“This is not a time capsule”: Historic Homes and the Chronotope
While at 2 Willow Road, a structure that was once home to Modernist-turned-Brutalist architect Ernö Goldfinger, a guest asked when the architect designed the bookshelf she was admiring. The docent replied, “I’m not sure. 2 Willow Road is not a time capsule.” Although a justified statement, the docent forgets an essential quality that resonates within this space, as with other historic homes: its architecture is bound, built, and promoted by the building’s relationship with time. For instance, unlike a time capsule the structure uses space that flows through time, meaning it is not fixed within a certain year. However, like a time capsule the development of time is suspended, cementing objects of the past within a vessel. In this light, 2 Willow Road can be considered as a letter with a historical narrative that highlights Modernism in England. This spatial-and-temporal letter, defined later as a chronotope, uses objects to relay a manicured agenda set by those entrusted with the capsule, in this instance the National Trust.
Although my reading of 2 Willow Road addresses specifically the Goldfinger’s home, I wish to further an investigation into ‘historical homes’ beyond the limiting context of this singular building. When considering the shared characteristics of historic homes, the curious use of objects to deploy a considered and edited narrative is streamed throughout each site. By employing the literary theory of the chronotope as an anchor, this reflection into the preservation of architecture is activated as theoretically broad while still acting as specifically technical to the experience at 2 Willow Road. The Goldfinger’s home essentially becomes a case study to highlight the literary characteristic that is central to most, if not all, historical home sites.
Nestled within the nook of a winding street in North London, 2 Willow Road is positioned adjacent from a park in the Hampstead borough. The structure was the home of Ernö Goldfinger and his family for fifty years. Although most of his buildings reside within Britain, Ernö Goldfinger was a Hungarian-born architect and completed most of his training in France. The architect is notorious for designing Trellick Tower, a grand Brutalist apartment complex in North Kensington, London. These structures are considered a cornerstone to a style that is commonly referred to as Brutalist; Goldfinger was at the forefront of this style. Prior to Goldfinger’s shift into Brutalism, in the early days of the 20th century, he associated himself with the new school of International Style and congregated in Paris with the likes of Auguste Perret, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. During his fellowship studying architecture in Paris, he also studied textile and furniture design, a feature of his practice that is also showcased in 2 Willow Road. The Goldfingers moved to England in the early 1930s, and shortly upon arriving Goldfinger began to work on the design and construction of 2 Willow Road, which would be completed by 1939.
In 1993 the National Trust acquired 2 Willow Road, and it became the first Modernist home open to the public and maintained by the government agency.1 The Goldfingers home is the first, and only, ‘Modernist’ property currently under the ownership of the National Trust, although in 2014 the trust acquired a flat in Balfron Tower, Goldfinger’s Brutalist high-rise.2 Upon acquisition into the National Trust, buildings can be understood as functioning as a ‘Historic Home.’ According to The Historic Homes Association, a site may claim the ‘historic’ status if it is “considered [one of the] iconic symbols of Britain’s unique heritage….”3 The past perspective granted through the label of ‘historical homes’ enables the (in)flexibility of time; the building will be not drawn, renovated, and decorated to fit a ‘contemporary’ definition, rather it is expected to represent a very specific past, a responsibility justified through its historical significance.
The rectangular, blocky building located at 2 Willow Road is composed of three flats. The middle was where the Goldfingers lived and consequently, the only part of the building that is available to tour. Prior to the guided tour inside the structure, visitors watch a 15-minute video that introduces the architect as well as the history of the neighborhood, Hampstead, specifically in the 1930s and 1940s. Upon this formal introduction, the site is contextualized and solidified within a biographical and historical platform.
Inside the home, the docent leads you through the three-story flat, stopping in most rooms, using objects placed in rooms as bookmarks that describe and highlight characteristics of the home, of Hampstead, and of Ernö. Throughout the tour, we were introduced to spaces lined with domestic objects and practical architectural tools. Each room is characterized by a fluid historical relevance that provides information regarding domestic, socio-cultural, and career changes that the Goldfingers experienced alongside the rest of the world in the 20th Century, notably the effects of WWII, certain technological advancements, and the Goldfinger’s personal relationship to European arts and design. At 2 Willow Road, the National Trust creates an image of Ernö Goldfinger that emphasizes his role as a designer through composing the home as the epicenter of his architectural practice, as well as through the role of language. Throughout the tour, the docent uses objects and stories to bridge the aesthetics of domestic life with that of an industrious Modernist design practice. The docent constantly referred to Goldfinger as ‘unique’ and ‘idiosyncratic’ throughout the tour of the building. These descriptions situate Ernö not only as a prominent character to the movement of Modernism in the early 20th century but also to England at large.
As a result of the National Trust’s decision to make visible certain objects over others, a consistent text is built that spells ideals of Ernö and, subsequently, 2 Willow Road. The intentional placement of such objects and the scripted tour maintain the site’s ability to emulate a Modernist designer’s home. The desired portraiture of Ernö’s architectural practice and achievements is contingent on the use of objects that come from different pasts. 2 Willow Road is a formation of selected pasts, cut and pasted (what some may call ‘curated’) to fit a specific narrative. At 2 Willow Road, this narrative highlights the history of being a 20th-century architect and the prominence of Modernism within the United Kingdom.
