The decision to visit the house that Erno Goldfinger built was instinctive. How better, I reasoned, to express my ever present and deepening devotion for Modernist architecture than to make a pilgrimage to one of the few sights of 20th Century built mastery that currently resides within that canon we call ‘heritage’. Goldfinger, after all, is the Modernist’s Modernist, the man who conceived that most brutally frank exposition of 1960s modernity, the Trellick Tower (pictured, below), and gave his name to the James Bond villain who seemed to sum up everything a baddy should be in the Space Age. It was a decision also informed by the matter-of-fact yet convincing entry of 2 Willow Road in the National Trust handbook, promising ‘one of Britain’s most important examples of Modernist architecture…and artwork by Bridget Riley, Max Ernst and Henry Moore, amongst others’.
What does one learn from a visit to this house? That design matters, that ideas matter, and that a commitment to love and life are a pre-requisite for any architect worthy of discussion. Goldfinger built 2 Willow Road in 1939, the middle house in a terrace of three (pictured above: number 2 in the centre is the largest of three, which can be seen from the width of divisons in the central band of windows). The accommodation was designed with his wife and young family in mind (and heart) whist remaining focussed on the overarching ideals that informed his practise. The Goldfingers were lucky – Erno’s wife Ursula had something of a family fortune to draw on from the Crosse and Blackwell food business, and the Willow Road terrace was as much a sound investment of her capital as it was a family home and architectural experiment. Nevertheless, Goldfinger saw his chance at Willow Road to express his deepest beliefs – in Socialism, in Modernism, in the relationship between art and life – in a built form that stand as a testament to those beliefs today.
There are surprises here – lots of them – and one’s senses are arrested at almost every turn by the delights that Goldfinger’s design philosophy has wrought. Perhaps most significantly, this is a concrete building where the concrete is almost completely invisible. I had read that the principal material was concrete, but having never seen a photograph of the house was rather taken aback when realising that the brick terrace I was looking at from Willow Road was actually a Goldfinger house. The tell-tale National Trust black sign with painted white lettering placed tentatively in the driveway beside the front door was the evidence I’d been looking for that I was in the right place. A brick facing was important for two reasons; firstly, because it simplified the procedure to gain planning permission from London County Council which, in the 1930s, was as parochial and narrow minded in its aesthetic views as any in a parochial and narrow-minded England; and secondly, because Goldfinger had a genuine respect for the simplicity and orderliness of brick, the chief material of the Georgian terraces he so admired. Then, once inside, there is the colour. Selected from the most exquisite and thoughtful palette of earthy reds, marine blues and unusual neutrals of grey and yellow hues, it is used to frame important doorways, fill dead spaces like the cylindrical stairwell that shoots through the core of the house, and demarcate the end walls of key rooms. Certainly not what one expects from Modernism, and all the more delightful for it. The art on display is perhaps even overwhelming in its significance and quantity and acts a sharp reminder of the intellectual plain on which Goldfinger lived his life, amongst the Surrealists who strove towards the same values he held so dearly.
Textural and spatial inventiveness characterise 2 Willow Road in such a way that my words here begin lose what effectiveness they might ever have possessed. Goldfinger’s love of concrete is evident throughout, by its use in both painted and raw forms, both roughly shuttered and highly finished – and wood, absolutely everywhere, from deep windowsills and fitted room dividers to wall cladding and Goldfinger-designed furniture and fittings. Ranging from the cheapest plywood, carefully varnished, to the finest hardwoods used in some of the furniture, the timber at Willow Road summons a richness of texture which acts as a domestic foil to some of the harsher elements here – heavy duty rubber, lino, steel stanchions. The spaces that Goldfinger created are, though, the truly exemplary elements of the house. Truly, 2 Willow Road was a home, built for a life of artistic endeavour, the simplicity of everyday living, the play of children, the company of treasured friends. With perfunctory elements neatly laid out on the ground floor – kitchen, sundry utilities, garages – the first floor (reached by the space-saving spiral staircase) is free to expand into all available volume, with dining room, studio (pictured, above), living room and study all flowing seamlessly into one another around the stairwell. The bedrooms, nursery and bathrooms above demonstrate a similar flexibility with every square centimetre of space being utilised for the actual needs of those who lived in the house. All this was achieved by the kind of innovative construction that we take for granted today, with a concrete frame that takes all the weight of construction to the edges, leaving the centre open for a design unfettered by structural concerns. This was accommodation inspired by the ‘Raumplan’ (or Space Plan) of Adolf Loos, the Austrian designer and architect who saw space as neither discreet nor open plan but as a series of linked volumes fitted into a larger envelope. So, the room dividers and changes of floor level exist as Willow Road to utilise the intended purpose of spaces to their fullest, whilst allowing free and useful movement between them.
This is a house with barely any worthy contemporaries in England or the UK, and its fame is partly derived from the innovative and passionate conception that inspired its construction. Erno Goldfinger built hardly anything apart from the Willow Road terrace before the Second World War and discovered infamy only when both changed circumstances and his architectural impulses drew him to what he’d always desired – to build very tall buildings for the masses to live in. These brutal totems of a very different kind of Modernism, particularly Trellick Tower (pictured, left) have imbued Goldfinger’s name with the iconic resonance – for good and ill – that prompted the National Trust to purchase Willow Road as an essay on his earlier thought.
I find it heartening that buildings like 2 Willow Road are, through crucially important institutions like the National Trust, finding their way into the British consciousness. We have a government that, at best, is ambivalent towards ‘heritage’, which cuts the budget of its own watchdog, English Heritage, lest it gain too much momentum in its battle against skyscrapers in the City or Tesco sheds in market towns. For the government, the progress of business is all, for the ‘heritage’ organisations the preservation of the past is paramount. This is an old debate, and it has to be retired if we are to find a way forward. It is the government’s job to encourage the best of new design to be built (a task it is largely failing at) and it is the job of the National Trust (and all the other ‘heritage’ groups) to remind the government what that good design looks like. 2 Willow Road is as timelessly superb as Castle Howard, as York Minster or as Norman Foster’s Swiss Re Tower. So why can’t the debate be about what is beautiful rather than making this an issue of progress versus nostalgia? Goldfinger and his Modernist contemporaries sought in their buildings for nothing less than a better way to live, and as a progressive statement from the 1930s, Willow Road still teaches us something. Why aren’t we listening?