From ‘towers of terror’ to hipster high-rises: How London finally embraced Ernö Goldfinger’s utopian vision

Katie McElvanney traces the rise and fall of Ernö Goldfinger’s socialist utopian designs and looks at how the function of these landmark buildings has changed from mass housing to housing for the privileged few.

Widely considered the inspiration behind Ian Fleming’s Bond villain Auric Goldfinger, Ernö Goldfinger is one of twentieth-century Britain’s most controversial architects. Yet after years of criticism for his Brutalist social housing projects, Goldfinger’s reputation, along with his designs, has had something of a revival. No longer seen as crime-ridden monstrosities, his infamous London high-rises are now celebrated for their architectural and historical significance, with apartments fetching hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Trellick Tower in west London. Photo: Katie McElvanney.
Trellick Tower in west London. Photo: Katie McElvanney.

Born in Budapest at the turn of the century, Goldfinger studied architecture in Paris before moving to London in 1934. As a student he drew inspiration from the architects Le Corbusier and Auguste Perret and their influence can clearly be found in his work, such as the Modernist Hampstead home he designed for himself and his family in 1939. A life-long Marxist, Goldfinger never joined the Communist Party but was a member of a revolutionary Marxist organisation in France until 1934. Nigel Warburton points out that this fact, ‘if it had been more widely known could easily have caused him problems while trying to establish himself in London and gain citizenship’ (2003, p. 127). Nevertheless, some of Goldfinger’s earliest designs in London included the (now demolished) offices for the Communist Party’s newspaper the Daily Worker in Farringdon in 1945, and the Party’s former headquarters on King Street in Covent Garden.

The (now demolished) offices for the Communist Party’s newspaper the Daily Worker in Farringdon. Image: British History Online.
The (now demolished) offices for the Communist Party’s newspaper the Daily Worker in Farringdon. Image: British History Online.

In 1941, at the height of the Second World War, Goldfinger wrote of his vision for the cities of the future:

“Cities can become centres of civilisation where men and women can live happy lives. The technical means exist, to satisfy human needs. The will to plan must be aroused. There is no obstacle, but ignorance and wickedness.”

Goldfinger’s desire to improve the lives of ordinary people through technology and design is evident in his social housing projects. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that he gained his first commissions from the Greater London Council to build high-rise domestic accommodation – the Balfron Tower in Poplar, east London, and its younger, more famous sibling, the Trellick Tower in North Kensington. The two towers, which share the same distinctive silhouette created by separating the service tower from the main tower by bridge-like walkways, were part of the council’s response to the post-war housing crisis and re-housed scores of those living in unsanitary terraced housing, particularly in the East End.

Goldfinger’s designs were based around his desire to create light, well-planned living spaces while also fostering a ‘community spirit’. Both Balfron and Trellick were part of larger estates designed by Goldfinger that contained shops, a nursery, a laundry room and other amenities aimed at facilitating the development of communities and improving the lives of their inhabitants.

“The success of any scheme depends on the human factor – the relationships of people to each other and the frame of their daily life which the building provides.”

Directory with communal facilities at the Balfron Tower. Photo: Andrea Peinhopf.
Directory with communal facilities at the Balfron Tower. Photo: Andrea Peinhopf.

In order to promote his vision of high-rise living and to experience first-hand the benefits and problems of his designs, Goldfinger and his wife, Ursula, moved into an apartment in Balfron Tower for two months. The couple are said to have hosted ‘champagne parties’ for tenants, an almost unheard of luxury for many in east London at the time. His conversations with residents influenced the design of Balfron’s sister project Trellick Tower, which contained modifications such as an additional lift. However, despite Goldfinger’s efforts to create a community spirit and cater to the needs of residents, many believed that high-rise social housing blocks were destroying the way of life of local communities. By the time the towers were completed, in 1967 and 1972 respectively, public opinion had turned against high-rise living. The towers, particularly Trellick, became famous, not for their utopian design, but for their social problems and criminal reputation. The level of vandalism and crime experienced by tenants at Trellick led to it being nicknamed ‘The Tower of Terror’ in the 1970s.

At the time, Goldfinger’s designs were blamed for the social deterioration of the estates, a criticism he adamantly defended. Looking back, it is widely agreed that many of the problems in fact stemmed from the council’s unwillingness to provide a concierge system, something Goldfinger had advocated and even allowed for in his design. Coupled with poor maintenance and a lack of funding, the estates continued to decline throughout the 70s and early 80s. However, in the mid 80s, the tide started to turn and conditions in the estates began to improve largely thanks to the introduction of security systems and building works such as new lifts and a playground. Featured in a number of music videos and films, Trellick and Balfrons’ ‘edgy’ reputation has also played a part in their re-generation.

Today Trellick and Balfron hold listed status, along with Goldfinger’s Hampstead family home on Willow Road and Alexander Fleming House on the Elephant & Castle junction. However, this recognition, combined with their desirable location, has contributed to the privatisation and gentrification of many of Goldfinger’s buildings, an all too familiar story across London in recent decades. Alexander Fleming House, a Modernist complex which once housed the Ministry of Health and is now known as Metro Central Heights, has already been converted into private apartments popular among young professionals. Trellick has to an extent retained its original purpose as social accommodation, but an increasing number of its apartments are being sold to private owners. The tower is also now home to hipster cafes and a furniture upcycling charity project, a further sign of the building’s gentrification.

Part of the terrace of three houses Goldfinger designed in 1939 in Hampstead. Photo: Katie McElvanney.
Part of the terrace of three houses Goldfinger designed in 1939 in Hampstead. Photo: Katie McElvanney.

Balfron Tower is currently undergoing a massive refurbishment, with housing association tenants uncertain as to whether they will be allowed to return. A young guy, who had recently moved into the building on a short lease, told us that although many residents had already left, others were still living there, unsure as to when the next phase of work would begin. The transition is evident, with some apartments boarded up while others still have washing and plants hanging on their balconies. An empty vodka bottle and disposable plastic cups on a stairwell hinted at further signs of life in the otherwise eerily silent building. The redevelopment is being carried out by the Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association (HARCA) and a private company and it seems likely that many of the now-in-demand apartments will be sold at lucrative prices to pay for the renovations.

Stairwell in Balfron Tower. Photo: Katie McElvanney.
Stairwell in Balfron Tower. Photo: Katie McElvanney.

Although Trellick and Balfron now seem far from Goldfinger’s utopian vision of housing for the masses, other London residential tower blocks built during the same period have not enjoyed such cult status and many have been demolished to make way for luxury apartment complexes. Ironically, it is thanks to the controversial history of buildings like Trellick Tower, coupled with their now celebrated and iconic planning and design, that so many of Goldfinger’s creations are still standing today.

A glimpse inside and around Balfron Tower:

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