Book review: From here to modernity
Ernö Goldfinger: The Life of an Architect
By Nigel Warburton
(Routledge 197pp £30)
Literary Review, July 2004

 
The architect Ernö Goldfinger was a man of many paradoxes. He was the son of a wealthy lawyer and the grandson of a vice-president of a bank, yet he was a life-long Marxist. Despite his politics, in later life he craved a knighthood. He bullied his staff and paid them less than the going rate, yet he was also capable of immense generosity and kindness towards them. He was a perfectionist, and yet he delegated most of the detailed work on his buildings to those same underpaid assistants. He was a rampant egomaniac, yet he has no gravestone. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was an interesting sort.

I didn’t realise exactly how interesting until I read Nigel Warburton’s biography of this flamboyant Polish-Hungarian, although I did have a decent working knowledge of his buildings. I particularly admired his own house at 2 Willow Road, Hampstead, and the starkly beautiful Trellick Tower in Notting Hill, as well as his Odeon cinema at Elephant and Castle, demolished virtually overnight when listing loomed.

These buildings, like most of Goldfinger’s work, made extensive use of reinforced concrete and were sternly uncompromising in their design. As a result, Goldfinger has tended to be lumped in with the Brutalists and regarded as a pariah on the post-carbuncular architectural scene. In this biography, however, Warburton makes a pretty convincing case for Goldfinger’s having been a classicist who just happened to favour modern materials. Certainly that was how the architect saw himself.

Goldfinger also saw himself as a very, very important person indeed, and here Warburton is admirably critical, backing his subject up when he feels his arrogance was justified but happily bringing him down a peg or two when necessary. In the office, he was a martinet – liable to pull an assistant’s work off the drawing board and rip it up instantly if it failed to meet his high standards in the slightest way. Harsh treatment, but it was simply a manifestation of Goldfinger’s dedication to his work. Moreover, almost all of the assistants cited by Warburton admit that he was usually right. He lived to build, and restrictions on materials made the war a miserable time for him, a situation exacerbated by his alien status (he was naturalised after the war) and the fact that his children had been evacuated across the Atlantic.

His authoritarian behaviour sits uneasily with the stories of his student rebellion at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1920s, when he helped bring in Le Corbusier’s mentor Auguste Perret as a teacher, much to the chagrin of the school’s elders. However, his later bullying of subordinates becomes less surprising when it is revealed that the Beaux-Arts was run on the lines of an English public school, with a system of fagging and a plethora of bizarre and humiliating initiation rituals – including a variation of tarring and feathering using paint and glue. Apart from this, the Paris years seem to have been a whirl of famous or soon-to-be-famous names: the avant-garde composer John Cage, for example, was briefly Goldfinger’s assistant.

In fact, most of his assistants were in the job briefly. The only person who could put him in his place was his wife Ursula, one of the Blackwells of Crosse and Blackwell canned food fame. In one of the best stories about the couple, Warburton describes Goldfinger berating his wife for painting the garage doors the wrong colour, commenting that he’s spent the last twenty-five years trying to tell her the right colour. Ursula merely waits for a pause and corrects him: ‘Twenty-seven years!’ Rumours of extra-marital dalliances are downplayed (perhaps because Warburton has had the full cooperation of the Goldfinger family), but in the absence of any proper testimony this is probably the right decision.

Rather better documented is Goldfinger’s row with Ian Fleming, which began when the author named a villain after him. Warburton shows in some detail that Ernö was not the blueprint for Auric Goldfinger (the obvious differences were that the architect was tall and smoked cigars, whereas the Fleming character was short and hated cigars), but that Fleming tended to name all of his characters after friends and acquaintances. Goldfinger’s threats to sue were headed off with several free copies of the book and a promise to make the distinction clear in future editions, which saved Fleming from having to rename the character (Cyril Connolly suggested ‘Goldprick’).

Goldfinger favoured high-rise developments like Trellick and its sibling, the Balfron Tower in East London (in which Warburton once lived, and first developed an interest in the architect). As a result, like most advocates of high-rise, his reputation suffered after the Ronan Point disaster in 1968. It was harmed further by the fact that Balfron and Trellick were quickly vandalised and turned into havens for muggers and drug fiends.

This condemnation was, Warburton suggests, unfair. Goldfinger favoured high-rise buildings as an antidote to suburban spread, and suggested that the areas of freed-up greenery should become public parks. Ronan Point was built from a collection of relatively thin concrete panels slotted together, whereas the concrete in Goldfinger’s buildings was cast into shape and also much thicker. He also advocated a concierge system in his towers, which the GLC nixed because the idea savoured too much of Big Brother. Shortly after his death in 1987, a concierge was introduced at Trellick and crime dropped massively.

Warburton balances Goldfinger’s life and work well, undoubtedly aided by the fact that he is an architectural layman. Overall, the book reminded me of an excellent Pelican biography of Frank Lloyd Wright that helped me through History of Art A level. Warburton’s book differs from the Pelican title in one significant respect, though, and that’s the price: £30 is very steep for only 200 pages, and it is likely to deter many who might enjoy this book from reading it.

That would be a shame, because the buildings are, despite what Brian Sewell and Prince Charles say, wonderful, and the man who designed them was infuriating and often unpleasant, but never less than fascinating. Perhaps the best summary of Goldfinger can be found in a love letter Ursula sent early in their courtship. ‘In fact you’re a damn nuisance,’ she explains, ‘but I think you’re worth it.’

© Louis Barfe 2004

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