Ernő Goldfinger (1902-1987) was a prominent Hungarian-born modernist architect who worked in Britain. His reputation is very mixed: some regard his works as brutalist monstrosities, and to others he is suave and avant-garde. His unusual surname was the inspiration for Ian Fleming's Bond villain Goldfinger, but there are competing stories about how relevant his architecture was in the naming.

His own home was at 2 Willow Road, Hampstead, in the heart of a very old and beautiful part of north London, looking across Hampstead Heath. Much of the housing is Georgian, staid and elegant and uniform. Goldfinger demolished part of a row and put up numbers 1-3 in Willow Road, to much outrage from neighbours. These were seminal, iconic modernist buildings. He lived at number 2 and filled it with artworks from famous modern and surrealist artists who were his friends (such as Henry Moore, Max Ernst, and his neighbour Roland Penrose). In recent years it has been acquired by the National Trust, and is preserved with his collections intact. It is extremely elegant in its own way, and compact. It is full of pocket doors and in-built wardrobes to maximize space, and these were among the earliest professional uses of these now commonplace devices. It is open only by guided tour (or was when I was last there) and is well worth seeing if you're near Hampstead and like architecture.

Another building he's famous for is the Trellick Tower in west London, a huge high-rise consisting of two towers, one for living and one for service. See that node for full details. This was widely reviled as the worst of uncaring, brutal, ugly modernism, stuffing the working classes into somewhere driving them to suicide and crime.

The common legend is that Ian Fleming was a neighbour of Goldfinger's in Hampstead and was so incensed at the excrescence in Willow Road that he named his villain after him. This month's National Trust magazine says rather more mildly that Fleming played golf with Goldfinger's cousin and learnt the name there. Even if so, the real Goldfinger was not a mild person, and instructed his solicitors to go ballistic. The book was published with all advertising describing the villain as "Auric Goldfinger", not plain Goldfinger, but Fleming also reacted violently and would have liked to put in erratum slips calling him Goldprick.

Goldfinger was born in Budapest in 1902, and did his higher education in Paris from 1921, at the Ecole National Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, and in Paris he established a practice in 1929, met Le Corbusier, and developed his modernist and "brutalist" ideas of using reinforced concrete and exposing the innards of buildings to public view.

In 1931 he met and in 1933 married Ursula Blackwell, rich scion of the Crosse & Blackwell pickle company, so that gave him independent means. They moved to England in 1934, and lived in Highpoint, the great modernist block of flats in Highgate, designed by Berthold Lubetkin. In 1938-9 he set about building 1-3 Willow Road, which was twenty years ahead of its time.

He was not commercially successful for a long time. The three main buildings of his productive period from about 1960 are Alexander Fleming House (at Elephant and Castle), Balfron Tower (near the Blackwall Tunnel), and Trellick Tower (Kensington), all in London. The last was built in 1968-1972, when the enthusiasm for modernism among the cognoscenti had peaked.

By all accounts he was not at all a pleasant person: quite the martinet. His staff were lucky to survive long, he tore up their drawings, he was rude to everyone, he threw people out physically, and an attempt to sack someone for smiling was foiled only by the discovery that they didn't work for him. He retired in 1977 and died on 15th November 1987.

The National Trust magazine, Autumn 2004

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