diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 10, 2012

2 Willow Road
Location: Hampstead, NW3 1TH [map]
Open: Wednesday - Sunday (closed Mon, Tue)
Hourly tours: 11am, 12 noon, 1pm, 2pm (also open 3pm-5pm)
Admission: £6 (free to NT members)
Brief summary: Modernist house by the Heath
Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/2-willow-road
Time to set aside: just over an hour

The National Trust took some persuading. They had nothing else like 2 Willow Road on their books - indeed back in the 1980s they had barely anything else 20th century under their protection. But this Modernist house in Hampstead became available suddenly after the owner's death, and the NT raised the money in time, and now it's one of their most atypical properties. On the edge of the Heath, just up the hill from the Royal Free and the Overground, in a terrace you might not give a second look if you didn't realise its importance.

The house's creator, and first resident, was the Hungarian architect Ernö Goldfinger. Born in 1902, he'd studied in Paris where he met wife-to-be Ursula of the Crosse & Blackwell tinned foods dynasty. Their marriage brought him to London to set up his own practice, specialising in Modernist styles, and it wasn't long before he decided to design and build his own home. Hampstead was the up and coming location for leftfield artists in those days, so Ernö snapped up a row of derelict cottages and planned to redevelop them into something special. Neighbours objected vigorously, neighbours including author Ian Fleming, but the development went ahead anyway and Goldfinger lived on Willow Road for half a century.

The house is flat-roofed with concrete beneath and brick facing, with three storeys visible at the front and four at the rear. The terrace contains three homes altogether, with number 2 at the centre, twice the width of the others. It's mostly garages at ground level because Ernö was a bit of a car nut, and the National Trust have turned one of these into a mini-cinema for today's visitors. If you take the hourly tour, you'll hear lots on the way in about the downstairs entrance hall. Small touches like the glass-backed letterbox or the cistern-free toilet. Original artwork like the signed cartoon on the wall and the postwar sculpture in the stairwell. Just be careful you don't hear too much about the downstairs entrance hall, else there won't be enough of your hour left to see the meat of the house in the living quarters upstairs.

The spiral staircase with its strung rope banister is the only access between floors, creating a central lightwell. Two main rooms take up the entire first floor, although these can be subdivided with careful use of sliding walls. On the heath side are a dining area and study, plus a tiny kitchen on a sub-Nigella scale. Everything's still set out much as it would have been when Ursula and Ernö were here, right down to the piles of planning folders on the study shelves and the arty accoutrements on the shelf along the front window. They liked their art, the Goldfingers, helped by having many modern artists as near neighbours and inviting them over to exhibit occasionally. An early Henry Moore, an original Bridget Riley, a variety of plasticky canvasy sculpty things - they're all still on display here and getting a regular dusting.

Up another level, the bedroom is perhaps best described as austere. Ernö designed all his own furniture, and the low bed probably took him less time than most. The nursery's a little warmer, helped by an elevated view of the plush garden out back. This is surprisingly large, at least for round here, mostly at the expense of the two neighbours who've been carved out rather less. Visit 2 Willow Road this year and on the nursery wall you'll see a large photograph of the Balfron Tower, one of Ernö's more memorable public buildings. It's a highrise in Poplar, the smaller sibling of Notting Hill's famous Trellick, and this wall-high image of the building's residents is part of an artist-in-residence project (which I've written about before).

If you choose to take one of the hourly tours, your expert guide will fill you in on all the house's finer details. It's probably a much better bet to take the tour than to wander round by yourself during the post-3pm free-for-all, because a house full of stuff isn't quite the same without the accompanying stories. Yes, Ernö did love an argument, because he always thought he was right. Yes, he was the inspiration for James Bond's evil adversary Goldfinger, and even threatened to sue Ian Fleming over his choice of name. Yes, he painted the front pillars grey and the stairwell doors red for a reason. And yes, this is a very different London house to visit to most of the others on the regular tourist trail. One careful owner, viewing recommended.

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