Architecture: Goldfinger. He's the man with the modern touch

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The Independent Culture
Architect Erno Goldfinger, once vilified

for his brutal Modernism, is now hailed

for his vision.

ON HIS death in 1987, the work of Budapest-born architect Erno Goldfinger was deeply unfashionable. He was enamoured of Modernism, high- rise buildings and that most brutal of construction materials - bush-hammered concrete. And this at a time when popular opinion was being whipped into a frenzy of opposition to modernist architecture by Prince Charles. Goldfinger's work looked like it would become an academic footnote, with some of his buildings being threatened with demolition and others in a considerable state of disrepair.

The 11 years since his death, but particularly the last three, have seen a remarkable turnaround in his popularity, both in official circles and with the wider public. The much maligned and long vacant Alexander Fleming House at Elephant & Castle has been given a coat of paint to hide all that beloved concrete and been converted into flats, which have been snapped up. Balfron Tower, which looms large over the northern approach to the Blackwall Tunnel, has been listed as a grade II building and Tower Hamlets council plans to make the Rowlett Street estate into a Conservation Area. And Goldfinger's grandson has started making and marketing furniture designed by his grandfather. But recently the rehabilitation reached new heights when the London Tourist Board gave its Small Visitor Attraction of the Year award to No 2 Willow Road, the controversial house Goldfinger designed for his family in Hampstead and inhabited for nearly 50 years. Goldfinger as tourist attraction is a new idea.

In his lifetime, the architect was almost as vilified as the James Bond adversary who bore his name. A report from The Guardian newspaper said that he had left imprints of his "cloven hoof" all over London. He was infamous for his uncompromising adherence to the idea of high-rise building and use of concrete when both had lost any hold on the public's affection.

Just three years ago, English Heritage refused to recommend the listing of a rare post-war private house designed by Goldfinger, which was subsequently demolished to make way for a bungalow. At the time, the local council's conservation team said it had no opinion to offer on the house's architectural merit. Architect James Dunnett, who worked for Goldfinger from 1973-5 and has been largely responsible for restoring his reputation, battled unsuccessfully to save Player House, which he describes as "one of the two most significant" post-war private works by the architect.

The other, according to Dunnett, is Perry House in Windlesham, Surrey, which is Goldfinger's last completed work and so far unlisted. He says there is "a slight question mark" over it because it has just been sold and is a fairly modest building standing in substantial grounds, making it an ideal candidate for demolition and replacement with a larger house.

"He did not build very much. His output only really lasted one decade, between 1958 and 1968, so there isn't that much around," he says.

Dunnett has worked tirelessly to safeguard Goldfinger's legacy and more recently his task has been made easier, he acknowledges, by the National Trust's purchase of Willow Road, which lent the architect more credibility.

"My concern has been to try to give some prominence to his ideas - as a personality he is not regarded as such a threat, partly because he's dead. But his ideas on proportion in modern architecture remain as misunderstood as ever," he says.

Dunnett is also able to shed some light on the James Bond/Ian Fleming connection: "There's no doubt Fleming got the name from Erno and to avoid any legal action made his character, a small man with red hair who liked cats, totally unlike the architect. But there are two stories as to how he came about it. A cousin of his wife Ursula played golf with Fleming so that's a possible connection. The other theory is that Fleming lived in Hampstead during the Thirties and knew of the controversy about Willow Road - but the book appeared 17 years after and he would have to have been nursing quite a grievance for it to last that long."

Tenants of high council blocks are much more likely to nurse grievances about architects than rich writers, but it is amongst these that Goldfinger has found some of his most ardent advocates.

Completed in 1972, the Trellick Tower soars 33 storeys high over west London - an unashamed exercise in Brutalist Modernity fashioned out of bush-hammered concrete. Needless to say, it was Goldfinger's last public commission.

Lee Boland moved into the building when it opened and has lived there ever since. Now retired from the Health & Safety Executive, Mrs Boland and her husband have brought up their two children in the 24th storey flat, which they have loved from the outset. "The whole flat is so spacious and has light pouring in. The balcony is a good size and I never feared for the kids playing on it. The views over London are fantastic and we get incredible sunsets," she enthuses.

