I was skimming through Lynsey Hanley's book Estates: An Intimate History in a bookshop today when I came across the few pages she devotes to Ernö Goldfinger, or more specifically to my biography of Goldfinger...What follows isn't really a book review (I haven't had time to read the rest. But I have bought it. As there is no index, I'm not even sure if I've exhausted the references to Goldfinger); rather this is a critical reading of pages 111-114 of that book.
Estates looks interesting, based as it is partly on the author's experience of growing up on a council estate just outside Birmingham [3:AM online magazine has a long interview with her here]. It is a highly-readable polemic against those who have blighted the lives of people dependent on social housing, whether through poor government, poor planning, or poor architectural decisions. But I hope the scholarship on which the non-autobiographical parts of the book rest is better than that between pages 111 and 114...
Hanley begins her discussion of Goldfinger with an urban myth that in my research for my biography I never heard. This is that Goldfinger on visiting the second of his two tower blocks, Trellick Tower, some time after its completion, seeing the drug-taking and the social chaos around it, threw himself off the top floor in what Hanley describes as 'a fit of self-immolating anguish' (Hanley, p.111). If he had done this, he wouldn't have been the first to use Trellick Tower as a means of suicide. There has also been at least one tragic case of an urban sky diver whose parachute failed to open. The usual myth about Goldfinger, though, is that Ian Fleming named his villain after him because Fleming hated Goldfinger's modernist house in Hampstead. Fleming did get the name from the architect's, but this wasn't the mechanism (I have written elsewhere how Fleming's Goldfinger really got his name).Hanley seems to share the views about Goldfinger's Hampstead home, 2 Willow Road, attributed to Fleming, when she sneers at the 'endless right angles that constitute its appearance' (Hanley, p.112). I wonder if she takes the same attitude to the rectilinear fronts of Georgian terraces which were Goldfinger's conscious precedents here.
She then goes on to make the common mistake of thinking that the only major difference between Goldfinger's two tower blocks, Balfron and Trellick is their height. One obvious external difference is that the service tower of Trellick is rotated through 90 degrees compared to that of Balfron (see p. 164 of my biography for a comparison of some aspects of Balfron and Trellick)...but there are also many design differences that Goldfinger made internally, based in part on his experiences of living for two months in Balfron Tower just after it was completed (he admitted that the experience had exposed faults in that design - that was part of the purpose of living there).
Hanley discusses my description of the Goldfingers' stay in Balfron, declaring that:
'Nigel Warburton's defensive biography of Goldfinger claims that the architect's council-flat soujourn (he only stayed there for two months) wasn't a condescending publicity stunt, but a genuine attempt to show solidarity with his temporary neighbours. I can't help thinking this is gubbins. If he had really wanted to live among the people who had been housed in his creation, would he not have ditched the house in far-away Hampstead and moved full-time to Balfron Tower, with its unbroken views of industrial east London, the docks and the Blackwall tunnel?'
Wow. It's hard to know where to start with this. I'll ignore the 'defensive' and concentrate on the uncontroversial misrepresentations. First, I never gave such a crude description of Goldfinger's motivations for moving into Balfron. I really don't believe that this was an attempt to 'show solidarity with his temporary neighbours' and never suggested that it was. Even though he was a Marxist, that was not his purpose in living in Balfron. I really don't know where Hanley got that idea from. As I say in my biography (Warburton, p.157) this was a wonderful opportunity for Goldfinger to display his commitment to high-rise living:
'The building might look forebidding from the outside, but, as he hoped to demonstrate, that was completely compatible with well-planned living spaces, with stunning views across London, daylight, heating and all the prerequisites for twentieth-century city living. In what even his critics conceded was at the very least an inspired publicity stunt, he and Ursula [Ursula née Blackwell, his wife] lived for two months in flat 130 on the twenty-sixth floor...'
As I go on to say in the book, living in the space he had created was also completely consistent with his views on the nature of architecture, namely that it is an art of enclosing space - to appreciate any work of architecture you need to experience it from within. I also acknowledge that to some degree it was a pretext for press attention. Much of his interest in living in Balfron was architectural, though. Goldfinger was an empiricist. He wanted evidence and feedback on what worked and what didn't. I quoted his words on this in my book:
'I want to experience, at first hand, the size of the rooms, the amenities provided, the time it takes to obtain a lift, the amount of wind whirling around the tower and any problems which might arise from my designs so that I can correct them in the future.' (Ernö Goldfinger quoted in Warburton, p.158)
I don't understand how Hanley got from this to notions of wanting to live among the people out of a sense of solidarity. I also point out that:
'He had also often declared that he built homes he would himself be happy to live in' (Warburton, p.158).
I suspect that this is the sentence that sent Hanley off on a red herring trail. But it in no way follows that because he had built a home that he would be happy to live in that he had to abandon his own higher-spec house overlooking the heath in Hampstead and live in Poplar. Hanley in this discussion, and throughout, seems completely unaware that Goldfinger had his own architectural office in Trellick Tower from 1972 until his retirement in 1977. Even in the description of the views from Balfron, Hanley sets the building in its worst light. When I lived there I was stunned not only by the views over the Blackwall Tunnel approach road (which, admittedly, is very noisy - more on that later) but over the Thames to Greenwich on one side, and to Tower Bridge and beyond on the other. Sunsets were stunning, and herons often cruised past the window.
