Hampstead Heath -- A video biography describes him as "a fraction short of genius," while author Ian Fleming disliked the architect's designs so much he named an evil character after him.
I'd never heard of Ernº Goldfinger, but my visit to his old house in Hampstead Heath (just outside London) is one I won't soon forget.
The first example of Modernist architecture to be acquired by the National Trust, Goldfinger's home at Two Willow Road is a striking example of that prewar movement. Though it looks like any 1960s building on the surface, the house was constructed in 1939. The local council fiercely contested its construction, despite the fact that the residence it replaced was a dilapidated ruin.
Born in Budapest, Goldfinger studied architecture at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. He was an advocate of the avant-garde but scorned Le Corbusier's "white box" architecture in favour of structural rationalism that is, the idea that wood must look like wood, steel like steel.
Even so, Goldfinger adapted his design in the interest of maintaining harmony with the surrounding Georgian houses, sheathing the concrete in red brick and painting the metal windows white.
In 1934, Goldfinger married Ursula Blackwell, a sculptor and heiress to the Cross & Blackwell food empire. Their Hampstead Heath neighbourhood flourished as a left-of-centre enclave of artists, writers and intellectuals. Goldfinger was a socialist with three servants and two cars.
In their house, after passing through a small, dim foyer and watching a brief video introduction, I ascend a spiral staircase. Initially intimidating, it exemplifies the attention to ergonomic detail seen in the house's other unique features, such as light switches placed at the same height as the doorknobs. The treads are wide enough where needed, and the risers are shorter than expected. The climb is effortless.
On the main floor, a wall of north-facing windows let in light from the facing heath all day long. The ceiling is considerably higher than downstairs, following the traditional Georgian protocol of low, high and normal. The purpose of the lower foyer becomes clear; it serves to magnify the dramatic effect of entering these rooms.
The living room, dining room and Goldfinger's office on this level are separated by folding and sliding doors that are both space-saving and useful, allowing them to be combined into one large area for entertaining. These rooms are masculine and imposing, like the man himself. Walls are covered in oak or mahogany-faced plywood, or painted in colours borrowed from the palettes of artist friends such as Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, both of whose work is on display here.
Ingenious built-in storage preserves the sense of pure volume in the rooms. Furniture, much of it designed by Goldfinger, has an industrial flavour and incorporates unusual features such as tambour doors and pivoting drawers.
In 1987, when Goldfinger died, the house and its contents, including tea bags and Christmas pudding, were left to the National Trust. Magazines and drafting tools are lying about, suggesting that the architect might return at any minute.
I climb the staircase again, this time to the bedrooms and nursery on the top floor. Here, the ceilings are normal height and the smaller windows create an intimate feel, even in the all-white master bedroom. The room is bare except for a low futon bed, a small chair and a bank of bookcases. The doors that line the walls conceal capacious storage.
The ensuite bathroom is illuminated by a domed skylight. A mirrored vanity is cleverly concealed inside a cabinet. Although I know the curator is trying to create a still-lived-in atmosphere, it's unnerving to find a pumice stone and disposable razor lying on the edge of the tub.
Along with various marks charting the heights of the Goldfinger children as they grew, the nursery now contains floor plans and a model of One, Two and Three Willow Road. This historic house is sandwiched between two smaller terraced private residences designed by Goldfinger as a means of funding the entire project.
One unit was sold and the other rented, then eventually sold. In 1998, the sale price of Three Willow Road was 998,000. It was recently on the market again, this time for 1.8 million.
On the tranquil heath across the street, a magpie struts along a bench dedicated to Goldfinger. The owners of Three Willow Road are just getting out of their Jaguar, briefcase and groceries in hand. I'm tempted to ask for a quick trip through their home, but instead I walk into the setting sun, past predictable Georgian and Victorian architecture, and away from an influential masterpiece. Hero or villain I wonder what Fleming would call Goldfinger today?