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Full 1983 04 ern  goldfinger the architect as constructor

'Ernö Goldfinger The Architect as Constructor', Architectural Review
Book

James Dunnett, 1983

Quotes

p.44 James Dunnett
But the Elephant and Castle has no theatricality: it is in earnest. Its message appears to be that the Utopia which was the goal of the Modern Movement will not be achieved without a grim struggle. Idealism has been confronted with the material imperative of Structural-Rationalism - and has been stiffened by the exchange. To the distant promise of a social revolution has been added a consciousness of the excitement, and violence, of the battle to bring it about.

A similar interaction can be traced in the two GLC housing schemes, though with an outcome of different emphasis. There are varied building types in both estates, but it is possible here simply to concentrate on the most distinctive feature of both - the central slab block.

The theory of high-rise housing is a direct product of the idealist tradition in modern architecture. The rarefied ‘sun, space, and greenery’ that was to be provided was of an essentially utopian nature. Furthermore, for many architects the high-rise form offered the opportunity to provide centralised domestic services, and thus to overcome the inefficiencies of individual domestic management - an idea that in the eyes particularly of Constructivist architects had socialist connotations. In 1933 at the CIAM conference Goldfinger exhibited his own such proposal - a high-rise housing unit for 700 people, equipped with centralised communal services. It was to take the form of a free-standing slab 22 storeys high and wedge-shaped in plan, with all the vertical circulation and communal facilities at the broader end.

When in 1963 Goldfinger was offered his first large high-density housing site by the LCC at Rowlett Street in Poplar, it carried a provisional brief for four point blocks. But he combined them into a single slab 27 storeys high, with vertical circulation and communal facilities concentrated at one end, housing approximately 600. A similar block, 31 storeys high and incorporating various improvements, formed the central feature of his Cheltenham Estate at Edenham Street in North Kensington five years later.

Though similar in size to the CIAM housing, these blocks were quite new in plan and section. Instead of a central corridor on each floor, there were now, in response to the LCC brief, dual-aspect flats served by an enclosed access gallery on every third floor. Contemporary schemes based on this principle, such as Park Hill at Sheffield, had frequently involved very tortuous and unsatisfactory flat plans. Goldfinger’s section was clear: it allowed three flats to be served per bay by each gallery - a four-person flat above and below, and a two-person flat on the same floor - with access directly into the centre of each flat. 

As if in response to a more ‘Idealist’ brief, the architecture here appears more Corbusian in character than at the Elephant and Castle. The row of ‘pulpit’ balconies at mid-height on the front elevation, which marks the position of a row of six-person maisonettes, and the heavy modelling of the facade are reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Quartier de la Marine office skyscraper project for Algiers, of 1939. The clear articulation of each element is in the Elementarist manner of Constructivism, the wide separation of the tower from the main block allowing a dramatic interpenetration of space.

But the control of the detail is Rationalist. The concrete, the predominant surface material, is bush-hammered as in Perret, without the element of ‘disguise’ intrinsic in the more picturesque Corbusian shutterboarding. The structural slabs and crosswalls are clearly expressed on elevation. The access galleries, which project with their heavily radiused upper and lower profiles resemble a row of railway carriages, are supported on pronounced concrete brackets, providing a very satisfying visual support. Like many structural elements in Goldfinger’s architecture, they are scaled above simple structural necessity in order to provide a sense of visual stability, and thus illustrate the classical French Rationalist belief in the importance of le vraisemblable over le vrai. The rhythm established by these brackets, and by the windows, the slabs, and the crosswalls is of a profound harmony, the perfect Classical balance of horizontal and vertical elements.

