Thursday, September 29, 2011

Concrete Evidence: a visit to 2, Willow Road, NW3

Living in London, I'm very conscious of architecture, including the domestic kind; as I live in a small flat I was keen to see what a modernist designer made of a restricted living space.

Raised in a northern terrace, I find TV house-hunting programmes like Location, Location, Location a bit bizarre. Maybe I've seen too many Hong Kong movies, where people seem to live in cupboards, but for me, a home's a launchpad by day and a shelter at night. So Le Corbusier's description of a house as 'a machine for living' is spot on. It's a shame he's associated with the high-rise blocks of the 1950s onwards. He didn't anticipate cheap materials and the lack of infrastructure that characterise British council estates built on his principles.

I have no problem with small - a tiny living space is a reminder of one's status in the grand order of things and even, these days, a statement about scarce resources. I feel sympathetic to squatters in empty mansions- it's a shame the places they occupy are such 'folies de grandeur', with all the attendant problems. No wonder the owners leave them empty.

A scene from the film Educating Rita is a reminder of the 'knock-through' craze of the 1970s; terrace dwellers suddenly wanted the sense of space that the middle and upper classes took for granted. The eponymous heroine takes a sledgehammer to a dividing wall in the terraced house she shares with her husband and the comic collapse in a cloud of dust identifues it as a 'supporting wall'.

Erno Goldfinger solved the problem of how to provide space without internal supporting walls, in Willow Road, Hampstead. Unfortunately, as far as fellow Hampstead dwellers in their Victorian stone villas were concerned, it involved concrete; very non-traditional. There was a lot of opposition from the likes of novelist Ian Fleming. He was so incensed he named one of his most famous villains after the architect.

For me it's an example of a house that serves its purpose, as a place to live in, not a showcase for the owner's possessions costing a fortune to heat in an English winter. Having said that, Goldfinger knew some leading artists and examples of their work are dotted about the rooms. I'd recommend a visit to this interesting house, a short walk from Hampstead tube and now a National Trust property.

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