Midas brand with surreal twist

Ernö Goldfinger
June 11, 2004

If the architecture of the early modern movement has become a consumer product, conveniently packaged and displayed for use by those wishing to acquire a lifestyle, or designers wishing to create one for them, then Ernö Goldfinger has been one of the great branding successes. His name is perhaps second only to that of his contemporary and rival, Berthold Lubetkin, in level of recognition.

At the time of his death in 1987, it is unlikely that anyone would have imagined that Goldfinger would have been the subject of a biography such as Nigel Warburton's. But when one looks at the elements that go to make up the Goldfinger brand, his posthumous renown becomes more understandable. For whatever reasons of obsessiveness or egoism, he was exemplary in preserving his archives. These provided a good basis for encouraging the National Trust to buy the house in Willow Road, Hampstead, designed by Goldfinger in 1938, where further archives were piled up, as well as a collection of art by surrealists and their successors. Add to this a tenuous connection to Ian Fleming's villain, the need for art directors to use the tallest possible housing blocks as backgrounds for photo shoots, and the fact that the architectural style battles (Prince of Wales v. the professionals) of the 1980s and 1990s were mostly fought with cardboard cutouts from the 1930s - and the picture grows still clearer.

Goldfinger was an uncomfortable and difficult man who never fitted into the gentlemanly architectural establishment in his adopted country. The most conspicuous examples of his architecture, such as Trellick Tower in North Kensington, and Alexander Fleming House at Elephant and Castle, seem to be a direct expression of his character, in contradiction to the sensitivity and subtlety that he displayed in the design of Willow Road and other smaller buildings. The predictable irony of the Goldfinger "brand" is that it could happen only after he was off the scene.

Only brief texts have been published on Goldfinger hitherto, so there is still a need for a comprehensive "life and work". But Warburton is a philosophy lecturer rather than an architectural historian, and his book is mostly about the life. Perhaps this reflects one outcome of the branding of Goldfinger, that we prefer the gossip without the effort of looking at the buildings. Yet, while it includes some fruity personal details, this is a book with academic ambitions.

For the first half of Goldfinger's life, the formula works well, and the research on Paris in the 1920s is thorough. The second half, covering Goldfinger's most successful years of practice, is rather rushed by contrast. Like most architects, his work was his life and without it there is little left to discuss.

Intelligent writing in architectural history is rare in Britain at present, so there is scant justification for academic snobbery, but Warburton makes some elementary mistakes in this area. Few specialists in architectural history share his grasp of aesthetic philosophy, but he is inclined to oversimplify the arguments by taking architects' statements in isolation from the complex and contradictory context in which they usually originate.

Goldfinger's relationship to surrealism was unparalleled among architects in Britain, arguably subverting the ostensibly rational basis of his work, yet this is scarcely acknowledged.

The life can hardly fail to elucidate the work, but it is important to rescue Goldfinger from being a fashion phenomenon by developing a better understanding of his real strengths and weaknesses.

Alan Powers is associate senior lecturer in architecture, University of Greenwich.

Ernö Goldfinger: The Life of an Architect

Author - Nigel Warburton
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 197
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 415 25853 7

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