Anatomy of a House No.5 Grand Union Walk, Camden Town 1990 Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners
Our first four editions of Anatomy of a House have covered International Modernism (High and Over, Willow Road), early Brutalism (Sugden House) and Romantic Pragmatism (62 Camden Mews). This time we shoot forward to the late 80s/early 90s and the era of High Tech and Postmodernism. Nicholas Grimshaw studied at the Architectural Association, mixing with Peter Cook, Cedric Price and John Winter. After leaving he went into practice with Terry Farrell, designing houses, apartments and factories. One of their most notable designs was 125 Park Road, an apartment block overlooking Regents Park with flexibly planned interiors and an aluminium-clad facade, now Grade II listed. The partners went their separate ways in 1980, Farrell producing more postmodernist designs, with Grimshaw sticking to the High Tech path.
125 Park Road by Farrell/Grimshaw Partnership. Image from Grimshaw Architects.
The supermarket company J. Sainsbury acquired a stretch of industrial land next to the Grand Union Canal in Camden Town at the start of the 1980s, which they wanted to develop into a large superstore. Part of the site was occupied by the 1930s Aerated Bread Company factory, which had ceased prosecution in 1982. Sainsbury’s initially awarded the scheme to Scott Brownrigg and Turner, before the decision was reversed by its newly established planning committee, headed by architectural critic Colin Avery. The project was given to Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners in November 1985, with planning permission granted for the whole scheme in May 1986.
Sainsbury's Superstore, Camden Town by Nicholas Grimshaw. Image from Grimshaw Architects.
Camden council originally stipulated that the housing should take the form of flats, but Grimshaw thought the site better suited to a terrace of 10 houses with 1 maisonette and 1 bedsit flat. The houses face north, overlooking the canal, with their entrance via a private walkway on the canalside. The facade on the supermarket side has no windows, which meant there would be no natural light for most of the day in the houses. To alleviate this, Grimshaw made the north facing windows double height and added circular top lights to the roofs. The houses are constructed of concrete blockwork and precast concrete floors. The canalside exteriors have curved aluminium walls, reminiscent of an aeroplane fuselage, with lozenge shaped windows.
Isometric Drawing of a section of the Grand Union Walk terrace.
Inside, the double height vertical windows let light into an open plan living space on the first floor which opens onto a balcony. The windows feature electrically controlled aluminium blinds allowing residents privacy and shade. There are bedrooms on the second floor and the ground floor, which also features a utility room. The kitchen is situated on the first floor at the rear of the open plan living space with a lounge overlooking the canal. The interior is finished in white render, with beech wood used for the doors, stairs and floor. Roof terraces were added to the houses in 2006.
The Living Room of the Grand Union Walk Houses
The houses were a success, garnering critical praise from architecture critic Martin Pawley, who called them “houses of a new age”, and selling quickly. The owners of the new houses were given instruction manuals, detailing how to use the various high tech features and where to find qualified servicers and suppliers. In 2018 the developer Sellar submitted an application to demolish part of the wider complex (not the houses) and build a four storey block of flats for affordable housing. The 20th Century Society submitted an application for listing for the whole Grimshaw-designed site in early 2019. Historic England listed the supermarket and the Grand Union houses at Grade II in July, They did not list the offices, workshops or creche part of the scheme, leaving them open to redevelopment in the future. However, the prospects of the houses seem to be assured with their listing and general popularity, hopefully they will remain as they are, a slice of unexpected futurism on the canalside.
Colin Rowe- Architecture, Industry and Innovation: v2: Work of Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners 1965-88 Historic England Listing
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.