Ernö Goldfinger: the life of an architect by Nigel Warburton

A Savile Row Marxist's streets in the sky
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The Independent Culture

The career of the architect Ernö Goldfinger had a drone-like quality. Built like a light-heavyweight boxer, haute bourgeois by birth and marriage, bullying, charismatic, he had one big idea and spent decades thrusting himself into position for his fertilising moment. It produced twins who, as it happens, behaved rather badly.

The twins were London's first notable tower blocks, Balfron Tower near the Blackwall Tunnel, and Trellick Tower in west London. Both were revered by thoughtful architects, the latter rightly. But due to funding problems, they became grimy, depressing and often dangerous habitats. This, and the collapse of the Ronan Point tower in 1968, branded British versions of Le Corbusier's "streets in the sky" with implacably bad karma.

Goldfinger's critical moment came and went relatively quickly, after decades of theorising, influencing people, telling builders how to pour cement and humiliating his staff. He was not liked by the establishment press. When, in the early 1960s, he delivered Alexander Fleming House at Elephant and Castle, the Brian Sewell said it embodied "post-Corbusier notions that the working classes must live and work in cubic ant heaps". Roger Scruton said Trellick Tower demonstrated a "contemptuous conception of life's values".

Goldfinger's own values were the product of an exotic, cosseted life. Born into a wealthy Hungarian family, he was educated in Vienna and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and fell in love with the equally well-placed Ursula Blackwell. He seemed to know everybody who mattered in the arts. When he and Ursula settled at 2 Willow Road, the modernist terrace in Highgate that was his first significant domestic design, he accelerated into Englishness while declaring himself a Marxist: suits from Savile Row, lunches with Sir Edwin Lutyens, pro-Russian aid parties attended by the great and good.

Goldfinger was undoubtedly an important modernist architect. His ideas on the sensations and emotions conjured by space are still riveting; and his ability to give highly ordered textures to large facades remains notable. Ultimately, though, he didn't build, or publish, a great deal and never delivered a truly scintillating building.

Nigel Warburton takes care to develop a thorough character portrait. Yet, despite his assiduous research, one is overcome with a sense of ennui. Goldfinger may have been highly charismatic and deadly serious about architecture, but on the evidence in this book, the charisma was of a predictable, narrow-band variety. So too, in a way, was the architecture. In later life (he died in his modernist nest at Willow Road in 1987), Goldfinger was disparaged as a Gucci socialist. Brian Sewell derided him as "a pimple on the rump of Wren", but this is pure showboating. Most architects, even good ones, are Wrenish wens.

"There are good architects and bad architects," Goldfinger once announced. "I am a good architect." Warburton has done a fair job with a furiously didactic obsessive whose contribution will probably remain semi-opaque, despite the 500 boxes of jottings and letters he left to the Royal Institute of British Architects.