I was recently invited ”to party like a Champagne Socialist in the stylish rooms of 2 Willow Road, home of architect Ernö Goldfinger and his artist wife, Ursula” by People Will Always Need Plates, to celebrate the launch of their limited edition 2 Willow Road mugs. Obviously, I was there like a shot.
Having chatted to Robin and Hannah and relieved them of a couple of plates (because I really don’t have enough already!) I joined National Trust volunteer Robert Rimell on a tour of the house.
A number of cottages stood on the site of the Willow Road terrace, where Ernö originally planned to build a block of flats. Construction was strongly opposed by a local residents group, which included novelist Ian Fleming and future Conservative Home Secretary Henry Brooke. Flemming is said to have named his James Bond villain Auric Goldfinger after Ernö following the dispute!
Designed to look like a single entity, the next plan was for a Georgian inspired terrace of four. Ernö everntually decided to merge the middle two into a home for his family, who moved in 1939, so number 2 is about a third bigger than numbers 1 and 3, both now privately owned. Ernö wanted to build for other people – he also had a commercial eye. Ursula (maiden name Blackwell, of Cross & Blackwell fame) funded the project. Number 3 was sold off plan (with the buyer actually requesting some changes including an additional balcony) to repay Ursula, and number 1 was rented to provide an ongoing income.
Having been educated in Paris in the 1920s, Ernö first came to London 1927. His education would have included classical training, at least to begin with, and so he had an eye for detail. He didn’t reject the elements of his classical training that worked, and so although he was very much a modernist, he didn’t want a white cube. An example of this approach can be seen on the front elevation where coping has been included to throw water off the roof, and as a result the facade of the building has almost none of the water staining that modernist buildings are often criticised for.
The concrete columns that can be seen from the front are structural and part of a reinforced concrete frame – something that became very much part of Ernö’s style. The brickwork is not structural at all. In some ways this house was a ‘test bed’ for his future buildings. He lived here almost 50 years – until his death at the end of the 80s. It was almost as if he was testing out his theories before asking other people to live with them.
The National Trust acquired the property in 1995 after Ursula passed away. The house was offered to the Government in lieu of death duties, but on the condition that the National Trust got first refusal to buy it. It’s not typical of the type of properties they purchase, but it was of particular interest because of the archive that came with it.
Despite appearances from the front, the houses have four stories, the lower ground floor, which leads to the garden is only visible from the back. Numbers 1 and 3 have a spiral staircase running from top to bottom. Number 2 has a stair case from the top to the ground floor, and a separate stair case hidden behind a door from the ground to the lower ground floor. Perhaps Ernö already had in mind the 1970s conversion of the lower section of the house to a separate flat.
Ernö was a fan of spiral staircases because of the space they saved. The treads are wedges of concrete cantilevered from the surrounding concrete drum. This means there is no need for central column, so natural light from a sky light at the top floods the staircase all the way down to the ground floor. The children were in charge of tightening the string balustrade – now sadly, quite loose!
You can see from the bathrooms (now featuring signs that read “historical toilet – please do not use”!) that Ernö liked all services to be hidden. Taps emerge as if by magic from the wall, and even the water cistern is hidden behind in the garage.
On the first floor is Ernö’s studio, a lounge, the dining room, Ursula’s studio and what was the servery and is now a tiny kitchen. The kitchen was originally on the lower ground floor, together with the servants quarters, with a dumb waiter that ran the full height of the house. When the flat was created, the kitchen was moved upstairs into the servery.
Because the walls are not structural, they can be moved, so very often he made them as folding screens. The one between Ursual’s studio and the dining room doesn’t even need a floor or ceiling track, because the weight is taken by a floor to ceiling piano hinge, creating a seamless open space when it was open.
Ursula was an artist, and so Ernö built her a spacious, light-filled studio. The front window spans all three properties. It was originally entirely glass, but the planners required more subdivision, and so Ernö added a concrete shelf. But ever ingenious, he painted the top white to reflect the light, which bounced off ceiling right into the back of the room, meaning that very little electrical light was required.
Much of the furniture in the property was designed by Ernö himself. Before he had even finished his education, he had formed a practice with a colleague, another Hungarian, and they started with interiors. He very much wanted to create things that could be mass produced, but loved eccentric details that just didn’t lend themselves to being produced on a large scale..
The desk now in Ursuala’s studio is from his architectural practice. Rather than a traditional arrangement of drawers where you can only access one at a time, he designed drawers that pivot out on the desk leg, so you can access them all at once, creating a semi-circle around you. Each drawer was lined with a steel box to prevent it sagging.
