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Understanding Ernö

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Ernö Goldfinger: The Life of an Architect By Nigel Warburton. Routledge, 2004. £30

As one of the best-known 20th-century architects working in Britain, Ernö Goldfinger hardly needs an introduction. Naturally his fame depends in large part on the notoriety and subsequent rehabilitation of Trellick Tower, and on the National Trust's venture into Modern realms with its acquisition of Goldfinger's own house in Willow Road.

Yet a large part of Goldfinger's iconic status rests on his name itself, with all its bizarrely descriptive resonance and its filmic associations with evil desires for world dominance. As Warburton's book shows, however, Goldfinger was also famous simply for being Goldfinger.

Having the support of his wife Ursula, a member of the Crosse & Blackwell food dynasty, Goldfinger had less need than many architects to toady for commissions. And he took full advantage of his financial security by marching prospective clients out of his office by the scruff of their necks when they appeared not to appreciate his genius as fully as he did himself. Warburton occasionally seems to take Goldfinger's generous self-assessment at face value, but the more you read his well-researched biography the more you can understand Ian Fleming's temptation to rename him 'Goldprick' when the great man threatened to sue over the appropriation of his name as a villainous James Bond character.

Not only does he appear in these pages as a control obsessive and a bully, he seems to have lived in a kind of bubble that allowed him to place himself at the centre of the Modernist creative universe. He may have mingled with avant-garde circles when studying under Auguste Perret in Paris, but manages to turn that into the self-regarding statement: 'Everyone always seems to have known me'.

This apparent lack of normal human awareness even extended to the risible 'sacking' of someone who had merely dropped by to meet one of Goldfinger's assistants for lunch, apparently because he was smiling. Is this really the kind of person you would put in charge of large housing projects to elevate the urban poor to a brave new world in the sky?

On the basis of Trellick Tower, yes. Like so many tower blocks in Britain, many of its notorious social problems stemmed from bad management and council disinterest.

Although it has some serious flaws as a practical design, such as the provision of lift access at only every third floor, it remains one of the purest and most highly wrought visions of how to address the post-war housing problem in London.

Goldfinger's obsession with detail gave its interiors a strong sense of resolution, and the splitting of the domestic and service blocks is a logical and direct formal response to particular functional requirements. Despite its appropriation as a punk-era symbol of antiindividualism and urban decay, its future is now enhanced by its English Heritage listing and it stands as one of the most powerfully sculptural buildings of its period in Britain.

In this fascinating study, which while being principally a work of biography also has much to interest architectural historians, the full spectrum of Goldfinger's difficult and domineering personality is laid bare. Yet for all his apparent faults, his status as one of the most extraordinary characters of British Modernism is enhanced by this book.

In the last analysis, however, the relatively small number of major commissions will always make it difficult to assess Goldfinger as an architect. Ventures into allied fields such as furniture design, and involvement in some proselytising publications, show his breadth, but his explosiveness evidently came with a cost. It is tempting to wonder what might have been possible had his creativity been allied to a more compliant personality, but one suspects he rather enjoyed his self-allotted role. As Warburton suggests, Goldfinger's assessment of himself is vastly revealing: 'There are good and bad architects. I am a good architect.' Neil Cameron writes on architecture and art

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