Architect Ernő Goldfinger’s family home in Hampstead was built as a celebration of functionalism over aesthetics – and yet I was surprised to discover that parts of it did not work very well at all.
2 Willow Road, with its flat roof and large windows at odds with the elegant town houses around it, provides a fascinating insight into the life of a man whose name is said to have inspired Ian Flemming’s notorious Bond villain. Of course, he was also one of the major proponents of brutalist architecture and his uncompromising public housing projects, including Trellick Tower in Kensington and Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets, proved controversial. His family home, built in 1939, was constructed around concrete cylinders and served as advert for his architecture practice and ideology.
My tour of 2 Willow Road begins inside the small hallway with institutional-style rubber flooring. There is little natural light but then people don’t normally spend much time in a hallway. We climb the spiral staircase and enter the open plan living room which, in contrast, is bright and spacious. Each detail has been meticulously conceived, with partitions to create separate rooms, large windows to let in light and even low chairs to ensure the road didn’t obstruct views of Hampstead Heath. Goldfinger and his wife Ursula were avid collectors of Modernist art and the walls are adorned with paintings by the likes of Max Ernst and Bridget Riley.
The kitchen, however, is mysteriously small and almost unfit for purpose, even though we are told the Goldfingers hosted regular parties. But just like the tower blocks he designed, it seems his home was also subject to shifting social forces; our guide told us that while the couple were socialists they nevertheless brought with them a small army of servants when they moved in. The servants worked downstairs in a larger kitchen, sending the food up to the smaller one in a dumb waiter. When the Second World War broke out, the servants went off to do war work, leaving Ursula to do the work. When part of the house was converted into flats, the family lost the large kitchen and had to make do with the small one upstairs.
Moving through the house, we stop to look at Goldfinger’s study area, which included a tool cabinet unceremoniously plonked on the wall, before entering the living room. Again, there are some fine examples of Modernist art and the garden once boasted a Henry Moore statue. One of the key features of the wall in a large wooden display ‘frame’ which allowed the Goldfingers to show off their vast collection of paintings in an ever-changing exhibition space. On the fireplace sits a chintzy clock which seems at odds with everything else in the house. We soon discover that it belonged to Goldfinger’s mother, who brought her decidedly bourgeois Austro-Hungarian furniture, ornaments and paintings with her when she moved into the family home. Upstairs, the sparsely decorated bedrooms offer few creature comforts but are designed to make maximum use of the space available.
As well as being an architect, Goldfinger was also an accomplished furniture designer who mixed natural materials with man-made ones and his pieces can be seen throughout the house. Simple yet practical, his designs would not look out of place in a modern home. My personal favourite was the elegant desk with a set of pivoting drawers, which echoes the concrete columns on which the house is built.
Like his own designs, 2 Willow Road is both resolutely functional yet also flawed. For all his meticulous planning, Goldfinger could not predict how human life changes; the tower blocks were built with optimism for a new way of living but soon became crime-ridden ghettos. In an ironic twist, Trellick and Balfron are both Grade II-listed buildings, with some of the flats being sold for almost £400,000.
2 Willow Road, which is run by the National Trust, is open Wednesday to Sunday, with hourly tours available. Further details are available via the website.