements to create something new, or fulfill a different function. Thus, gas piping was used for the framework of an adjustable bookshelf in the bedroom, and Anglepoise desk lamps were drilled into the wall for bedside lighting.
Goldfinger designed several chairs of bent plywood, usually combined with a steel support structure. One design focused on the pliable qualities of plywood, resulting in an organic piece which Ernő painted in a bold red. His grandson, Nick Goldfinger, revisited this design in the nineties, producing it in a limited run in a natural finish. The ‘Entas’ chairs grouped around a custom-made dining table in the home received their name from the French, ‘entasser’, meaning to stack. The series of similar, but not identical, chairs were made in small batches for personal use and commissions, as they never entered the intended mass-production phase.
Like many of his contemporaries, Ernő Goldfinger used tubular steel for the frame for the ‘Entas’ and some other designs, but his furniture is far from the perfectionism of high modernism with its sleek, original forms. Goldfinger’s designs aren’t refined, but rather the meeting point of old and new, industry and craftsmanship, junk and art. The house is brought to life by an eclectic palimpsest of unconventional materials and objects considered in a new light.
Streets in the Sky
A major aspect of Goldfinger’s design philosophy was to do with the user experience. This is best depicted through his social housing projects, most notably Balfron Tower and its younger sister, Trellick. Rising up from the urban fabric of East and West London respectively, the buildings stand uncompromising and imposing. Both were designed in the brutalist style which defined the era of post-war social housing, yet Goldfinger himself resisted being labelled a brutalist designer. For Goldfinger, the aspect of ethics, human sensation and emotion experienced inside a building trumped the plastic qualities of the exterior often associated with the style. Only from the inside can these towers be fully experienced as architecture. Designed to maximize light, most flats have windows on two or even three sides as well as balconies. Functional considerations such as windows swiveling into the room to allow for easy cleaning additionally elevate the design.
A testament to Goldfinger’s concern for the experience of his work was the fact that he spent months living in Balfron Tower after it was opened in 1967, receiving feedback from residents which helped him improve the design of Trellick several years later. While some social housing projects from the time were poorly designed and built, contributing to negative popular opinion of brutalist design, Balfron and Trellick stand as shining examples of their typology. Despite notoriously being known as “Towers of terror” for high levels of violence and crime during the 70s, they have been Grade II* listed buildings for decades now.
Both towers are undergoing gentrification, slowly transforming into a yuppie paradise of sorts. Despite this ensuring the survival of these cultural icons, this process of commodification comes not without issues. It deflects from the designer’s original utopian aims of providing quality housing for lower socioeconomic groups. These streets in the sky were conceived to free the spaces below for parkland and recreation, elevating people from cramped Victorian tenements into light-filled spaces among the clouds. In these aims, one is reminded of the young man infatuated with Corbusian vision and socialist ideals.
The Dualism of Design
The perceived failure of modernist social high rises looms over the noble intentions of their design like a grey cloud. The turbulent history and brutal aesthetic of the sister towers largely contributed to Goldfinger’s often negative perception as a designer. His largest works stand as representatives of his reputation in the public eye, prone to change as swiftly as the tenants move in and out.
And so, throughout the decades, his designs have been reviled and revered, his person both vilified and exulted. Trellick and Balfron are as much a service as a disservice to their creator. Too conspicuous to dismiss, their rough exterior attracts opinion from all. They are a reminder of how easily design can be misinterpreted, blamed for the ills of society, ostracized despite its ambitious vision. Looking up from the shadows cast by Balfron and Trellick reveals a dignified and proud facade representative of its architect: a pragmatic and thoughtful designer concerned with human need and the emotional perception of his designs, elevated by his empirical approach.