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The construction of 2 Willow Road

The exterior of 2 Willow Road at night. The lights in the building are on and a dark sky is visible.
2 Willow Road at night | © National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

Ernő Goldfinger's Willow Road building was always intended as a family home, but also as a way of demonstrating his architectural vision and Modernist principles. But not everyone embraced Goldfinger’s challenging ideas and there was to be some controversy along the way.

Initial plans

For modern architects like Goldfinger, building flats and living in one of them was more socially conscientious than designing an individual house for himself. Yet his initial plans for a block of flats with studios were rejected by London County Council in 1936.

Reconciling the demands of construction, space and practical living with the guidelines from the authorities – while retaining the concrete frame so integral to his Modernist philosophy – Goldfinger submitted the final designs for a block of three houses at the end of 1937. But the situation was far from resolved.

Controversy in the press

A letter of protest to a local newspaper ignited a controversy that reached the national press. The complaint was from an influential figure, Henry Brooke – Lord Brooke of Cumnor – Secretary of the Heath and Old Hampstead Protection Society and later the MP for Hampstead.

Brooke mistakenly believed that Goldfinger proposed ‘a modern angular house in reinforced concrete,’ which he claimed would be ‘disastrously out of keeping’ with the character of the neighbourhood.

Goldfinger was supported by other high-profile residents, including the artist Roland Penrose and actor Flora Robson, in staunchly defending the houses, stating: ‘They are designed in a modern adaptation of the 18th-century style, and are far more in keeping with the beautiful Downshire Hill houses round the corner than their neighbours in Willow Road… As for the objection that the houses are rectangular, only the Eskimos and the Zulus build anything but rectangular houses.’

View from the studio at 2 Willow Road into the living room, showing a modernist interior
View into the living room at 2 Willow Road | © National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

A home with a future

Goldfinger explained that very little concrete would be exposed to view, and that the houses would conform to the surroundings and traditions of London’s Georgian buildings, and the work went ahead. The project was completed in the summer of 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. 

Over half a century later, 2 Willow Road began its life as a National Trust property, introducing members of the public to Modernist philosophy and design and considered to have as much historic and aesthetic value as the period houses around it.

In a further ironic twist, when 2 Willow Road was handed over to the Trust in 1993, it was by Peter Brooke, the Heritage Secretary and son of Lord Brooke, the property’s most vocal opponent.

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