Erno Goldfinger is better known these days for his post war estates designed for the G.L.C; the brutalist monsters of Trellick Tower and the Balfron estate, now polished and gentrified to within an inch of their lives. However, the building which brought him to the attention of both the architectural and wider worlds was a terrace of three houses in Hampstead, middle one for himself and his wife, Ursula. Goldfinger was born in 1902 in Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied architecture in Paris from 1921, and was taken under the wing of Auguste Perrett, a pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete. Perrett had also been mentor to Le Corbusier at the start of the century and it was Corb who recommended Perrett to Goldfinger.
Design for 1-3 Willow Road (1938) from Robert Elwall: Erno Goldfinger Drawings
Goldfinger met Ursula Blackwell, heiress to the Crosse & Blackwell food company, in Paris in 1930 and they married in 1933. They moved to London in 1934, living in St Johns Wood and then at Lubetkin & Tecton’s Highpoint I flats in Highgate. They wanted to build their own house, and found a terraced cottage in Willow Road, Hampstead for sale. The Goldfingers bought that house and its three neighbours, in order to knock them down and use the large plot. Their first plan was for a small block of flats, reflecting the contemporary modernist spirit seen at the Isokon and Highpoint apartments. That was rejected, and Goldfinger drew up plans for a terrace of three houses, taking inspiration for the form from the neighbouring Georgian terraces.
Sketch for interior of 3 Willow Road (1938) from Robert Elwall: Erno Goldfinger Drawings
The plans were rejected not just by the council but by much of the local population, including politician Henry Brooke, who would go on to be MP for Hampstead and Home Secretary. It is often reported that James Bond author Ian Fleming was another opponent of Goldfinger’s designs, and named his famous villain after Erno as some kind of revenge. The truth is that the character is named after him (Fleming was friends with Ursula’s cousin, John Blackwell, and heard the name through him), but merely because Fleming liked it as a name and not for any architectural reasons. Of course, Erno did not approve of this representation, and after an exchange of letters with the publishers, a note to the book was added stressing the fact that all characters were entirely fictional.
Floorplans for 2 Willow Road (1939) from Robert Elwall: Erno Goldfinger Drawings
The Goldfingers appealed against Hampstead Borough Council's decision to London County Council, and with the help of the Hampstead Society, won. Goldfinger had pointed to the fact that his house would be a modern representation of the brick Georgian terrace, rather than white walled modernist house as seen elsewhere in the area, most notably at 66 Frognal by Connell, Ward & Lucas and The Sun House by Maxwell Fry. Goldfinger produced the design for houses with Gerald Flower, who he had worked with on a house in Broxted, Essex and Ralph Tubbs. The structure of the house is formed by a reinforced concrete frame with a facing of red brick. The north facing street facade has a strong horizontal emphasis, with its long projecting window strip, which stretches across the three homes.
Staircase at 2 Willow Road. Photograph by Erno Goldfinger. Image from Architectural Association.
The terrace is four storeys high, appearing as three from the street side with the lower ground floor opening up onto the garden. The plan for each house is different, with some similarities. The ground floors have integrated garages, alongside a kitchen and maids quarters. A spiral staircase grows out of the concrete frame, connecting the floors, and alongside the outer walls, is the only fixed part of the house, with interior walls designed to be rearranged to create more space. The first floor of No.2 features a dining area, study, studio and living room. The first floors of Nos.1 and 3 are slightly smaller with a bedroom and living room. The living area of the Goldfingers house is finished in oak panelling and features furniture designed by Erno as well as a wide collection of 20th century art with works by Eduardo Paolozzi, Bridget Riley, Henry Moore and others.
The Goldfingers lived at 2 Willow Road for the rest of their lives, (apart from a brief stay at Balfron Tower in 1972), with Erno dying in 1987 and Ursula four years later. The house was acquired by the National Trust in 1994 and restored by Avanti Architects. It is now open to the public, completing its journey from scandal to national treasure in just over 50 years. Numbers 1 and 3 are still in private ownership.