Make It Modern

Designer and writer Stefi Orazi lets us in on her modernist love affair, invigorated by years living in modernist estates and championing the cause for their continued existence

Interview Miguel Llona, with Patrick Kasingsing
Images Stefi Orazi

Stefi Orazi, Header: The Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon (1976)

Hello Stefi! What are you currently reading?

I’ve bought two recent books which are sitting on my side table ready to read: Pedro and Ricky Come Again: Selected Writing 1988-2020 by Jonathan Meades and Clive Bell and the Making of Modernism: A Biography by Professor Mark Hussey.

Can you recall the specific moment that made you fall in love with modernist architecture?

When I went to a flat in the Barbican Estate, I crossed the bridge over the man-made lake and looked towards the incredible sculptural concrete waterfall.

In your own words, how would you define the modernist style? What makes a building modernist?

I’m not sure there’s a definitive style. There are several strands to modernism. There are elements such as clean straight lines and large areas of glazing, which are ubiquitous with modernism, of course. But I think it is more the thinking behind the design—the rationale of the planning of the space, and the honesty of the materials.

What do you find beautiful about the modernist approach to design?

I really resonate with the architects’ aspirations. In the 1920s, at the beginning of the Modern Movement, architects sought to build a better future for society. They embraced new materials. They wanted to design buildings that were more efficient and allowed people to live healthier and cleaner lives.

As a design studio owner, are there principles of modernism that influence your work? What architectural principles would you say also hold true in the realm of graphic design?

I have quite a rational brain. Working as a graphic designer often means making sense of content and creating order.

Like with every architectural movement, modernism, and brutalism has their share of fans and detractors; you yourself have lived in a modernist estate; what public misconceptions about buildings from these movements would you like to debunk?

I’ve lived in public housing all my life. Until recently, there has been a stigma about such buildings. They’re often seen as poorly built and ugly. There are undoubtedly post-war buildings that were constructed cheaply and quickly to try and tackle the housing shortage; however, as there was little private work, architects turned to work for the state, so a lot of social housing was designed by some of the best architects in the country. More recently, I think the pendulum has swung the other way, and people have started fetishizing modernist, especially brutalist, architecture.

There is a resurgence in interest in the modernist style, which you played a part in with your blog (“Modernist Estates”) and books and maps dedicated to it. Can you explain this surge in interest? What is it about the current generation that draws them toward the modernist style? Do you see interest in it being sustained?

I think it’s just the natural flow of things coming in and out of fashion. Brutalist architecture has been vilified for decades, and you have a certain amount of distance and time to re-assess a movement to appreciate its merits.

The Barbican Estate by Stefi Orazi

We absolutely love your beautifully designed modernist walking guides! Can you tell us a bit about how it started? What informed your choice of routes for the map and which landmarks to include?

They started by accident, really. I’ve been posting pictures of interesting buildings I see on walks on my Instagram for years. During the Covid-19 lockdown, we were only allowed to go out once a day for exercise, so I started rediscovering my local area and posting pictures of houses during my walks. People really enjoyed them and asked me to share my routes, so I decided to go one better and produce printed guides. A lot of my ‘regular’ design work had dried up, so this gave me a focus.

You are particularly interested in modernist social housing/estates built decades ago, going so far as delving into the lives of their current inhabitants. One of your interviewees, the architect Neave Brown, expresses his disappointment with how the government has handled these housing systems, saying “the triumph of capitalism has betrayed the egalitarian ideals we’ve had.” Can you expound on the original purpose of these housing estates, and how they have been corrupted by capitalism as Brown said?

After the Second World War, there was a shortage of housing, many people lived in substandard housing and with poor sanitation, so the state initiated a mass building program. After which, a considerable percentage of the population people lived in council housing with communities. In the 1980s, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher brought in legislation that allowed council tenants to buy their council homes at a discount. These homes were never replaced, and we are still living with the consequences of not having enough social and affordable housing. It’s had other implications too: it broke up communities and created a two-tier society: owners and council tenants.

It is interesting that instead of merely focusing on the architectural value of these housing blocks, you also delve into their “social value” with said interviews. Do you feel that the social value of a building is often being neglected in architectural discourse? Is highlighting a building’s social value, particularly if it is decades old, a more effective way to prevent it from being demolished?

It seems staggering to me that in 2021 so much council housing, and post-war building in general, are being demolished. Much of it is perfectly sound. But if they are in a wealthy area and the land is valuable, councils and developers are incredibly short-sighted and see profit ahead of anything else. Not only is it terrible for the environment, but the homes are also often replaced with ones that are smaller and of worse quality.

Perambulations Walking Guides box set

While efforts to bring public awareness to modern built heritage such as yours are welcome, there is still a lot to do to convince the many urban players within the city of the value of heritage buildings; what do you think is the biggest issue/factor holding people back from making the jump from awareness to action in terms of fighting/working for built heritage?

Sadly it’s often quicker and cheaper to completely demolish a building rather than renovate and upgrade it. Most councils and the government don’t appreciate or value modernist buildings. Developers are given tax breaks for constructing new buildings. In my opinion, it should be the other way around, they should be encouraged to retain and upgrade existing structures. We need a total rethink of the environmental implications of demolishing and rebuilding.

You’ve lived in a number of modernist housing estates throughout your life. To borrow some of your usual questions to housing residents, what did you love most about your experiences there, and what did you like least?

Aside from the architecture, of course, I like the sense of community of living on an estate. There is the feeling that you belong to something, and you share something with your neighbors, even though you may be of a different age or background to them—that shared living experience unites us.

While architectural movements are products of their time, there are lessons that can be learned from them that can still inform the way we build and use built spaces. What characteristics or attitudes that made the modernist movement could today’s architects and designers learn from today?

To borrow Berthold Lubetkin’s famous phrase ‘nothing is too good for ordinary people’.

A question you probably saw coming from a mile! What’s your favorite existing modernist structure, and which demolished landmark would you like brought back?

This is an impossible question! I would probably have to choose the Barbican Estate as it was my original inspiration for what I do. In terms of a demolished landmark, I would love to see the Southgate Estate in Runcorn New Town. An extraordinary sci-fi-looking housing scheme by James Stirling in the late 1970s, made from concrete paneling with colorful plastic cladding in bold blue, yellow, and orange. Due to anti-social problems, however, it was entirely demolished in 1990. •

Images of Southgate Estate in August 1989, photographed by Ruth Donna Mills, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Modernist goodies and more at Things You Can Buy

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