A guest post by London Historians member John Boughton, who writes the wonderful Municipal Dreams blog.
Modernist Estates, written by graphic designer Stefi Orazi with an introduction by architectural critic Douglas Murphy, does what it says on the tin. It’s a simple concept – a series of lavishly illustrated case studies of twenty-one modernist housing schemes, each prefaced with a brief historical and architectural description and concluded by an interview with contemporary residents – ‘the buildings and the people who live in them today’, as the book’s subtitle explains. There’s plenty to interest a London historian. All but two of the case studies are located in the capital and some of its most celebrated twentieth-century housing feature – the Isokon in Belsize Park, the Barbican and Balfron Tower in Poplar, for example – as well as some lesser-known examples.
Modernism is, in architectural terms, a slippery concept but maybe two central dictums summarise its essence – that form should follow function (design is simple and unembellished and derived directly from a building’s purpose) and that materials should be treated honestly (as is most obviously the case with so-called Brutalist buildings of concrete construction). To a layperson, what stands out in the wide range of schemes covered is their cleanness of form and their light and airy interiors.
Beyond the aesthetic, however, looms something larger, well discussed in Douglas Murphy’s excellent introduction: ‘underneath this stylistic question there are deeper cultural issues, about who builds housing and for what purpose, about the role of technology in the fabric of daily life, and about how humanity should address the future’. This was an era of ‘soberly optimistic considerations of what humans were capable of, and how they might live together’.
That is best illustrated in the fact that two thirds of the estates covered were built by local councils. The searing disjuncture with our present politics is demonstrated by the fact that Orazi’s interviewees – the present residents – are almost uniformly of the white, professional middle classes and generally owner-occupiers not tenants. Orazi is far from oblivious to the contradiction here– the betrayal of social purpose and the loss of affordable rented housing for ordinary people – but this will make the book uncomfortable reading for some. For that reason, the interview with Neave Brown, the architect of several of Camden’s superb housing schemes of the 1970s featured in the book, is the most powerful as he captures both the ideals and ambitions of that era and their dissolution.
As the author of the book would acknowledge, this is a niche work but it’s a niche with growing appeal. After the denigration and, in the case of some of the council estates, the demonisation of modernism, there is an increasing interest in both its architecture and ethos. Architectural and housing specialists and those such as myself whose interest in housing is more ‘political’ might wish for more detail and context but, in its own terms, the book succeeds well. Its attractive design and high quality production match its subject-matter and its photography is first-rate. As a small coffee table book for those with an interest in modernist housing and the contemporary life-styles which go with it, I’m happy to recommend it.
Modernist Estates: The buildings and the people who live in them by Stefi Orazi (192pp) is published by Frances Lincoln. Cover price is £25 but it’s available for less.