2 Willow Road became the first modernist property taken on by the National Trust and it opened to the public in 1996. Located at the bottom of Willow Road, Hampstead, the house is the middle property in a terrace of three houses designed by Hungarian-born architect Ernö Goldfinger.
They were built between 1937-1939. The houses to either side are about two-thirds of the size of the Goldfinger house and are privately owned.
Goldfinger studied architecture in Paris at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts which he entered in 1921. For practical work students were divided into groups and worked in ateliers. The students were responsible for finding a Chef d’atelier and Goldfinger approached architect Le Corbusier. He declined but recommended August Perret, a pioneer of reinforced concrete, and Auguste Perret agreed. Perret made a great impression on Goldfinger, who became a proponent of reinforced concrete throughout his own architectural career.
Goldfinger’s terrace of three houses in Willow Road was unusual in 1930’s Britain. Surrounding properties are mainly Georgian and Victorian and very few British homes, built in the 1930s, looked like Goldfinger’s houses. The three houses are structurally different from most houses of the time. The brick walls aren’t structural; the three properties are supported by a reinforced concrete frame. At the front of 2 Willow Road four of the columns, making up part of the frame, are visible.
The roof isn’t pitched: it’s flat and concrete and each of the floor slabs are also concrete. At the front, on the first floor, there is a horizontal line of large windows across all three properties; very much a feature of modernist architecture. Goldfinger designed these houses as functional, modern properties reflecting his modern movement style of architecture.
The land slopes at the rear so at the front the properties have three storeys but at the back there are four storeys, giving each property a half-basement at the rear.
The entrance hall is low ceilinged and quite an enclosed space. Upstairs the contrast is dramatic because the rooms have much higher ceilings and there is so much more space.
Back in the hall the principal design feature is a spiral staircase, that sits within a reinforced concrete drum and leads to the floors above. The concrete drum acts as another structural column. Spiral staircases were something of a signature for Goldfinger, and at Willow Road engineer Ove Arup advised Goldfinger on the staircases.
Paint colours in the entrance hall include a bright red door and a dark blue wall. The Goldfingers loved these colours and they are repeated on the floors above.
A door leads to the half basement where there was the kitchen until, in the 1960s, the Goldfingers converted the space into a self-contained apartment. This meant they had to find space elsewhere in the house that could be used as a kitchen and up on the first floor a small, enclosed space became their new kitchen.
The use of a structural frame allowed Goldfinger to create flexible and light spaces. On the first floor large windows create very light rooms. Folding partitions, between the rooms on this floor, demonstrate the flexibility of the space.
Flooring throughout was mostly functional thermoplastic flooring, more commonly found in public buildings like hospitals and schools than in domestic settings. In the living room Goldfinger laid parquet flooring.
Much of the furniture in the house was designed by Goldfinger. In Paris in the 1920s he and a fellow Hungarian, Andre Sive, worked in partnership and took commissions for shop fittings and furniture. At 2 Willow Road Goldfinger’s designs for the tables and chairs made use of materials like steel and plywood, different from the furniture you’d find in most British homes at the time.
On the top floor are the bedrooms and bathrooms. Goldfinger fitted rooflights into the flat roof which bring natural light into the landing, stair column, and bathrooms and once again Goldfinger makes use of folding partitions to create flexible space. In British bedrooms of the 1930s furniture included wardrobes, dressing tables and chests of drawers but for 2 Willow Road Goldfinger designed fitted cupboards with plenty of storage space.
It was in Paris that Goldfinger met English born Ursula Blackwell and they married in Paris in 1933. They were a sociable couple and became friends with many of the artists, sculptors, and photographers of the time: amongst them Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Marcel Duchamp, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller, Man Ray, Bill Brandt, Robert Delaunay and Amidee Ozenfant.
Many of these friendships are reflected in the Goldfinger’s art collection which includes paintings by artists they knew, and some were gifted by the artists to the Goldfingers. Their collection also contains examples of contemporary art from the 1960s and ’70s.
In the summer of 1942 the Goldfinger’s staged an art exhibition in the house: the Aid to Russia Exhibition. This was to raise money at a time of war when there was great sympathy for the plight of Russia. Entry cost one shilling and there was work by some of the best known artists of the time including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, Paul Klee and John Piper. The Goldfingers bought two works by Henry Moore.
2 Willow Road was their family home and Ernö and Ursula had three children: Peter, Liz and Michael. Their bedrooms were across the back of the house in a space that could be divided by folding partitions. As they got older both Peter and Michael made use of the basement flat.
The Goldfingers often entertained at home and, given their wide circle of friends, many of whom were well known, there must have been some fascinating lunches and dinners around the dining table.
In the 1950s, following the death of her husband, Ernö’s mother Regine came to live with them accompanied by her Austro-Hungarian furniture.
Ernö Goldfinger retired in 1977 and died in 1987 and Ursula died in 1991. The house was accepted as a gift to the nation in lieu of tax and then the National Trust took over.
I’ve been a volunteer guide, for the National Trust, at 2 Willow Road since 2009 and the house is wonderful example of Goldfinger’s architectural integrity and his and Ursula’s vision for their family home. Visit 2 Willow Road | National Trust
NB 2 Willow Road isn’t the only property in Camden that Goldfinger designed. In the 1950s he designed 10 Regent’s Park Road NW1 for the Regent’s Park Housing Society.
‘Ernö Goldfinger: The Life of An Architect’ by Nigel Warburton
All photographs taken by Geoff Boyd with permission of National Trust.
Image at top of the page is of 2 Willow Road, (c) Geoff Boyd, 2021