Let’s Meet Goldfinger: A National Trust Routemaster Tour

This post is originally posted on 11 July 2014 in our old blog.

To celebrate London Festival of Architecture, we attended National Trust’s tour on a renovated green double-decker to learn about architect Ernö Goldfinger and explore his iconic modernism buildings. From his brutalistic social housing schemes to his personal dwelling, we enjoyed this insightful tour exploring the spaces best representing the Goldfinger ideology.

Joe Kerr, an architectural historian and part-time bus driver, did a fantastic job providing interesting and informative commentary. The tour began with a concise history and exterior viewing of Trellick Tower, moved slowly eastward to visit Goldfinger’s residence at 2 Willow Road and Haggerston School, then drove around Elephant and Castle roundabout twice for a short viewing of Alexander Fleming House and ended at Trellick’s sibling – Balfron Tower.

For this day-long tour, we also had a crash course on this extremely difficult architect who was known for his humourless and temperamental personality. Perhaps this harsh characteristic of Goldfinger’s translated a little too well to his controversial Brutalist designs, earning his iconic Trellick Tower the nickname of “Tower of Terror” and others commonly dubbed with terms like soulless, grim, and eyesore. For those James Bond’s fans out there, word is out that this Hungarian architect’s unpleasant personality along with his controversial work inspired Ian Fleming to create a fictional villain after him, Goldfinger.

Goldfinger’s imaginative planning, clever use of material, and strong geometric proportions gave life to his work and compromised the raw and austere quality of the building appearance. His emphasis on function over form created an innovative architectural accomplishment in the post-war era. However, it is definitely an acquired taste to like his architecture. As years pass by, we learn to be more accepting to these brutality images and appreciate the beauty behind the harsh form.

Alright, that’s enough for our Goldfinger seminar. Here is what we actually saw on this tour:

Shortly after exiting the Westbourne Park Station, we see the high-rise Trellick Tower peeking out in the sky. Our instinct told us to walk towards this gigantic building through the short council housing blocks. After a short neighbourhood exploration, we found our way through the maze-like estate and arrived at this hugely out of proportion tower (compared to the nearby buildings). The exterior felt a bit run down. The surrounding felt a bit lifeless. But when we looked closely to the building façade, each flat unit distinguished itself with its human traces. A sense of community within the building block is evidential, but the community is felt to be confined by the building boundary.

A short Routemaster ride brought us to Goldfinger’s home at 2 Willow Road. Goldfinger used concrete, timber, and glass as the fundamental elements and orchestrated a beautiful and functional untraditional terrace flat in a Georgian neighbourhood. We saw a great amount of effort Goldfinger put in to design this house with its simple geometry, elegant detail, light rendering, and spatial partition.

After a lunch break and a detour to the Elephant and Castle roundabout, we arrived at the Haggerston School. Upon entering the school’s entrance hallway, we immediately experienced the difference in the spatial quality. The use of dark timber with interior geometry contributed to this variety of spatial experiences. Once again, Goldfinger worked with concrete, timber, and glass combined with his geometry skills and an eye for details to create this mathematically proportioned design.

We arrived at our final destination – the Balfron Tower. This solid concrete beast definitely passed on a lot of resemblance to its younger sister, Trellick Tower. Its tall service core was separated from the residential area by a connecting bridge every three floors apart (made possible by clever planning to allow flat entrances to be located on the second floor of every three floors). The design focused on the social interaction which reflected Goldfinger’s Marxism belief.

The best part of the tour for us was… riding on the first ever Green Line Routemaster coach. We were definitely more excited about riding this old double-decker than seeing Goldfinger’s masterworks. Well, as ironic as it sounds, the Routemaster is, after all, one of London’s most iconic mobile architecture without a doubt.

We had a great day exploring London’s modern architecture and learning the post-war Brutalistic social housing movement. To us, it seems such a monstrosity to put a solid concrete block that is so out-of-place in London’s skyline in order to create high density and low cost residential buildings. On the other hand, these “eyesores” have proven to be functional and lovable by their satisfying occupants regardless of the design issues often associated with affordable housing (i.e. bad thermal performance due to the façade design and social boundaries created by the solid residential blocks). With many London’s post war social housing developments soon to be demolished, Goldfinger’s sister towers along with other listed building must have their architectural significance in London urbanscape.

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