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The Importance of Being Ernö: Goldfinger from wooden toys to 'spatial feeling'

Ernö Goldfinger’s AR articles formed the first verbal articulation of his architecture’s marked and expressive spatial feeling

Although the house that Ernö Goldfinger built for himself in Willow Road, Hampstead, in 1938 belongs to the National Trust and is open to the public, it is probably fair to say that he is best known as the architect of high-rise housing typified by his 26-storey Balfron Tower (east London) of 1965 and 31-storey Trellick Tower (north-west London) of 1967. But these came very late in his career − he was 65 when Trellick Tower started on site, 73 when the estate was completed. Prior to that he had been preoccupied by small-scale projects and his last design to be executed, in 1968, was a private house: the Perry House, in Windlesham, Surrey. He approached small and large projects in much the same way and the Perry House, for example, has many details (and a dimensional module) brought over from his office building practice.

‘The Abbatts rejected stuffed toys in favour of wood, which suited Goldfinger well, and he designed for them some finely crafted wooden aeroplanes, trains, barges, lettering and a climbing frame’

One of the contacts that brought Goldfinger to England from Paris in 1934 was that with Paul and Marjorie Abbatt, the well-known theoreticians and manufacturers of ‘advanced’ children’s toys. Correspondence starts in 1933, the year Goldfinger married Ursula Blackwell and their first son Peter was born, of whom Paul Abbatt became the godfather. Fired up with paternal spirit, Goldfinger was soon designing toys, logos, exhibitions and catalogues for the Abbatts, as well as adapting their workshop in Midford Place, off Tottenham Court Road, London, with FRS Yorke as ‘local architect’. The Abbatts rejected stuffed toys in favour of wood, which suited Goldfinger well, and he designed for them some finely crafted wooden aeroplanes, trains, barges, lettering, and a climbing frame reminiscent of the structural frames of his teacher at the École des Beaux-Arts, Auguste Perret, that continued to win prizes into the ’60s. In 1936 he fitted out the Abbatts’ flat in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, at the same address as the Nursery Schools Association for whom he designed an ‘Expanding Nursery School’, and he completed a superbly detailed showroom for the Abbatts in Wimpole Street, his most accomplished work to date. During at least part of these years he was on a retainer from them to come up with ideas − but looking at the correspondence (preserved at the RIBA) it is clear that the Quaker Abbatts watched expenditure closely and tension between them and Goldfinger sometimes surfaces. He went on to design and equip with Abbatt products the children’s section of the British pavilion of the International Exhibition in Paris of 1937 and again of the MARS Group exhibition in London of 1938.


Goldfinger’s drawing of the house he designed (but never built) for his patrons, the toy-making Abbatt family

With the imminence of war, the Abbatts moved production out of London, finally settling on High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, with its well-established wood-working traditions, and they also bought a beautiful site on which to build a house in the village of Ibstone nearby. This was where Goldfinger was to design for them in 1940 one of his most accomplished domestic designs but which, with the increasing stringency of wartime restrictions, could not be built. The design, an immediate successor to Goldfinger’s celebrated Willow Road houses, has never been published except as a single perspective in the Architectural Association book of 1983. Its plans are missing from the archive. It has, however, been possible recently to reconstruct the complete design from various sources, which is presented here, and to locate definitively the intended site, still known as Abbattsfield.

The project is of interest not only because it illustrates the transposition of the design principles of Willow Road into a spacious rural setting, but also because it immediately precedes the writing by Goldfinger of his three best-known texts, that were published as articles in consecutive issues of the AR from November 1941. JM Richards, then editor, lived round the corner from Willow Road in Downshire Hill, and took refuge in Goldfinger’s new concrete house when the air-raid sirens sounded. In these articles Goldfinger set out a whole theory of architecture and urbanism based on the sensation of space. They are perhaps the first texts to tackle this subject − much discussed in German theory − in English since Geoffrey Scott’s The Architecture of Humanism of 1914.

‘In these articles Goldfinger set out a whole theory of architecture and urbanism based on the sensation of space.’

The slogan of Le Corbusier, Goldfinger’s colleague on CIAM, was ‘Sun, Space, Greenery’, and that of Adolf Loos, with whom Goldfinger also consorted in Paris, was ‘Raumplan’ − literally ‘space plan’ − and both inspired him. Perret’s definition of architecture as ‘the art of organising space’ should also not be forgotten, and the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright on Goldfinger was considerable: he organised an exhibition of Wright’s work at the Building Centre in the 1930s using 3-D viewers to convey the sensation of space more vividly.

In the first article − ‘The Sensation of Space’ − Goldfinger attempts to analyse spatial sensation almost clinically, but concludes: ‘When space is enclosed with the skill of an artist, when the purpose is to move, then “spatial sensation” becomes spatial emotion and enclosed space becomes ARCHITECTURE’, which is illustrated by a Piranesi engraving. The main theme of the next article, ‘Urbanism and Spatial Order’, is the equivalence and interconnectivity of internal and external space, the latter simply having a lesser degree of enclosure − but the advent of high-speed motor traffic meant that external space needed classification both for functional and for perceptual reasons. In the third article, ‘The Elements of Enclosed Space’, he attempts an analysis of space in buildings, but this is developed more in the captions than the text, and he concludes (in bold type) ‘it is the artist who comprehends the social requirements of his time and is able to integrate the technical potentialities in order to shape the spaces of the future’.


Revealed for the first time, an axonometric of the Abbatt House by the author

It is surprising to find an architect apparently signed up to the Modern Movement with its deprecation of ‘cours intérieures’, so interested in courtyards of various sizes, or semi-enclosed spaces such as the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, which are much illustrated. Goldfinger had built one such external court in his diminutive Broxted House of 1936 perhaps inspired by Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion (both illustrated), and his house for the Abbatts has a number of open but sheltered spaces, responding to their own preferred open-air lifestyle, including a sleeping balcony. Equally the repeated powerful brick piers of the Abbatt House, and the horizontal ‘photobolic screens’ between them, emphasise with their planes the continuity of space between inside and outside. The spreading horizontal of the composition is distinctly reminiscent of Wright (the plan of whose Jacobs House is illustrated in his third article) and he uses the contours of the site to create a major step in level between living and dining areas, a feature ultimately derived from Loos’s Raumplan (not illustrated), and also appearing in the Broxted House, Willow Road, and in the final Perry House.

Spatial feeling is one of the most marked and expressive features of Goldfinger’s major late works, Alexander Fleming House at the Elephant and Castle of 1958, and the Balfron and Trellick Towers and their surrounding estates, and it would have been dramatic in the Abbatt House. It was in these three articles that he first gave verbal expression to this central focus.

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