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Will the real Goldfinger stand up? Enter the home of the architect who inspired James Bond's rival

Erno Goldfinger
Erno Goldfinger Copyright Getty Images - MGM
Copyright Getty Images - MGM
By Garfield Myrie
Published on Updated
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Euronews Culture uncovers the unlikely links between a James Bond villain, a founding father of British modernism and a quiet street in north-west London.

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In a leafy corner of Hampstead is a terrace of three houses that bring together controversy, trailblazing modernist design and a James Bond villain who took on 007 in the 1964 film Goldfinger – the third instalment of the all-conquering spy movie franchise.

In the middle of the three houses sits 2 Willow Road, the modernist masterpiece home of Hungarian born, French educated architect and leading light of the British modernist movement, Ernő Goldfinger.

His very personal ode to European modernism heralded the birth, or at least the difficult early childhood, of the British modernist movement. But the Willow Road development and the man whose singular vision created it have been a source of controversy for almost a century.

Erno Goldfinger's house on Willow Road, London, UK
Erno Goldfinger's house on Willow Road, London, UKNational Trust

Architect Ernő Goldfinger, who lived at 2 Willow Road with his artist wife Ursula and their three children, wasn’t afraid to go to war to ensure his dream of clean-lined functionality and flexible living so coveted today, became a reality.

Fleming vs Goldfinger

His uncompromising architectural style was said to have so offended James Bond creator Ian Fleming  that he named his villain Auric Goldfinger after the architect, in his eponymous book published in 1959.

Like the big-screen 007, Goldfinger’s plans for Willow Road drastically changed over time. His original design for a block of flats was rejected, redrawn, revived, represented and in some quarters reviled. His final design for the terrace was vilified by locals, more comfortable with the tall 18th century Georgian villas that line Willow Road, than the squat, box-like concrete building proposed by Goldfinger.

Sara Nichols, House and Gardens manager at the UK's National Trust, Europe’s biggest conservation charity, which acquired 2 Willow Road for the nation in 1994, tells a different story about the link between Goldfinger and Fleming.

“As the story goes, Ian Fleming was playing golf with Ursula Goldfinger’s cousin, when he mentioned Goldfinger in passing. Fleming seized on the name and thought it would be good for a villain.”

On hearing of Fleming’s desire to use his name in his seventh Bond novel, Ernő’s lawyer wrote to Fleming’s publisher [Jonathan Cape] to get his name removed. Although his objection failed, Cape sent Goldfinger six copies of the book when it was published in 1959.  

Nichols adds: “In the years that followed, Goldfinger would be immensely irritated by phone calls to his home from people claiming to be double agents.”

Whatever the truth of the spat, we do know that Fleming was among those who objected to the pre-war demolition of the four cottages that were razed to make way for Goldfinger's vision.

Visiting Willow Road today one can see why its creation ruffled feathers. Although it has had more than 80 years to settle into its environment, it still looks defiantly different to the houses on the street - an island of paired back, if slightly fatigued modernism, in a sea of Georgian grandeur.

Homes and interiors

Inside one can see how ahead of its time Willow Road was. Entering into a low, modest hallway, the very human and intimate scale of the house hits you. Simple and elegant, the design challenge of funnelling light into the entryway is resolved by the creation of a glass wall to the side of the main door and a circular skylight at the top of the building.

Natural light emanates throughout the lower level from glass around the front door
Natural light emanates throughout the lower level from glass around the front doorNational Trust

The Goldfinger’s object d’art and children’s toys displayed in front of the glass add a whimsical and relatable touch. Although 2 Willow Road was a marketing showcase for him to show prospective clients what true modernism looks like and how it can work in real-life, it was primarily a family home - with life’s ephemera to store, display, hide and love.

A spiral staircase designed by Sir Ove Arup,* widely considered to be the thinking architects engineer and the foremost engineer of his era, sweeps visitors upwards to the open-plan first floor multifunctional living, dining and entertaining space. A curvaceous and tactile brass handrail guides the way up to the delights to come.

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Light floods into the main living space through a ribbon of glazing spanning the front of the building. Views across Hampstead Heath bring the outside in and connect the building with the verdant green oasis opposite.

The light from the upper floor illuminates the interior
The light from the upper floor illuminates the interiorNational Trust

An extra wide window ledge is covered with dozens of objects that spark interest and inspiration. When Ernő and his family moved into Willow Road in 1939, they adhered to the purity of modernist principles, with its emphasis on volume and minimal ornamentation.

Over the years Ernő ’s aesthetic evolved to become more eclectic. Willow Road now showcases aspects of the Surrealist movement’s philosophy of collecting and displaying found objects, elevating things considered worthless into items of curiosity and inspiration.

In living memory

Visitors see the house as it was in 1987 when Ernő died. Surfaces are covered with artwork, sculptures and gifts from some of the century’s most iconoclastic and revered artists and thinkers.

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Artworks from the Goldfinger’s children are given equal prominence to those of high-profile friends and collaborators, including Bridget Riley, Prunella Clough, Marcel Duchamp, Eduardo Paolozzi, Henry Moore, Man Ray and Max Ernst.

The main living area is a triumph of shape-shifting multi-functionality. Floating walls transform its purpose from dining, to working to entertaining. This flexibility is only possibly because of the prefabricated concrete skeleton of the building does both the literal and figurative heavy lifting -eliminating the need for supporting interior walls.

The Goldfingers were liberated from the confines of the traditional homes of the day, they were free to configure the space in ways that met their changing needs.

Fitted furniture designed by Ernő emphasise the architectural character of the interior. An office desk with draws that pivot out to allow easy access to the back sit in the study. A raised platform to its side provides hidden extra storage underneath, while also acting as a dais for the models Ursula Goldfinger would paint.

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On the third-floor cupboards are built into the walls, reducing the need for bulky wardrobes and chests of drawers that were common in the day. Within the main bedroom walls of cupboards free-up valuable floor space. Rumour has it that the width of some of the internal storage compartments are exactly that of Ernő’s folded shirts - not a millimetre was wasted.

A double bed sits a few inches from the floor in the main bedroom – a homage to the Goldfinger’s admiration of the Japanese aesthetic and approach to life. Modernist bedside lights sit on either side of low-slung bed. Ernő was no fan of central ceiling lights, which are conspicuous by their absence throughout the house.

This very personal attention to detail runs throughout Willow Road. Light switches, door handles, finishes and furniture were all conceived by Goldfinger – for him beauty was in the detail and 2 Willow Road was his ultimate beautiful fantasy made real – very much like the classic Bond girl.

To visit 2 Willow Road, visit the National Trust website for more information.

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