Goldfinger or Goldprick? While Ernő Goldfinger might arguably be most well known for inspiring Ian Fleming’s villain Goldfinger in the James Bond story of the same name, the enduring legacy of his stark, Brutalist architecture demonstrates his right to international fame.
What’s more, Ernő Goldfinger’s architecture, and the work of his legion of fans, can be appreciated throughout all corners of London, meaning you could be closer to an architectural masterpiece than you imagine.
First, it seems right to clear up the narrative of how Ernő Goldfinger earnt his ‘baddy’ status. Ian Fleming was a resident of Hampstead, and put forward a formal objection when Goldfinger submitted radical proposals to tear down several cottages and build his own modernist home, 2 Willow Road. During the 1930s, large numbers of progressive artists, writers and thinkers moved from Chelsea to Hampstead, drawn to the relatively low cost of housing. The expression ‘Hampstead intellectual’ characterised left-wing idealist thinkers like the Goldfingers, with their high living standards. These left-wing ideals were a shock to the quiet, residential London suburb. While fans of British modernism now flock to tour Goldfinger’s former home in the leafy suburbs (now run by the National Trust), at the time its uncompromising horizontal, modular façade challenged traditional notions of the ideal home. After his defamation by Fleming, Goldfinger consulted his lawyers, but eventually settled the dispute with all legal costs being paid to Goldfinger from the publishers. The furious Fleming demanded that his character’s name be changed to Goldprick, luckily (or unluckily) the publishers were reluctant to do so.
From the outside, the modern brick terrace does not appear hugely radical. This is somewhat deceptive, as the houses are supported on cylindrical concrete cores that allow for extremely open, flexible interiors. Goldfinger was an early proponent of open-plan living, deploying foldable partition walls to double the size of a room.
The British public’s ire towards Goldfinger’s buildings is well documented, with Trellick Tower inspiring J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel, High Rise, a story about the horror of modern, communal living. What is clear is that Goldfinger’s buildings bring people together, whether through criticism or dogged adoration.
His building for the Ministry of Health, Alexander Fleming House (now Metro City Heights in Elephant and Castle) was controversially recently recognised as a design classic with listed status.
‘Listing Goldfinger’s Alexander Fleming House is a timely reminder about important principles in architecture. Buildings are not good because they are old. Nor are they bad because they are new. Instead, great architecture across the ages is connected by the same timeless principles. A good building is related to its site. Its function should be suggested by its form. Its spaces and materials are carefully arranged and specified so as to cause surprise and delight to the people who use it. And good buildings soon come to occupy a place in the popular imagination’ Stephen Bayley, The Telegraph
To those that see his buildings as inhumane and aloof, pointing sharply as they do in to the grey London skyline, it is worth being reminded that Goldfinger used to invite the neighbours in his 26-storey Balfron Tower, Poplar, round for glasses of champagne, over which he would hear their comments and grievances about everyday life inside the tower block.
‘Withal, any Ernö Goldfinger building is, for those willing to see and think, satisfyingly complex. Proportions are fine, details careful, the effects measured (even if that measurement is often on the bombastic scale) and the results enduring’. Stephen Bayley, The Telegraph
For a taste of the (little less) high life, visit 2 Willow Road on a sunny Sunday afternoon. More modernist architectural fun can be had at the nearby Isokon Gallery, which is housed in a 1930s former residential block and design studio envisioned by its residents as ‘an experiment in urban living’. The current exhibition celebrates the Penguin, both the iconic designs of the publisher, and the majestic black and white bird, in a somewhat surrealist curatorial move.
Images (unless stated otherwise) by Tine Bek. Copy by Issy Muir.