Stepping up into the living room, you can see a mixture of traditional and innovative details, from the oak parquet floor to the fireplace which is mounted in a concave concrete fixture and elevated off the floor to get more heat into the room, which must have been serious ahead of its time.
Ernö wasn’t a fan of ceiling lights, so all lighting is attached to the walls. The lights either side of the fireplace are made from glass shades designed for theatres with a brass cup and hinge Erno designed, which allow them to be folded behind the concrete wall for a really subtle lighting effect. Elsewhere wall-mounted Anglepoise lamps are controlled from the switch by the door.
The rear wall is entirely made from glass and folds away to create a completely open facade. The weight of the floor above is taken by the party wall and the concrete column. Built three years after the Peckham Health Centre, which pioneered fresh air and sunshine as preventative health measures, there was almost certainly an element of that thinking filtering through to Ernö’s designs.
This room also has a pre-surrealist Eileen Agar portrait of Ernö and a cabinet he made by tipping a wardrobe from his Paris apartment on its side. He was not one to throw anything useful away!
Just off this room is Ernö’s study, from where he ran his architectural practice during the war. He engaged with the war effort through designing information sharing exhibitions and as an air raid warden. Much of his archive is displayed in this room, and it has been left almost exactly as it was when he died.
Moving up to the top floor, the landing is another cantilever and you can see the sky light at top of the spiral staircase throwing a shaft of light right down the centre. All of the windowless spaces were given skylights and rooms like bathrooms were moved towards the centre of the building and lit in this way, leaving windows with views for the bedrooms.
Ernö specified commercial flooring from Armstrong Company – in yellow on this floor and dark grey in the dining room. It’s thermo plastic, so it can be softened by heating it and bent up and flush to the walls, to create ‘hospital skirting’ which has no top edge or corners to gather dust.
The book shelf on this floor was designed by Ernö. It has locking steel rods from floor to ceiling (much more secure than the soft wood walls) and shelves which fit into any holes, making it very flexible. Blocks of storage have been inserted between rooms – essentially wooden boxes.
Again services are hidden in the en suite bathroom, and in fact the flooring comes right up the side of the bath to entirely enclose it. It’s a big bath, because Ernö was very tall. The pipes come through the floor and so warm it as you’re running the bath – early underfloor hearing.
You can see Ernö’s background in interiors in the wardrobes, which all contain fitted storage – a place for everything… But equally, not a man to overcomplicate things, his car keys hung on a metal hook screwed into the inside of the wardrobe door, with “Rover keys” written above it in pencil.
More Angelpoises are wall-mounted on either side of bed, and there’s also a call button for the live-in servants. When they moved in they had a cook, a chauffeur and an au pair.
The windows are steel framed, so that there is less frame and more glass. Pre-double glazing, Ernö included grills in the window-sills linked to vents in the brick work to avoid condensation and therefore corrosion of the steel. There was no way to close them, they were always open, but this links back to the medical belief in the importance of fresh air prevalent at the time. On the rear elevation he has used perforated bricks on their side to create vents.
More folding walls in the children’s room meant that it could be completely open during the day and split into three rooms for two children and the nanny at night. The nanny’s bed folded away, and the children’s beds were tucked into alcoves so they didn’t stick out into the room too much.
This space was later changed to his mother’s room. Known as “little granny,” Regine and her son had a difficult relationship. When he would return from school and tell his mother about his day, she would stop him, saying: ”Don’t teach me.” His brothers were both academics while Ernö was more practical and showed an early interest in his father’s sawmills and the potential of wood as a material. It must have been difficult for him to welcome her into his home towards the end of her life, especially as she brought all her ornate Austro-Hungarian furniture into his clean modernist space! But it was very much a family space – the lower ground floor conversion was for his son and his family, so that they could remain connected to the family. At one point four generations lived in the same house.
The concrete column that downstairs was within the room, upstairs is within wall. This is because the living room pushes out beyond the boundary of the rear elevation and the balcony pushes out again. This idea of sections pushing back or being pulled forward and disrupting the vertical line of the building was taken further in Belfron Tower - and is another example of this house being used as a testing ground.
I must say a huge thank you to Robert Rimell, not only for a very informative tour, but for a tour delivered with a clear affection for Ernö Goldfinger that was absolutely infectious. If you get the chance to visit, please do, either for the Lates Events, or for a regular tour. The house is open Wednesday to Sunday 9am – 5pm, with tours from 11am – 2pm and free exploration from 3pm – 5pm. See the National Trust website for more information. (All images apart from 1st, 2nd and 4th, ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert.)
Further reading for the especially geeky: