One of the most famous stories about the clash between architecture and popular culture is the grudge held by James Bond author Ian Fleming against his neighbour, Ernö Goldfinger. Goldfinger chose a site next to Fleming’s leafy West Hampstead home to build his reinforced concrete modernist dream, which was received badly to say the least.
I wish more authors would take matters so seriously as to name an enemy of global world order after an architect. In the eponymous book, Goldfinger plots with the Russians to steal gold reserves from Fort Knox. Imagine if Harry Potter had to fight Voldemort’s new sidekick, Morphosis. It’s hard to think of anyone who could penetrate the public consciousness enough to warrant the kind of loathing earned by Goldfinger in the 1960s and 70s. But as a small, understated exhibition in east London’s Space Gallery shows, although the media coverage of architecture may have rocketed in the past decade, there is a special place in popular infamy for the Brutalists.
Beautiful photography by Vancouver-based artist Arni Haraldsson, who curated the show, portrays Goldfinger’s most famous building, London’s Grade-II-listed Trellick Tower. Already pretty photogenic when it opened in 1972, it looks wonderful now: an ambitious, arrogant structure in gritty grey concrete. Next to this image stands a rickety glass cabinet containing artefacts exploring the building’s social and cultural ramifications: JG Ballard’s novel High Rise, with its explicit indictment on the class warfare waiting to happen to British modernism, Anthony Burgess’ The Clockwork Orange, Blur’s album The Great Escape and, of course, Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger.
Yet the show sheds little critical light on the building’s passage from dystopian nightmare to icon of the west London cultural elite. This same conflict underlies Goldfinger’s work: his many enemies attacked him for being a champagne socialist. While he and his wife did spend two months living in one of his first housing projects, the Balfron Tower in Poplar, they returned to their warm, wood-lined home in West Hampstead.
But the tirade seems unfair: the conversations Goldfinger had with Balfron residents are documented here, and much of what he learned from them was implemented at Trellick. Goldfinger believed that architecture should be a solution to problems set by sociologists, and almost everything he built strongly resonates with his political stance.
Through texts and interviews this discreet, distinctly low-budget exhibition does manage to give a glimpse of the ripples that Brutalist architecture sent through society, reminding us that there is little new in the battle between architects, planners, developers and the public. Although perhaps the line between heroes and villains is a lot less clear these days.
Arni Haraldsson: The Goldfinger Project was at Space, London,