Wednesday, 16 April 2014

2 Willow Road

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The three of us had planned for this to be a two-site trip, but we found Erno Goldfinger's House to be sufficiently thought provoking for one day.

The National Trust, for it is they who own it, does not allow photographs, so I suggest that you visit the website for a few images.

We arrived by Overground, mostly, with a touch of rail and tube and some of us patronised the handsome period conveniences at South End Green, before heading up the hill. 2 Willow Road opens at 11.00, and we discovered that we had chosen the time of day which is guided tours only (what did I say a few weeks ago?  check the website!)

The tour begins with a film, shown in what was once one of the two garages of the property.  It felt (and was) rather 1990s, with captioned talking heads describing Goldfinger.  Much of what we were told was repeated on the guided tour, so I think the film would be of more use to people who go in the afternoon and look round on their own.

Then our guide appeared, rather disconcertingly in fairly 17th century breeches;  perhaps 1930s 'spiv' gear might have been more appropriate. Starting outside, he pointed out the concrete frame of the house, with a single skin of bricks, and suggested that it fitted in well with what he described as the ugly Victorian and Edwardian houses further up the hill. You can form your own opinion here. Clearly environmental and conservation groups had less power then than they do now.  Ian Fleming was one of the objectors, getting his revenge later by naming a nasty villain after the architect.

We were told that, because concrete frames do not shift, there are almost no skirting boards in the house. We went indoors, and were shown the Pirelli rubber flooring, laid in the 1970s because the lower part of the house tended to flood as water poured off the Heath and down the road. What is it about architects and basic forward planning?  It seemed to me on a par with a bridge that wobbles when -oh look - lots of people use it, and an aquatic centre that needs extra seating put on top of it if is to fulfil its Olympic purpose.  But I digress.

This house was built between 1937 and 1939.  During the Second World War he was able to live in it, although there was not much architectural work to be had.  He had sensibly fallen in love with and married Ursula Blackwell, heiress to the Crosse and Blackwell canning fortune.  He did not become a British citizen until 1945, which may help to explain why he was not conscripted.  

From the narrow hallway, you go up spiral stairs with hemp balustrades and a brass rail to the living area on the first floor.  The servants' quarters in the basement are now the custodian's flat and so not open to the public.  The upstairs rooms are remarkably bright (except where the National Trust has protected the contents with net curtains on the south side)  There is a splendid dining room with a miniscule kitchen - in which, we were told, Ursula rustled up delicious meals for their many guests.  Also a studio/study and a living room.  This overlooks the garden, now looking lovely since it is cared for by the NT's gardener from Fenton House up the road. Apparently the Goldingers were not keen gardeners.  The rooms were divided by partitions which could be folded back to make large entertaining spaces.

All the walls in all the rooms are hung with items from the Goldfinger art collection, including Henry Moore drawings, Bridget Rileys and several Max Ernsts.  We found our guide rather too keen to express his own views on the art works, which made it a little hard to associate them with the family who had lived here, and who had chosen them.  But we did note the incongruity of some Austro-Hungarian candle holders which belonged to Goldfinger's mother, who lived in the house with them for several years; also a Staffordshire figure on the very modern mantlepiece.

Indeed, there were more surprising artworks, as the artist Ryan Gander has inserted 'interventions' in many rooms. 

Upstairs again, we saw the nursery, as well as a couple of bedrooms, very bare (unlike the cluttered living areas) and apparently very cold, as it was necessary to have grilles with circulating air to counter the condensation arising from the concrete and the metal windows.  It was built in the period where rooms had wash basins, and the lavatory was separate from the bathroom, which seems strange to the modern mind.  The 'master bedroom' had an ensuite bathroom with a bidet which, as our guide said, must have puzzled the 1930s British plumber.

Some of the furniture was designed by Erno Goldfinger, but there are also pieces designed by his daughter. It mostly looked more striking than comfortable.

In general, I did not warm to the house or its designer.  He lived in this comfortable low rise while advocating and building high rise for the ordinary folk (and yes, actually spent six whole weeks living in the Balfron Tower: I expect the lifts were working while he was there).  He 'entertained lavishly' though it seems to have been his wife who provided the food, from a kitchen only just larger than the great man's desk.

But it is a very interesting and thought provoking house.  Indeed, after over an hour there, we felt we did not want to go and visit another museum and so headed home.

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