I had an Erno Goldfinger experience to round off this summer. Not like the occasion when, telephoning his office, he was answered by a young architect imitating his Hungarian accent: ‘Goldfinger speaking’. The great man allegedly replied ‘This is Goldfinger and you’re fired!’. Nor the occasion (as reported by John Grindrod in his brilliant book Concretopia) when the short-fused maestro sacked someone sitting in his reception who wasn’t even employed by him.
Mine was an experience more akin to the two months Erno and his long-suffering wife spent living in east London, on the 24th floor of Balfron Tower, their balcony overlooking the Thames above the north exit to the Blackwall Tunnel. That is just about the point, as the incoming high tide began to ebb, that the big cargo ships and liners were gently manoeuvred by skilled helmsmen and their tugs into the locks that served the West India Docks.
Erno and Ursula on their balcony in Balfron Tower in 1968
Erno and Ursula had moved into the tower from Willow Road in Hampstead. (Their next-door neighbour was Ian Fleming who had adopted Erno’s surname for the lead villain in his 1959 book, Goldfinger. The film of the same name, the third in the 007 series, followed in 1964. By the time the architect moved temporarily into the tower in 1968, the Goldfinger name was already legendary.)
Erno told the Guardian in February 1968: ‘I want to experience at first hand the size of the rooms, the amenities provided, the time it takes to obtain a lift, the amount of wind whistling around the tower, and any problems that might arise from my designs, so I can correct them in the future.’ The following year he declared that ‘All architects should live in a home they designed.’
The reason for living in one of my own projects was far less laudable: my wife and I were asked to house-sit and look after our grandchildren for a week while their parents travelled overseas. I had designed alterations and a substantial extension to their two-storey home in north London, recently completed.
An interesting experience. Nothing in the way of visits during construction, post-occupancy snagging, a client’s invitation to a house-warming party, or even a thank-you dinner, can match the reality of actually living in a home you designed for someone else. Especially when you do it with a young family still in residence.
Yes, the morning sun does penetrate as deeply into the plan as I had expected; the shadows on the (of course white) walls are indeed as sharp as I had hoped for; visual privacy from neighbours has been adequately secured despite the large expanse of new fenestration and bi-fold doors; the place does remain mercifully cool in this hottest of summers courtesy of cross ventilation; the kitchen works fine and the planning offers plenty of freedom and variety for the kids (five- and three-year-olds and an 18-month baby) in terms of play-areas and quiet corners. And then that important question: is there enough storage space for the plethora of kids’ toys, so that the swift transformation can be achieved post-bedtime? Happily, it all seems to work just fine.
The Type 1 Cornish Unit
My son and daughter-in-law had purchased a Type 1 Cornish Unit, one of 30,000 prefabricated homes, made largely of pre-cast reinforced concrete planks, between 1946 and 1960. Their property was the end unit within a terrace of four and because their site was unusually large, we were able to create an extension that almost doubled the ground-floor living area. But it was the geometry of the available space that produced the real challenge, and greatest opportunity, as can be seen from the before-and-after plans below.
Ground Floor Plan before alteration
Ground Floor Plan after alteration
Most of us in the western world grow up in orthogonal spaces, but the spaces we have created through this expansion areis intentionally non-orthogonal. in response to the shape of the site. This is also notable within the section of the new living room, which has a mono-pitch roof and sloping ceiling. I am curious to know how this unusual ordering of space will impact on grandchildren as they develop.
For example, will their creative play – so important in learning – be influenced by the angular geometries? Will their sensory responses to space be heightened? Will they be more demanding – or more tolerant – of the unusual in place-making and design?
How space impacts mood, behaviour and performance was my main reason for choosing Canterbury School of Architecture as my initial place of study: the course included a module on architectural psychology. Under that programme, I was fascinated to learn ways in which people are emotionally and psychologically affected by their environments, not only by the furniture arrangements, but also by room sizes and shapes, inter-relationships, décor and colour. (All this would prove to be especially useful when, years later, I was commissioned to design the Treatment Centre for Victims of Torture.)
As a child, my contextual experience was totally different from that of today’s primary school children. Our Victorian school was a grim, forbidding place: high window-sills offered some daylight yet no views out. Our desks were placed in traditionally regimented rows, one behind the other. The teacher’s desk was set on an intimidating raised platform. By contrast, our grandchildren share large working tables with other pupils in a classroom with low windows, all offering views to the playground. The teacher’s table is located centrally.
Does my experience make me more receptive to hierarchical management structures? Will theirs accelerate development of teamwork skills?
Traditional classroom set-up (source: Architectural Psychology, RIBA Publications 1970)
Also notable in living in this house is the generosity of the urban planning and the commitment to landscaped public space across the estate – regular grassed areas, plenty of tree-planting and even beds of roses still maintained by the local council. And of course, in this town planned at the dawn of the modern motor age, comes a local parade of shops, local school and local pub. We can walk everywhere in terms of basic needs. All of which is great for the kids.
Talking of house-warming parties, back in 1978 Liz Goldfinger, a gracious, generous, and kind past-client, invited me to the celebration following completion of my alterations to her four-storey Victorian terraced house, in a quiet side road in Islington.
In the corner of the main lounge sat an elderly man, hands resting on a walking stick, bow tie slightly crooked. This was Liz’s father, Erno, whose response when introduced to me still rings in my ears: ‘So you are the young man who thinks he is an architect’.