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Humanist ambition

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The Measure of Man: Ernö Goldfinger and his Architecture

A Docomomo conference at the Architectural Association on 28 September

Apparently Ernö Goldfinger predicted that all of his work would be 'destroyed' within 100 years of his death: a humble enough proposition from a man who clearly was dominating, demanding and not particularly humble in his personal and professional life. But perhaps it also reveals the resignation, tinged with slight bitterness, that one might expect from someone with the displaced, émigré background of Goldfinger and so many of his contemporaries - a sense of ultimately expecting little from a fairly fickle society.

But Goldfinger did well in his lifetime.

From the immediate post-war years onward, he had plenty of architectural work (to the extent that he more or less gave up the furniture and exhibition design he had practised during the war); and moreover, he had a wife from a well-off English background who was able to invest her capital in their personal architectural project at Willow Road - the three adjacent houses which they built, one for their own occupation.

And today, as James Dunnett argued at Docomomo's conference on Goldfinger's legacy, his reputation is actually more established than it ever was, while his major works still stand, if somewhat ravaged by the effects of time, neglect and misinterpretation.

However, as Dr Martin Brady was to argue, the decay evident in buildings such as Trellick Tower in west London (right) cannot simply be attributed to society's neglect and mismanagement. Goldfinger's work was idiosyncratic in its 'monumentalism and communalism', insisting on an expression of heroic Hegelian 'being' in the world that does not always fit with the mundane details of domestic existence. As a resident of Trellick Tower, Brady lamented the problems of daily life there, generated by aspects of the design, which, indeed, spell doom for the future of the building if they cannot be sorted out soon. Yet he also acknowledged 'the acute sense of the dialectics of place and presence', which makes Trellick an inspiring residence at a more metaphysical level.

Brady attributes this sense in part to Goldfinger's émigré background - one shared by other cosmopolitan refugee architects such as Lubetkin, and which gave them a 'robust suspicion of replacing [the] disorder [of the slums] with the totalising order of Mies' et al.

A building by Goldfinger or Lubetkin does not constitute 'a readily interpretable graven image', but 'glorifies juxtapositions'. In this sense, it can be seen as a truly contemporary expression of urban experience, 'parading a cosmopolitan synthesis of styles and idioms' which embraces 'metaphor and multiple meanings'.

But by contrast, visitors' responses to the Goldfingers' private house at Willow Road, as reported by the custodian, seem to be universally warm and positive in their appreciation of the simple domestic detail of the design (bottom left). It would seem that at the level of the private house, perhaps as a realm somewhat detached from that larger, more universalising sphere of socialist ideals to which Goldfinger was dedicated, Ernö had a subtle and sensitive touch in designing for the needs and routines of daily life.

He still wanted to 'teach' his wife Ursula how to live in a different way, treating her, as Alan Powers suggested, as a representative of the whole of the English middle class and its bourgeois attitudes to the organisation of domestic existence; yet, despite the underlying didactic intent, it seems that he succeeded in evoking a way of life in compact spaces that still arouses enthusiasm.

As Rebecca Milner recounted, Goldfinger's attitude to designing domestic furniture and fittings was inspired by Le Corbusier's concept of 'tight objects and tight furniture' to meet 'tight needs and tight functions'. He looked to office furniture as a model for a more rational approach to creating pieces for the home, conceived as 'human limb objects'.

Using ergonomics as his base reference, Goldfinger then proceeded to overlay science with subtle layers of contrasting material texture owing more to Loos.

Despite the fundamentally 'austere masculine style', he thus succeeds in generating a richness to the domestic environment quite removed from classic functionalism. Similarly, as Adrian Forty revealed, his careful, textured detailing of corners reflected a very different approach from that of orthodox Modernism, with its formal abstraction and material negation of them.

According to James Dunnett, Goldfinger always 'sought to solve the most minute problems of human life with the same dedication as he did the largest'. He defined Goldfinger's work as essentially 'humanist', in the sense of being human-centered. Although 'a demanding architecture whose place is at the centre of intellectual life', it is also very much about the human body, the senses, and the individual's subjective experience of space.

'A building is snatched from space, ' said Goldfinger, and while he was committed to the use of regular systems of scale and proportion, he always believed that, ultimately, architecture had to be felt - 'like drumbeats'.

It is on this basis that Dunnett proposes Goldfinger's architecture as a model to guide us over the next 100 years in the task of creating architecture 'in the service of man'.

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