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Who was Ernő Goldfinger?

The garden front of 2 Willow Road. A square modernist building of four storeys stands central with green hedges and trees in the foreground.
The garden front of 2 Willow Road | © National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

Born into a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest in 1902, Ernő Goldfinger was a Modernist architect and furniture designer. Along with a number of other European architects, Goldfinger emigrated to England in the 1930s. Together, they helped popularise the Modernist movement in Britain. Part of the row of three houses he designed in Hampstead; number 2 Willow Road became his family’s permanent home.

Creative networks

Goldfinger studied architecture in Paris, where he was inspired by the buildings of Le Corbusier, as well as the manifestos – such as Vers une Architecture – that the renowned French architect contributed to the blossoming Modernist movement.  

After moving to the United Kingdom, Goldfinger became a prominent member of the Modern Architectural Research (MARS) Group, a London-based organisation that included architects, designers, critics and even the poet John Betjeman.

Living in Hampstead, Goldfinger encountered a variety of artists, writers and scientists. These included sculptor Henry Moore, poet Stephen Spender and biologist Julian Huxley. However, not all of Goldfinger’s neighbours charmed him: when Ian Fleming used his name as inspiration for a James Bond villain, Goldfinger threatened to sue.

Goldfinger’s principles

After attending the 1925 Paris Exhibition, Goldfinger declared that the ‘new style’ of architecture was ‘not bound to false traditions… the heirs of the Gothic Renaissance and Empire styles are the steel structures, the ferro-concrete and glass palaces.’

Along with his aesthetic loyalties, Goldfinger was driven by Marxist convictions. In 1942, he used his self-designed house at 2 Willow Road to host an ‘Aid to Russia’ fundraising exhibition featuring a number of influential artists.

Two visitors inside 2 Willow Road, moving aside a curtain to look out of a window
Visiting 2 Willow Road | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Prominent buildings

With the exception of 2 Willow Road, most of Goldfinger’s opportunities to apply his principles arose after the Second World War.

Social housing was a significant theme in his work and he became known for designing high-rise tower blocks. His most notable buildings were Balfron Tower and Trellick Tower in London, which were built in the mid-1960s.

Goldfinger boasted of these buildings, ‘everything I did, I did as if it was done for me.’ Indeed, he and his wife Ursula lived in Balfron Tower for two months. During that time, they hosted champagne parties so that residents could share what they did and did not like about the flats. Goldfinger then used this feedback when designing Trellick Tower.

Goldfinger’s legacy

Having assessed another example of high-rise housing two years after Balfron Tower’s completion, John Betjeman lamented in a poem ‘Where can be the heart that sends a family to the twentieth floor in such a slab as this?’

Despite the range of responses such buildings continue to provoke, English Heritage granted Trellick Tower Grade II listed status in 1998. Another Goldfinger project – London’s Metro Central Heights – achieved the same recognition in 2013.

These dates are just two milestones marking a wider renewal of interest in British modern architecture and design.

This article was written by Ashley Maher from the University of Groningen, who researches the influence of architectural modernism on 20th-century British literature.

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