The historical narrative that the site harbors is dependent on the placement of objects within a space, a decision made by the National Trust. Although a curated space, they oftentimes have it set up as if its function were still a home, rather than a showroom. As one visitor notes: ‘I wondered, just for a moment, if 2 Willow Road really was in the hands of the National Trust. Perhaps I imagined the guide in the entrance. Perhaps the Goldfingers had just popped out, due home at any moment, to find me in this very private part of their home.’4 The structure, and the objects it endorses, emphasize a text that softens the formulaic narrative typical in most guided tours. The objects are chosen as placeholders for moments in time. These objects further represent the domestic life of a modernist architect in the early to mid-20th century. The structure becomes a slice of a shaped and chosen history; a temporally fluid yet spatially specific history is captured within historical homes.
Within these architectural sites, time has a way of bending and building in order to fit into a certain box, a box that reflects a story; time has become at once fragmented and fluid within historic homes. The essence of historic homes is found in their capability of being read as a text. The narrative built is distinguished through verbal stories, objects, and the space itself. 2 Willow Road and other historic homes blossom within their spatial-temporal relationship to history.
James Clifford highlights the spatial-temporal relationship that objects have within physical spaces in his text “On Collecting” when referencing the chronotope, a concept developed by Mikhail Bakhtin that is often used in literary theory. Clifford states, “The world’s cultures appear in the chronotope as shreds of humanity, degraded commodities, or elevated great art but always function as vanishing ‘loopholes’ or ‘escapes’ from a one-dimensional fate.”5
This once-domestic space turned museum follows a steady narrative that positions Goldfinger as a great or elevated designer. The National Trust creates this heightened status through the curation of objects, the placement of his designed furniture and the presence of the hat of his mentor (a supposed source of inspiration). This story of Goldfinger as a ‘great architect’ is only made available through a specifically chosen past. The hand of the National Trust is present through the decision to place and position objects here or there, the visibility of only certain rooms, and, most obviously, the maintenance of spaces that were previously neglected by the Goldfingers (i.e., the garden).
The chronotrope is defined by Bakhtin as the following:
In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. The intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.6
Bakhtin insisted that our experience of the world is not only through the communication of a spoken or written language but also through space and time, or the things/objects used to signify space and time. Like all ‘historic homes,’ 2 Willow Road’s spatial and temporal indicators have been cemented in the space through the ‘preservation’ of its structure and likewise the Goldfinger’s ‘collection of things.’ The past that is presented through this Modernist home positions itself within a historical narrative that aligns, as seamlessly as possible, with the curation of objects and images that are currently fixed within it. What the curation within spaces such as 2 Willow Road does is manifest a narrative form, a text, that uses the fragmentation of space and the fluidity of time to build a historical narrative, supporting its role as a ‘historical home.’
The historical home as chronotope is crystallized on the first floor at 2 Willow Road. Although this floor was used for numerous activities by the Goldfingers while they lived there, the National Trust has decided to situate it in a very particular way, to inform a very particular narrative. A narrative that may be read as ‘a home of a Modernist designer’ that was prominent within the Hampstead in the late 1930’s through the 1950’s and whose influence over the ‘history of architecture’ still echoes.
Located in the center of the floor is a room which we are told Ernö Goldfinger designed as a studio for his wife, Ursula Goldfinger, a painter, on the first floor of the home. However, upon my visit, the National Trust has arranged the room to represent the later period of the architect’s career, a narrative that was written through the presence of his innovative and “idiosyncratic” desk. An authoritative object which demands attention, as its drawers are pulled, resembling a spiral staircase.
The curatorial decision to position this room within a time-period that excludes its original intention exposes and endorses the narrative theme in which the National Trust has built through a spatial-temporal curation. Through the chronotope the objects placed around the home build a narrative reliant on the curation of time, as it is mediated through space.
The masked subjectivity-as-historical objectivity is evident when appreciating the specificity of where objects are placed. The placement of objects, such as the desk, is ultimately the curation of time through space. Historic homes are sealed within a past: they are expected to transcend the complexities of time and act as a testimony to an established narrative. The rooms presented to us as images are actually texts that communicate an unarticulated form of literature: the limited poetics of curated space. This chosen narrative is further revealed when noticing the rooms that the National Trust has decided to not include in their guided tour of 2 Willow Road.
Historical homes such as 2 Willow Road are physical and fictional literary spaces. Although resembling a familiar and possible historical image, the fictitiousness is revealed through thoughtful curation and other historical evidence that the home may never have been designed in the manner that it is presented. At 2 Willow Road, the National Trust used the structure as an opportunity to showcase the architect’s designs, rather than an authentic domestic testament of being lived in. 2 Willow Road is a mischievous Modernist design. Its intentional narrative, laced within historical homes, is highlighted through the chronotope, and the spatial-temporal narrative built is revealed as a manipulation of history.
1. “Unique and influential Modernist home from 1939: 2 Willow Road,” The National Trust, The National Trust Organization [n.d.]
2. “Annual report 2014/2015” The National Trust, The National Trust Organization [n.d.]
3. “What We Do” Historical House Association, Historical House Association Organization, [n.d.]
4. William Whitcombe, “Chez Goldfinger” Citizen: Global Intelligence, Style & Culture. October 13, 2013.
5. James Clifford. “On Collecting Art and Culture”, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. (London: Harvard University Press, 1988) 244.
6. Nele, Bemong, a.l. Eds. “Introduction” Bakhtin’s Theory of the Literary Chronotope: Reflections, Applications, Perspectives. (Gent: Academia Press, 2010.) 15.
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