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Who’s afraid of Ernö Goldfinger?

Nigel Warburton
06 August 2020
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4 mins read

Author:  Nigel Warburton (LIS Faculty)
Nigel co-founded the podcast series Philosophy Bites. He has led many courses on philosophy and art at Tate Modern and is a Consultant Senior Editor for the online magazine Aeon.

Tower blocks get a bad press in the UK. But should they? It is easy to fall into the trap of blaming architecture (and even architects) for social ills. But poor upkeep, and poor security are major contributing factors when high rises become crime-ridde, though obviously design can be a factor too. In the 1970s, Ernö Goldfinger was often blamed for problems linked with the two London tower blocks he designed. Was that fair?

After the Second World War re-building, began, with an emphasis on social housing. In London, and in other cities, high rises were popular – they provided what the influential modernist architect Le Corbusier described as ‘streets in the sky’. Le Corbusier wanted to create ‘machines for living in’, using new technology to create housing for the modern age. The idea was that by building upwards, large numbers of people could be accommodated in light and airy apartments without using up all the land around. That could be left open for communal parks, and would avoid the often land-guzzling suburban sprawl so typical of unplanned cities. Obviously, that’s not quite how things turned out.

Right up to 1968, tower blocks were a popular solution for social housing and many were commissioned, particularly in London.  Then the Ronan Point disaster put a stop to much of that: a small gas explosion on the 18th storey of a pre-fabricated 23- storey tower block in Canning Town caused five deaths and millions of pounds of damage when most of the building collapsed. Although the cause of the disaster was largely shoddy building technique, as with the recent terrible tragedy of Grenfell Tower, this triggered deep set fears about high rise living, and a mistrust of architects and builders, particularly when they have to work to tight budgets.

Ernö Goldfinger, a Hungarian Jewish emigré who came to London in the 1930s via Paris, is often portrayed as a villain in the story of high rises. He inadvertently gave his name to Ian Fleming’s fictional villain Auric Goldfinger, but that’s another story (the details are here).

Goldfinger was the architect for two major tower blocks built in London – Balfron Tower in Poplar, and Trellick Tower in Kensall Rise. Both have a distinctive profile with the lift and services tower joined to the main building by walkways. Both towers became crime-ridden in the early seventies, and the architecture was often blamed. They were sites of drug-dealing, rape, and muggings, and were portrayed as soulless solutions to urban living. They became synonymous with all that was wrong with modernist approaches to urban design, and Trellick acquired the nickname ‘The Tower of Terror’. J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel (and now a film) High Rise, was allegedly modelled on one of Goldfinger’s buildings.

Goldfinger was a Marxist, and an idealist. He wanted to create high-quality housing for those who couldn’t afford it. His heart was definitely in the right place. But was he simply misguided in building high?

The case against tower block living is often made by conservative thinkers, such as Roger Scruton, who called ‘the maddest of all utopian schemes’ (in Utopia on Trial, 1979. p.250). Trellick Tower, he thought, embodied ‘a contemptuous conception of life’s value’ (The Classical Vernacular, 1994, p.127). The art critic Brian Sewell described Goldfinger as ‘no more than a pimple on the rump of Wren’ (perhaps alluding to Prince Charles’ notorious comments about the proposed modernist extension to London’s National Gallery as like ‘a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend’). Some of these conservatives felt that the accumulated tacit wisdom of traditional building had far more to offer, a view with which Prince Charles, notorious for wanting new buildings to fit in by looking more or less like the buildings around them (an approach I have dubbed the ‘Prince Charles Fallacy’), would no doubt agree.

Less prejudiced critics of high-rise living such as Alice Coleman, have applied Oscar Newman’s idea of defensible space, and argued that there is empirical evidence to support the idea that tower blocks attract criminal activity. When inhabitants lack the possibility to defend the security of their property crime becomes more likely. Defensible space, such as a front garden, makes it clear when someone is encroaching; very different from when you share a tower block corridor and lifts.

Coleman singled out three factors that contributed to crime in high rise buildings:

– Anonymity
– Lack of surveillance
– Alternative escape routes

These were factors in Goldfingers’ buildings becoming a focus for criminal activity in the 1970s. First, tower blocks do contribute to anonymity. Goldfinger tried to offset this with Balfron Tower by living there with his wife Ursula for some weeks and holding parties for new tenants there to get to know each other. But it is true that there is a degree of anonymity in this type of living. Secondly, Goldfinger’s towers were designed to have a concierge system with control over who entered. Local government were reluctant to fund this and saw it as a Big Brother approach. The result was that drug dealers and prostitutes who didn’t necessarily live in the building were free to come and use corridors and stairways for their business. Thirdly, tower blocks need multiple escape routes for fire safety, but this gives criminals ways of evading police.

But video surveillance, electronic keys, and concierges have transformed Goldfinger’s tower blocks. Sadly, Balfron Tower is no longer social housing, but has become a revamped and desirable private housing block, popular because of its proximity to Canary Wharf. Many of the apartments in Trellick Tower (now a Grade ll* listed building) are also in private hands, and it is now thought of as a modernist architectural icon. These are the same tower blocks that were so vilified when they were social housing. A well-designed tower block can be a wonderful place to live. It is too easy to reach for the cliché that social ills are caused by this kind of architecture, though undoubtedly some features of tower blocks mean that greater attention to security is necessary than with other sorts of design.

I talk briefly about Goldfinger’s Tower Blocks in this podcast with Bettany Hughes from 17’48” onwards.

This RIBA site gives a useful overview of Trellick and Balfron Towers. 

Nigel Warburton is the author of a biography of Ernö Goldfinger, which  is also available as an audiobook read by the actor Bertie Carvel.

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