The design of these blocks is in fact a highly original synthesis, and is perhaps Goldfinger’s most expressive invention. The lift tower, taller than the main block and set emphatically to one side, creates an extraordinary, almost sinister asymmetrical outline, as though in unstable equilibrium - an effect enhanced by the extreme slenderness of the block. The softness of the high-rise ideal - the cité-jardin verticale with its rolling greensward - has been injected with a more urgent imagery. The boiler house at Edenham Street is cantilevered far out from the summit of the lift tower and, with its four chimneys and continuous band of glazing, resembles the bridge of a warship. The sheer concrete walls of the lift tower are pierced only by slits, which cascade down the facade like rain, bearing a hint of menace. Above all the sheer scale of the blocks is exciting, but unnerving - a scale which is emphasised at night by powerful flood-lights which illuminate the estate from the summit of the slab. The battle for the Ideal has still to be fought… ‘For me Viollet-le-Duc is the first modern architect… It must always be possible to see, and feel, how a building is supported’ Goldfinger has said. This Rationalist sense of structural integrity, together with the power of identifying emotionally with the users of his buildings, are the essential elements of his architecture. From them it derives its purity and power.

p. 48 Erno Goldfinger talks to The Architectural Review
AR - If you were given a Rowlett Street or even an Edenham Street site to design housing for today, would you tackle it in the same way?

EG - Of course. I always approach a brief in the same way. I try to satisfy the requirements in the case of housing: biological, social, financial etc… with the means at our disposal: structural, mechanical etc… If the briefs were identical I would probably find similar solutions, plus the experience of a further 15 years.

I would like to add a few words regarding the controversy of ‘high-rise’ buildings. The main trouble with ‘high-rise’ buildings in this country is the incompetence of managements:

  1. Rehousing is done in a haphazard way. For instance, so called ‘problem families’ are dumped into unfamiliar surroundings, saddled with rents they cannot afford and are given practically no help to adjust.
  2. Maintenance is lamentable
  3. Supervision is inadequate, incompetent and spiteful
  4. Vandalism is practically encouraged by persons who are antagonistic to this sort of development
  5. Tenants who are satisfied just let it be… only those who are dissatisfied complain
  6. The only complaint I came across - when living on the top floor of one of the buildings I designed and when I had my office at the foot of another for three years - was high rent.

Questions
& Answers

How did Ernö Goldfinger describe it?

Page(s): 48

Erno Goldfinger talks to The Architectural Review

AR - If you were given a Rowlett Street or even an Edenham Street site to design housing for today, would you tackle it in the same way?

EG - Of course. I always approach a brief in the same way. I try to satisfy the requirements in the case of housing: biological, social, financial etc… with the means at our disposal: structural, mechanical etc… If the briefs were identical I would probably find similar solutions, plus the experience of a further 15 years.

I would like to add a few words regarding the controversy of ‘high-rise’ buildings. The main trouble with ‘high-rise’ buildings in this country is the incompetence of managements:

  1. Rehousing is done in a haphazard way. For instance, so called ‘problem families’ are dumped into unfamiliar surroundings, saddled with rents they cannot afford and are given practically no help to adjust.
  2. Maintenance is lamentable
  3. Supervision is inadequate, incompetent and spiteful
  4. Vandalism is practically encouraged by persons who are antagonistic to this sort of development
  5. Tenants who are satisfied just let it be… only those who are dissatisfied complain
  6. The only complaint I came across - when living on the top floor of one of the buildings I designed and when I had my office at the foot of another for three years - was high rent.

What have others said about Balfron Tower?

Page(s): 44

But the Elephant and Castle has no theatricality: it is in earnest. Its message appears to be that the Utopia which was the goal of the Modern Movement will not be achieved without a grim struggle. Idealism has been confronted with the material imperative of Structural-Rationalism - and has been stiffened by the exchange. To the distant promise of a social revolution has been added a consciousness of the excitement, and violence, of the battle to bring it about

A similar interaction can be traced in the two GLC housing schemes, though with an outcome of different emphasis. There are varied building types in both estates, but it is possible here simply to concentrate on the most distinctive feature of both - the central slab block.

