It’s the summer holidays and I can understand that parents might be desperate to find novel ways to entertain their young children, but a one-and-a-half hour guided tour of a small house in Hampstead seems unlikely to fit the bill. Nevertheless there were two such children, with their parents, in our small group as we shouldered into the tight spaces of 2 Willow Road. The house has a pedigree: the Modernist architect, Hungarian émigré Ernö Goldfinger, designed and built it in 1939 for himself, his wife and their two children.
Ernö was an uncompromising man and his architectural principles were rigorously defined by the use of space, light and materials to maximise his buildings’ utility. He displayed great ingenuity and integrity in the pursuit of his ideals but the resulting aesthetic was and is not to everyone’s liking. This is the history that the two children were expected to assimilate – without being allowed to touch any object whatsoever. I could only imagine that their parents were architects themselves and habitually served up such dry entertainment. Not that architects are necessarily cruel to children: Ernö, we were told, was extremely fond of them and even designed the toys that filled the bedrooms and nursery - which were to be the last rooms on our tour.
Other émigrés from Eastern Europe came here in the 1930s bringing new architectural ideas with them to challenge the old order: sleek designs which rejected established styles such as “Tudorbethan”; methods of construction using concrete to do away with supporting walls; even ways of living were questioned by introducing high-rise flats with integrated services. There were some successes but, on the whole, their ideas died with them and the few buildings that remain intact are cherished by aficionados of their pioneering work. Perhaps, before emigrating to Britain, they should have studied our abysmal form on the acceptance of new-fangled ideas.
The Romans were the first to attempt to introduce architecture to our bemused ancestors. The Ancient British, content with their simple eco-houses made of sticks, mud and sods, had hitherto thought that their erections of crudely cut stones into big circular patterns in fields represented the pinnacle of building sophistication so, when the Romans showed them how to build forts, viaducts, villas and roads, they must have felt somewhat embarrassed by their inadequacy. But when the Romans departed 500 years later the natives reverted to their basic building techniques having learned nothing - although they were quick to recycle the abandoned masonry into dry-stone walling.
The East Europeans gave it their best shot but did not have the Romans’ power of colonisation when it came to imposing their ideas. By 1930 Britain had refined and set its domestic architecture through a process of historical references and was resistant to outside influences. Number 2 Willow Road may be a perfect example of a house designed to suit modern living, yet so many preferred the older ways.
While our guide explained the concrete, central-core construction of the spiral staircase, the health-giving properties of the ventilation system, the thoughtfully recessed windows with white surrounds reflecting light into the interior and numerous other innovations, the children were marvellously quiet, patient and composed. Either they knew what to expect or they were on best behaviour so as not to be excluded from the nursery. If so, they showed a brave face when it proved to be empty of toys, save for the ones shown in an old monochrome photo.
By my reckoning Ernö Goldfinger (if only for his remarkable name) should have achieved greater fame and fortune. But his mistake was to expect others would adopt his principle that logic should hold sway over nostalgia in the design of domestic living spaces. Perhaps, if those children were paying attention, his cause is not quite lost.