I actually agree with Hanley's view that living with children in a tower block such as Balfron or Trellick must be hard. But she falls for what I've labelled the fallacy of architectural omnipotence (for more on this read here) when she seems to blame Goldfinger for 'the noise of the endless traffic approaching the Blackwall Tunnel' (Hanley, p.113), and even perhaps for a neighbourhood murder (I now live in leafy Oxford, in a house designed by Goldfinger: two streets away, some years ago, in a Victorian terraced house with a nice garden, a student murdered his girlfriend and buried her under the floorboards; to my knowledge no one has yet blamed the architect). The architectural cause of the noise problem Hanley identifies are the 'ill-fitting windows'. Now, Goldfinger certainly didn't have a free hand about where he built Balfron Tower. And in the 1960s it probably wasn't obvious how much London traffic would increase. I don't know enough about the particular windows in question (and some have been replaced since the building was constructed) but when I was living in Balfron I noticed the problem of the original windows whining in the wind, which was apparent from the time the building opened. I suspect this isn't simply the fit, but has something to do with the resonant frequency of materials. It was something that Goldfinger was concerned about and was an example of what he learnt from living in the building. As I mention in my biography, he was also well aware of problems caused by having too few lifts, a fault he remedied to some extent when he came to design Trellick Tower.
Another attack from Hanley:
'Warburton claims that Goldfinger never gave up his socialist ideals, but if that were the case, why did he consent of working-class people to be housed in such an unprepossessing place?' (Hanley, p.113)
This is where Hanley has definitely lost it: the preceding sentence which apparently glosses 'unprepossessing' is
'There seemed to be something quite wrong about making children live in machines, next to roads clogged with lorries, the acrid smell of riverside industry filling their lungs every day, their noses rubbed into other people's wealth by the gleaming Docklands skyscrapers on their doorstep.' (Hanley, p.113).
Yes, who could disagree? Children shouldn't have to inhale pollution. The allusion to Corbusier's 'machines for living' neglects the fact that Goldfinger's own house in the cleaner environment of Hampstead would also be a 'machine' in these architects' views, so that is a bit of cheap rhetoric...BUT... having been born in 1976 (as Hanley was) is no excuse for the horrific anachronism implied in this quotation. Does she really believe that the Docklands development pre-dated Balfron Tower? If so, she has no credibility whatsoever. Why should anyone take her views on social housing seriously with this level of scholarship? This statement makes me want to give the book to Oxfam, rather than read it. I remember watching Canary Wharf going up level by level from a room in Balfron tower in 1990-1...but Balfron Tower was completed in 1967.
With a degree of magnanimity Hanley concedes 'The architect was not truly to blame for the crime and ignominy that blighted Trellick Tower, in particular in the late 1970s and early 1980s' (Hanley, p.113). But she then goes on to accuse me of letting the architect 'off the hook'...with the snide comment:
'Nevertheless this statement [not obvious what this refers to as no statement is quoted] suggests that there are certain classes of people who can't be trusted to live in any building that was designed by a great man of socialist ideals and spectacular taste in interior design' (Hanley, p.114).
Does it? Well, it is certainly true that some people make better tenants than others...and that is true whatever the social housing in question. It is sentimentality or wishful thinking to believe otherwise. It doesn't matter who built the building, or how spectacular the taste in interior design. The 'great man' thing, where did that come from?
It is interesting that Hanley seems to see me as an unequivocal champion of Goldfinger's tower blocks. But there is much in my biography that expresses reservation and recognises shortcomings. She sneers at my description of Trellick as having nothing quaint or homely about its exterior (but fails to read this in the context of Goldfinger's views about architecture as essentially the art of enclosing space that needs to be experienced from within). I also quote the architect James Dunnett, who worked closely with Goldfinger, on the martial allusions in Trellick's exterior: the slit-windows imparting 'a sense of terror' (Dunnett quoted on p.157 or Warburton). I think it is fair to say that both James Dunnett and I recognise that Balfron Tower is uncompromising and for many people a threatening and unattractive building.
Bizarrely, despite my emphasis on the sublime rather than the beautiful, Hanley writes:
'Both Warburton and Dunnett seem to fall for the idea that housing should be art. It ought to be beautiful, yes, but not at the expense of the people who have to live in it. Or is living in a council flat supposed to be delicately terrifying?' (Hanley, p.114)
No. No. No. Where did she get that idea? Neither of us are that crass. There is a big difference between the experience from within and the experience from outside...But I suspect I have already dignified this rather odd attack with too much blogspace...And now I've looked closely at these three pages, I don't think I'll bother reading the rest. If you feel you'd like to, check out Oxfam bookshop in the next few days.
P.S. Isn't it mysterious that flats in Balfron and Trellick Tower change hands for such high prices these days when they come on the market (e.g. one advertised here for £260,000). They must be such terrible flats to live in. Is this all a con?
James Dunnett, who worked with Goldfinger on several projects and has written extensively about the architect, emailed me to say:
"I don't think Goldfinger was seeking publicity by going to live in Balfron: it was a serious attempt to assess life there, and Ursula's detailed notes of conversations with neighbours etc are there to prove it. He was an intensely practical man who wanted to know the answers. He never even had the building properly photographed.
The idea that Goldfinger had hurled himself off the roof of Trellick in despair is laughable, if dramatic: he was very proud of it to the extent of moving his office there, and he was later distressed by the acts of vandalism perpetrated against it by the Council.
Also, he didn't choose the sites or the amount of traffic that would roll past - and in fact one of the Modern Movement ideas in building tall was to remove dwellings from the noise and pollution of traffic. Also, the windows of Balfron and Trellick, exceptionally for the time, were double glazed. But Goldfinger was obviously constrained by the budget limits imposed on him by Government. Lifts, for example, are very expensive, and so he would be unlikely to have been able to include more than current standards recommended, which determined current budgets."