A few weeks ago we had a long weekend break in London. Intent on seeing things other than the main tourist attractions we took the tube up to Hampstead to visit a couple of National Trust properties well off the tourist trail. One of these was the Goldfinger’s house at 2 Willow Road. One of the few Modernist houses open to the public in Britain.
Inevitably, the name Goldfinger brings to mind the evil mastermind from the Ian Fleming book and James Bond film of the same name, so you might imagine that we would find some underground complex where the anti-hero and his henchman Odd-job hatched their devious plan to take over the world. Well, of course, this isn’t the case. Ernö Goldfinger was a Hungarian Modernist architect who moved to Britain in the 1930’s and settled in London. He designed a home for his family in Hampstead that was finished in 1939. One of his neighbours was a certain Ian Fleming, who was one of the objectors to the building of the house, which required four older cottages that had occupied the site to be demolished. It is said that it named his character after the architect as a way of seeking revenge. Goldfinger and his family moved into the house in September 1939, and lived there for the rest of his life.
The house is open in the afternoons from 12 until 5 p.m. Thursday to Sunday from March to October, and weekends only for the rest of the year. There are guided tours at 12 noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m, with self guided tours from 3 till 5. It still has it’s original furnishings and contents in place, including a small collection of Modern Art.
The National Trust is normally associated with large stately homes previously occupied by the aristocracy. However they also own a number of notable smaller houses, of which this is one. I often find these much more interesting than the larger properties, as they give a glimpse into the lives of more ordinary people – well, at least people other than the aristocracy. Goldfinger wasn’t exactly working class. He was a relatively successful professional, married to an Englishwoman, Ursula Blackwell, from a wealthy family, living in a prosperous part of London. They mixed with the artistic community who had colonised Hampstead after WW1, and were friends with a number of them, including Roland Penrose and Lee Miller. Politically, they were on the left
The house, which overlooks Hampstead Heath, is a 10 minute walk from Hampstead tube station. We arrived in time to book a place on the final guided tour of the day. It’s well worth catching the guided tour as you learn a lot more about the history of the house, its contents and owners than you would by wandering around more aimlessly on your own.
The house is part of a building of three houses – numbers 1 to 3 Willow Road. Goldfinger’s is the larger of the three and is flanked by the other two, which are still occupied today. Unlike most Modernist buildings, it isn’t a white box, but is clad in brick. The front elevation faces the north, and as there are no buildings on the other side of the road, it overlooks the Heath. There are three storeys at the front but as it is a sloping site, there is another floor at the back of the building, which overlooks a good sized garden.
Structurally, it has a concrete frame, designed in conjunction with the Danish engineer Ove Arup. This meant that the need for supporting walls within the building was minimised allowing for large flexible spaces inside with moveable partitions.
At the start of the tour you watch a short film about Goldfinger and the history of the house in one of the two garages belonging to number 2, which has been converted into a small cinema. You then enter the house through the front door, going into the relatively small entrance hallway, and proceed upstairs to the first floor via a spiral staircase, The stairwell provided interior structural support and removed the need for large landing spaces upstairs.
At the front of the house on the first floor, overlooking the Heath, there was the dining room and a studio, originally used by Ursula, who was an artist (although it was later taken over by Goldfinger). The large, continuous, windows allowed in a lot of light meaning that the rooms were very bright, despite being north facing. The partitions between the two rooms could be opened up creating a larger space for entertaining guests. The kitchen, though, was tiny. The south side was occupied by the lounge and a small office/study used by Ernö.
Another spiral staircase takes you to the top floor and the bedrooms. The master bedroom and a guest room are at the front, with the south side occupied by the children’s bedrooms. There were a number of interesting features such as an en-suite bathroom and built in wardrobes, a bed that folded up into the wall in the guest room, and moveable partitions between the children’s rooms which could be opened up to create a large nursery space during the day (also helped by originally having beds that folded away into the wall).