Neave Brown: a modernist pioneer

13 December 2017 (Last Updated December 15th, 2017 13:47)

Neave Brown, the architect credited with designing pioneering public housing, is to be awarded the RIBA’s 2018 Royal Gold Medal, the UK’s highest honour for architecture. Philip Kleinfeld looks at his incredible career, design ethos and successes, and spoke to Mark Swenarton author of the book Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing to find out how he shaped modern architecture today.

Neave Brown: a modernist pioneer
Neave Brown built some of the UK’s finest social housing. Image courtesy of Garath Gardner (garethgardner.com).

He may not be as famous as other recipients of the Royal Gold Medal but Neave Brown – the 88-year-old architect who built some of Britain’s finest social housing – is every bit as worthy of its honour.

“He showed that the state could build fantastic housing,” says Mark Swenarton author of the book Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing. “He made houses and flats that anybody would want to live in.”

Brown – who will be awarded the UK’s highest honour for architecture next year – pioneered what Swenarton describes as a new “format of housing”, one based on the traditional language of London urbanism: streets and squares.

It was a reaction both to the high-rise estates built by local authorities after World War Two and to the work of famous modernists such as Le Corbusier, who famously declared the “death of the street” in 1933.

While many high-rise blocks were successful, by the early 1960s serious drawbacks had become apparent.

“You had families living in high towers and kids with no external space to play in,” says Swenarton. “In the first half of the 1960s many reports were published on the damaging consequences this type of development was having on family life.”

Brown’s radical break

In his 1967 text, The Form of Housing, Brown laid out what he though was the answer to this social problem.

“Instead of building estates that included high rise and low rise, Brown devised a format which was based on having front doors on streets, and echoing the terraced housing of the 19th century,” says Swenarton. “In particular he promoted the idea that you don’t need to build high-rise to have high density.”

Central to this philosophy, adds Swenarton, “was that every home would have its own private external space where children could play in safety. Every dwelling would have its own external area that was open to the sky.”

Brown’s first building to incorporate these ideas was Fleet Road, where the architect still lives. Perhaps the most famous is the now grade II-listed Alexandra Road housing estate.

A popular destination today for film makers and architecture enthusiasts, Alexandra Road features two rows of stepped, concrete terrace houses laid out on either side of a pedestrian walkway. The effect is visually stunning and the building remains one of the most celebrated housing schemes in post-war Britain.

Cook’s Camden

Brown wasn’t the only architect designing these kinds of buildings. Working under the guidance of borough architect Sydney Cook, he formed part of a team of ambitious young architects that made Camden council their home in the 60s and 70s. The borough quickly gained a reputation for producing radical new housing.

“Most local authorities were staffed with architects who didn’t have the highest aspirations in terms of design,” says Swenarton. “Cook believed that he could bring to Camden the brightest young architects from the world of London architecture.”

Among Cook’s staff was Peter Tabori, a Hungarian architect who studied with Richard Rodgers in London and worked for both Denys Lasdun and Ernő Goldfinger and two young graduates from the Architectural Association: Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth

Benson and Forsyth’s first independent project was Mansfield Road in Hampstead, completed in 1980. Stefi Orazi, a designer, author and tenant of Mansfield Road still remembers the first time she saw the flat she now owns.

“As soon as I stepped in, I just immediately fell in love with it,” she says. “It’s got full height, full width windows and it was a particularly bright today so the light was flooding in.”

Like Brown’s buildings, Mansfield Road was built to match the fabric of the existing street.

“I’ve grown up in council estates all my life and generally speaking a lot of the estates I lived in felt somewhat removed from the fabric of the city,” says Orazi. “Mansfield Road and a lot of the Camden estates are sensitive to what surrounds them. You have doors that go directly onto streets and they are low-rise so you don’t feel like you are in a different area.”

Building quality homes

This style has influenced many architects working today, says Swenarton.

“The stepped section format, which is what Brown was doing at Fleet Road and Alexandra Road has really taken off in a number of European countries,” he says. “Björn Engels in Denmark has done some really spectacular stepped section housing projects in Copenhagen, as have a number of Dutch architects.”

While the Camden architects left an indelible mark on the UK, their work was ultimately cut short by factors outside their control.

“After the economic crisis of the 1970s local authorities were no longer able to undertake the kind of experimental work that they had been doing in the 60s,” says Swenarton. “Following Thatcher’s election success in 1979, architects started to leave [the public realm] and local authority architects departments closed. By the late 1980s most of them had gone.”

After the failure of successive governments to ensure housing supply matches demand, Swenarton says there is now growing acceptance “that the market can’t provide all of the answers and that we are going to have to have some kind of public provision of housing.”

This, Swenarton adds, is where the work of Neave Brown and his colleagues can guide us forward.

“It is important [that what gets built] is seen not just as a dump for those who can’t afford anything better, but housing that anybody would aspire to live in,” he says. “Camden was a model and a reminder that the state and local authorities can provide this.”