The theory of high-rise housing is a direct product of the idealist tradition in modern architecture. The rarefied ‘sun, space, and greenery’ that was to be provided was of an essentially utopian nature. Furthermore, for many architects the high-rise form offered the opportunity to provide centralised domestic services, and thus to overcome the inefficiencies of individual domestic management - an idea that in the eyes particularly of Constructivist architects had socialist connotations. In 1933 at the CIAM conference Goldfinger exhibited his own such proposal - a high-rise housing unit for 700 people, equipped with centralised communal services. It was to take the form of a free-standing slab 22 storeys high and wedge-shaped in plan, with all the vertical circulation and communal facilities at the broader end.

When in 1963 Goldfinger was offered his first large high-density housing site by the LCC at Roulette Street in Poplar, it carried a provisional brief for four point blocks. But he combined them into a single slab 27 storeys high, with vertical circulation and communal facilities concentrated at one end, housing approximately 600. A similar block, 31 storeys high and incorporating various improvements, formed the central feature of his Cheltenham Estate at Edenham Street in North Kensington five years later.

Though similar in size to the CIAM housing, these blocks were quite new in plan and section. Instead of a central corridor on each floor, there were now, in response to the LCC brief, dual-aspect flats served by an enclosed access gallery on every third floor. Contemporary schemes based on this principle, such as Park Hill at Sheffield, had frequently involved very tortuous and unsatisfactory flat plans. Goldfinger’s section was clear: it allowed three flats to be served per bay by each gallery - a four-person flat above and below, and a two-person flat on the same floor - with access directly into the centre of each flat. 

As if in response to a more ‘Idealist’ brief, the architecture here appears more Corbusian in character than at the Elephant and Castle. The row of ‘pulpit’ balconies at mid-height on the front elevation, which marks the position of a row of six-person maisonettes, and the heavy modelling of the facade are reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Quartier de la Marine office skyscraper project for Algiers, of 1939. The clear articulation of each element is in the Elementarist manner of Constructivism, the wide separation of the tower from the main block allowing a dramatic interpenetration of space.

But the control of the detail is Rationalist. The concrete, the predominant surface material, is bush-hammered as in Perret, without the element of ‘disguise’ intrinsic in the more picturesque Corbusian shutterboarding. The structural slabs and crosswalls are clearly expressed on elevation. The access galleries, which project with their heavily radiused upper and lower profiles resemble a row of railway carriages, are supported on pronounced concrete brackets, providing a very satisfying visual support. Like many structural elements in Goldfinger’s architecture, they are scaled above simple structural necessity in order to provide a sense of visual stability, and thus illustrate the classical French Rationalist belief in the importance of le vraisemblable over le vrai. Te rhythm established by these brackets, and by the windows, the slabs, and the crosswalls is of a profound harmony, the perfect Classical balance of horizontal and vertical elements.

The design of these blocks is in fact a highly original synthesis, and is perhaps Goldfinger’s most expressive invention. The lift tower, taller than the main block and set emphatically to one side, creates an extraordinary, almost sinister asymmetrical outline, as though in unstable equilibrium - an effect enhanced by the extreme slenderness of the block. The softness of the high-rise ideal - the cité-jardin verticale with its rolling greensward - has been injected with a more urgent imagery. The boiler house at Edenham Street is cantilevered far out from the summit of the lift tower and, with its four chimneys and continuous band of glazing, resembles the bridge of a warship. The sheer concrete walls of the lift tower are pierced only by slits, which cascade down the facade like rain, bearing a hint of menace. Above all the sheer scale of the blocks is exciting, but unnerving - a scale which is emphasised at night by powerful flood-lights which illuminate the estate from the summit of the slab. The battle for the Ideal has still to be fought… ‘For me Viollet-le-Duc is the first modern architect… It must always be possible to see, and feel, how a building is supported’ Goldfinger has said. This Rationalist sense of structural integrity, together with the power of identifying emotionally with the users of his buildings, are the essential elements of his architecture. From them it derives its purity and power.