Mrs Boland, who chairs the residents' association, even met Goldfinger soon after the building opened. "I was in the lift and there was this great tall man with lots of hair who I didn't know. He cheekily asked me if I liked my flat and whether there was anything I needed in it. I told him the architect hadn't put in a broom cupboard and he said in a laughing way, `You bloody women are never satisfied'. I suddenly realised I was talking to the architect and I'd put my foot in it. I found him charming but I understand he was hell to work for," she recalls.

She recently paid further homage to the architect by visiting Willow Road and was interested to find that he had adapted some ideas from his house - including sliding partition doors which make the living rooms very flexible - and incorporated them into the Trellick Tower flats.

Goldfinger designed the house as part of a terrace of three, using a time-honoured architect's device to build his own home whereby the proceeds from the other two houses pay for the third. He was also lucky enough to benefit from his wife Ursula's money - she was a Blackwell of Crosse & Blackwell fame.

But, in a pattern that followed him through his professional career, the proposed house immediately caused a furore which reached the national newspapers after the Secretary of the Heath and Old Hampstead Protection Society protested about the design and use of modern materials.

Goldfinger successfully defended his proposals, emphasising his admiration of Georgian proportions and how the terrace would conform to them, and the house was duly completed in 1939. In all, four generations of the family lived there until Ursula Goldfinger died in 1994, seven years after Erno.

The National Trust became involved when death duties threatened to split the house from its excellent collection of modern art - which includes works by Henry Moore, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and Amedee Ozenfant. Willow Road became the first building designed by a modernist architect to be acquired by the Trust in what was regarded as a radical departure. Willow Road curator Harriet McKay, who lives in a ground flat within the house, says the London Tourist Board award validated the Trust's decision to buy it. Rising visitor numbers are also a justification, with up to 5,000 expected this year and Saturdays regularly being a sell-out.

Visiting Willow Road now, it is hard to imagine that its design was once the subject of such controversy and caused a debate in the national press. It is a modest terrace, mainly built of brick, though parts of the concrete frame are visible and the first floor window arrangement is certainly unusual. Once you step inside, it is easy to see why the Trust bought it and why the London Tourist Board gave it the Small Visitor Attraction award. The house offers a remarkable insight into a particular era and lifestyle - that of the original left wing, moneyed and intellectual chattering classes that were present as Modernism briefly came to take a hold of Hampstead.

Small tours, often led by retired architects, start in a cinema located in one of the converted garages with a film on the Goldfingers and the house, and progress through the hall and up the spiral staircase via dining room, studio, living room, study, bedrooms and bathrooms.

"The staff are all enormously proud of the property and appreciate the immaculate quality of its design and detailing," Harriet McKay says. "As for visitors, we get comments congratulating the Trust and asking it to find more of the same type of building." But what is most refreshing about the house and the way it has been set up by the Trust is the impression that its owners have just left the room in a hurry. Food tins are still in the kitchen cupboard and Goldfinger's desk is untidy.

There also seems to have been little attempt by the Trust or the family to rewrite history by sanitising the house or removing objects which don't fit the desired picture or official version. Thus, on display are Goldfinger's rather poor efforts to copy a painted stone by Max Ernst, an unsightly television and various trinkets collected on travels, including a woolly mammoth.

All this accumulated junk is at odds with the stereotype of a modern architect and tends to humanise Goldfinger, allowing a warmer picture of him to emerge - an effect heightened by a photograph of the architect with his mother in her room at Willow Road, where the clean lines and open spaces of his architecture have been entirely consumed by an abundance of opulent Austro-Hungarian furniture.

With the house starting to pay its way, the future of Willow Road is secure and, other than the possible question mark over Perry House, the rest of Goldfinger's canon also appears to be safe. That is largely due to the work of James Dunnett and the goodwill engendered by the quality of the buildings themselves, once initial prejudices about concrete and Modernism are overcome. Back on the 24th floor of the Trellick Tower, Mrs Boland is adamant on the subject of its proposed listing: "It's a wonderful idea. It would be a crying shame if we don't get listed status. There will never be another building like it."

She, James Dunnett, English Heritage and others are still waiting to hear about that decision from Culture minister Tony Banks. English Heritage made its recommendation - for listing at grade 11 - back in March 1997. One reason for the delay is thought to be a debate over whether to give the building the ultimate accolade of a grade I listing, putting a concrete council tower block on the same footing as other famous London landmarks such as St Paul's Cathedral.

Willow Road is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 12 to 5, with last admission at 4, from April to October. Guided tours are every 3/4 hour from 12.15 and cost pounds 4. Details on tel: 0171 435 6166

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