Leading Article: A rather stately 'council house'

Click to follow
MOST PEOPLE, when they hear that a house has been bought by the National Trust, will picture in their minds a country residence of the 18th or 19th centuries. They will think of avenues of trees, Cotswold stone, box hedges, old roses, French tapestries, English portraits, sash windows, marble halls. A building that looks 'remarkably like a Sixties council development' is hardly likely to spring to mind. Yet that is the house in Willow Road, Hampstead, north London, which the trust has just raised pounds 584,000 to acquire.

In a way, the residence of Erno Goldfinger and his wife, Ursula Blackwell, is a 20th-century equivalent of Sir John Soane's house in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Built by an architect, it houses an unusual collection of works of art, ranging from furniture and paintings to sculpture and drawings - and like Soane's house, Willow Road offers the visitor a rare chance to see the different fine arts working together in an unusual and innovative building of the right period.

The trust rightly observes that the house 'vividly brings to life

the innovative lifestyle of the Thirties and illustrates the impact of emigre artists and intellectuals who settled in Hampstead at that time.'

What the trust does not say is that the building was fiercely controversial from the start, because a handful of picturesque 18th- century cottages were destroyed amid protest to make way for it. For all its merits - its use of light and concrete, its bold spiral staircase, its innovative creation of a space that could be used variously for living, dining and sleeping - the house was also the inspiration and precursor of a large number of buildings that are now seen as appalling mistakes.

Modernism may have been all very well in the Thirties; but by the time it filtered down to British municipal architects in the Fifties and Sixties, it had become an intellectual excuse for homes and offices that were shoddily built, impractically designed, and evidence of an alarming distance between architects and the people who would use them.

The debate on Modernism, and how it went wrong, still rages in architectural practices and at dinner tables. But part of the trust's job is to preserve buildings of historic interest. Like it or hate it, the Goldfinger house at Willow Road fits precisely into that category.