Stefi Orazi's quest to document London's post-war flats began with a quest to find one for herself. When the graphic designer moved to London in 1997, it was the Barbican that called her name. Built on land devastated by World War II, the Chamberlin, Powell and Bon-designed Barbacian is one of those typically unloved Brutalist housing towers that have become a siren's song for design devotees. It was coarse, monolithic, and completely irresistible. But then the inevitable happened, and Orazi was ready to move. And that became the impetus for Modernist Estates, a forthcoming book that enshrines the dozens of buildings she encountered on the way to property ownership bliss.
Faced with a teeny budget, a stout refusal to live in a Victorian, and scant options, Orazi delved into the all-consuming world of post-war housing real estate listings. She tells us, "I would trawl new listings on a daily basis, and I kept discovering more and more fantastically designed estates that I'd never known about." She needed somewhere to store her plunder and voilà, the blog Modernist Estates was born. What had begun as a hobby turned into a full blown, all-consuming encyclopedia.
In short time, Orazi was no longer just posting real estate listings to her blog, but visiting these places, snooping around, and introducing herself to a captivating set of madcap characters that chose to inhabit London's strangest structures. Orazi describes her impulse as selfish. "I wasn't really doing it for anyone else but me", she says. One thing is obvious: These estates had an irresistible draw.
What are the neighbors like? Is the building well maintained? What about the communal areas, are they well maintained? Tell us a bit about yourselves? Orazi's questions are deceptively simple, but belie a much deeper need to lift these structures out of the stigma of Pruitt-Igoe, counteract the archival photos of the 'midcentury primer' and, instead, remind everyone that modernist estates are also contemporary ones. Solidly non-voyeuristic, Orazi simply wants to document London's post-war habitats as living breathing places.
Her subjects range from the creative director of Esquire Magazine in the U.K. to a school teacher. And their reasons for living in a modernist estate verge on the poetic. Sharon Kean, who works in cancer research and lives in London's Isokon Building, ebulliently boasts, "Agatha Christie — a former resident — likened it to a giant ocean liner that had run aground and I have to say I agree. It's dazzling in the sun and glows in the dusk." And if that weren't enough an architect living in Keeling House tells Orazi, "Being up so high means it's very quiet, even when you have so many neighbors."
So, why does Orazi take on the herculean task of documenting London's modernist legacy? "'Concrete' became a dirty word in the late-seventies and eighties." she explains. The British didn't really have a history with flats until swathes of housing stock were ravaged during World War II. And, by then, Britain needed them—badly. Orazi explains that the government soon adopted a build 'em cheap and build 'em fast mentality. Lamentably, "Council housing, especially concrete high rises, became a symbol for everything that was wrong with society." This is exactly the narrative that Orazi so ardently seeks to counter.
And, finally, what of her own property search? Her real estate cupid's arrow came in the form of a Benson and Forsyth-designed '70s estate in Camden. Boasting architectural pedigrees like Neave Brown and Peter Tabori, the estate is a modernist reinvention of the typical British terrace. But there was one problem: It was too expensive, way too expensive. So, Orazi did what anyone else would do. She kept the listing a secret and every few weeks, would return to it.
After after a two-year long accidental pilgrimage through London's forgotten modernist flats, Orazi finally got her happy ending. It came in the form of a severe price drop, a slew of renovations, and spending more money than she originally wanted to spend. She tell us that, "It need quite a bit of work doing on it, as the majority of the original features have been ripped out. So I'm slowly trying to reinstate them. I've almost finished the living room, but the rest is a work in progress." You can watch her progress here. It's often very funny.
Modernist Estates can be pre-ordered here.
∙ Stefi Orazi Studio [Stefi Orazi]