October 31, 2015
Modernist Estates Q&A
Stained concrete, the stench of urine in the elevators, dangerous corridors: that is how many people think of the U.K.’s post-WWII council estates (or housing projects, as Americans referred to them). These poorly-maintained buildings were to be avoided, and desirable housing was either a Victorian terrace or a new privately built apartment block. But when […]
Stained concrete, the stench of urine in the elevators, dangerous corridors: that is how many people think of the U.K.’s post-WWII council estates (or housing projects, as Americans referred to them). These poorly-maintained buildings were to be avoided, and desirable housing was either a Victorian terrace or a new privately built apartment block.
But when these estates were conceived their architects promised or hoped they would solve many housing and social ills in cities, an antidote to bomb-damaged slums. Inspired by Le Corbusier, these Modernist complexes were designed during a golden era of British architecture by young pioneers such as Neave Brown, Gordon Benson, Alan Forsyth, and Peter Tabori.
In recent times the mood has been shifting and these structures are increasingly appreciated by a younger generation nostalgic for all things midcentury-modern. And as London’shouse prices continue to rise, some have found relatively affordable accommodation in ex-council properties, furthering their appreciation of the architecture. A sure indication that the tide really has turned for such estates is a recent tour program of Brutalist architecture run by the National Trust. The trust looks after around 300 properties for public access, including many stately homes, and has never before associated itself with Brutalism.
In her book Modernist Estates: The Buildings and the People Who Live in Them Today (Frances Lincoln Limited), designer Stefi Orazi celebrates these blocks and the residents who have embraced them.
Clare Dowdy: Modernist architecture has been much vilified over the years. What appeals to you about it?
Stefi Orazi: Without sounding too shallow, I think there’s a sense of glamour about these estates: the light and space and proportions. I’m a graphic designer by trade and there’s a definite overlap in terms of the rationalisation of space, proportions and clean lines, and my brain resonates with that.
CD: How did you come to build up your knowledge of London’s Modernist estates in order to compile the book?
SO: When I lived on Golden Lane Estate I was heavily involved in the residents’ association, which tried, among other things, to get repairs done well. Golden Lane Estate is grade II listed, and one block is grade II*. But it’s desperately needing some TLC. I elected myself graphic designer of the residents’ association, and volunteered to design leaflets and posters to encourage younger residents to join the association. For these I created illustrations of the estate. I then started illustrating the neighboring Barbican estate, and produced limited edition prints and greetings cards. I also started a blog, modernistestates.com, which celebrated these estates and their residents. I became even more obsessive about the architecture when I was looking for somewhere to move to. I spent all my weekends traipsing around London visiting flats on the market in these buildings.
CD: Many of the residents you feature in their Modernist flats work in the creative industries. For example, Vicky Richardson who lives in the Brunswick and runs the architecture, design and fashion department for the British Council. How did you choose your interviewees?
SO: For my blog, I started by interviewing friends in their Modernist homes, and then friends of friends. The people in the creative industries were probably more open to the idea of showing off their homes. They also appreciate a well-designed space and see beyond any stigma of living on a council estate. For them, they’re in an architect-designed home at a fraction of the cost (of one built by developers).
CD: Why do you think Modernist estates are now starting to be appreciated by a wider audience?
SO: It’s a definite trend and fashion thing. There’s the natural cycle of any type of architecture: it falls of out fashion, is vilified, then people start to appreciate it again. And compared with new housing built now, these Modernist flats have good proportions and space, and were built to a high quality. The people designing these estates in the 1960s were the best architects that the country has produced. A new generation doesn’t associate them with council estates and concrete. They’re seeing them with new eyes.
CD: What is the future for these estates?
SO: I don’t know. All of them are so tired and need so much money, but there’s so little funding.
CD: Although you’re happy living on your Modernist estate (Mansfield Road estate in Camden, built by Benson and Forsyth in the 1970s), what would be your ideal home?
SO: My dream would be one of those single storey houses on stilts in California, because of all the glazing and the way the architects thought about how you’d move about the space.