Last week's The Times Literary Supplement says the American composer of chance and silence, John Cage, studied archtecture with the great British/Hungarian architect, Erno Goldfinger
Ah, Erno. Just say his name and it brings him back looming large in my doorway in No. 1 Willow Road. My bride and I were just moving in.
"I hope you like my house," he said. His house? He sounded like Count Dracula. He looked around the dining room, nodding approval towards our large country pine dining table and some rustic chairs. "That's nice, country furniture looks nice here. I don't really like modern furniture." This I was later to learn was a lie. You can see his "modern" furniture in London's Tate Modern museum.
His house? I had just paid a substantial lump of British Pounds Sterling for my house. Well yes, but Erno had designed and built it in 1939 to last a thousand years. I was just the temporary occupant. (He called the people who lived in his houses "my victims.") It's a fine modern house with classical references in it's columns and proportions facing Hampstead Heath. Erno and his wife Ursula lived next door in the middle house, No. 2 Willow Road.
Then he spotted a little frilly Victorian glass shade I'd put over a ceiling light bulb He rose up to fill the doorway, blocking out the light, pointing a trembling finger at the offending bit of frosted glass and bellowed, "THAT MUST GO!"
I laughed and we got to be great friends.
|We remodeled the kitchen. But the table that Erno "liked" remained. The light globe took the place of the frilly Victorian shade|
There was heavy opposition Erno's row of three joined houses when they were built. This was Hampstead, a village that had been there for nearly a thousand years. The house was too modern. Nothing like the Victorian piles alongside. Erno knocked down three dilapidated cottages and the locals, including James Bond's author Ian Fleming, were outraged. It was too modern, too square. Erno replied, "my house bears a closer resemblance to its beautiful Georgian neighbors on Downshire Hill than my Victorian neighbors on Willow Road. As for square houses, only Eskimos and Zulus build round ones."
Fleming took revenge by naming one of his nastiest villains, Goldfinger.
|Erno's elegant central stairwell is like the one in "my" house but lighter with floating treads.|
James Merrell photo.
|A round skylight at the top of the stairs illuminates the three flights of the stairwell with natural light|
After Erno and Ursula died, the house had the last word. The British National Trust bought No. 2 as a museum; making it the National Trust's first urban and first twentieth century house.
|The interior of Erno's house. He designed the furniture. Folding doors make the interior space flexible with maximum natural light.|
So we took off, top down on a warm summer afternoon, two bad boys out for a romp. I thought Erno would want to head out to the country and roar down country lanes. But no. He wanted to go up to a north London suburban town where he had built an office building in the 1950s.
The building was Hille House on the St. Albans Road in Watford with the the geometry characteristic of a Goldfinger design. Erno leaned back, taking in the whole of the building. "You must admit, he said, is very, very good."
And I thought what a pleasure it must be, to feel so much satisfaction in your work, decades later.
When we got back to No. 2 Willow Road, he said, "Ursula, your plan to kill me has not worked. This mad boy has brought me back alive." He grabbed a bottle of vodka by the neck. "Now," he said in his deep Transylvanian voice, "may I pour you a drop of this divine liquid."