Modernist Estates: The buildings and the people who live in them


By Stefi Orazi

Pressure on the current rate of construction and quality of Britain’s new dwellings has sparked a renewed interest in post-war housing schemes. Faced with a critical housing shortage as well as poor existing housing stock, successive post-war governments undertook ambitious housebuilding programmes, which led to much of the social housing in use today.

Modernist Estates is a personal insight into some of the country’s most renowned developments. The book has its genesis in the author’s, Stefi Orazi, own search to purchase a flat after living in the City of London’s Barbican and Golden Lane Estates. What started as a project documenting her journey to identify a property on a Tumblr has lead to a broad network of connections with fellow enthusiasts, current residents and architects of the period. It needs to be said that the popularity of the blog (which we too follow) lead to a publishing deal.

Structured chronologically, the book commences with the Lawn Road flats in Hampstead, more commonly known as the Isokon Building. Constructed during the 1930s it became home to a variety of influential modern designers and thinkers including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy all who taught at Bauhaus; the British artists Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson; as well as the crime writer Agatha Christie, among many others. The building suffered serve decline in the later part of the twentieth century before being significantly refurbished in the early 2000s by a housing association.

The Isokon building is, of course, exceptional – and this faithfully sets the tone for the book. Traversing through 20 case studies including Barbican, Park Hill, Balfron Tower and the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate before concluding with the Greenwich Millennium Village, the book documents the best of Britain's social housing.

Each development is briefly introduced with some background and historical context before the author interviews a present day resident. The text is accompanied by specifically commissioned photographs of the interviewees’ residences, which make up the bulk of the profile. This combination provides real insights into the longevity of the architecture, how people work to make uniform dwellings into individual homes, the benefits of quality construction and well considered design – as well as some of the challenges of living in a purpose-built block. This makes the perspective poignant. On the one hand it highlights and celebrates the renewed interest in these properties, especially among those in the design and creative industries who feature prominently in Orazi's profiles. On the other hand, the celebration of the utopian thinking that shaped most of these projects sets a high benchmark against which most other housing of the post-war period, and contemporary projects, fall well short.

Home Institute recently attended a talk at London’s Barbican Centre between one of the architects profiled in the book, Neave Brown, and Paul Karakusevic. Brown was responsible for some of the most celebrated council housing projects of the post-war era, including the Grade II listed Fleet Road and the Alexandra and Ainsworth estate in Camden (profiled in the book) which alone contains 520 homes; by contrast Karakusevic Carson have completed several dozen social housing homes in over a decade – a reflection of the political impetus of our time.

The author earns her bread-and-butter as a graphic designer, and this shows in the production of the book. The cover board is thick, debossed card with a quarter-bound cloth spine and matching bright yellow endpapers. Books of this type are often conceived of as coffee table books sold as inspirational fodder. While this book adequately serves that purpose, Orazi has also created a timely piece of social history that documents where we have come from and how we are living in the present day.

At a time when we are again considering larger scale housing projects, quality of life for their inhabitants and how to achieve these objectives on a budget, Modernist Estates showcases various solutions, many of which are finding a new generation of appreciative residents. Let’s hope we have both have the humility to learn from past successes as well as the courage to improve upon the work of these now iconic buildings.

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From the Publisher

Modernist Estates takes an inside look at remarkable and sometimes controversial estates in Britain and examines the impact they have on their communities. Featuring twenty-one modernist homes and their residents, it presents an overview of the buildings and architects, considers the historical and political context, and explores what it’s like to live on a modernist estate today. Through interviews and photography, this unique book offers a rare insight into the lives of significant buildings including the Barbican, the Isokon, Balfron Tower and Park Hill.

Published by Frances Lincoln
ISBN 9780711236752

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