NE AV E B ROWN The Mod­ernist ar­chi­tect whose work has ur­gent so­cial rel­e­vance

The mav­er­ick Mod­ernist has just been awarded Bri­tain’s high­est ac­co­lade for ar­chi­tec­ture – at a time when his projects are more in­spir­ing, and rel­e­vant, than ever

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When RIBA an­nounced that New York­born, Cam­den-based Neave Brown,

aged 88, was to re­ceive the 2018 Royal Gold Medal, the words ‘ leg­end’ and ‘over­due’ ap­peared on Twit­ter time and time again from rev­er­ent peers and in­dus­try in­sid­ers – but there was no sign of the term ‘star­chi­tect’. Al­though, his­tor­i­cally, this ‘ life­time achieve­ment’ medal has recog­nised the era’s ar­chi­tec­ture A-lis­ters, from Sir Ge­orge Gilbert Scott (1859) and Sir Ed­win Lu­tyens (1921) to Os­car Niemeyer (1998) and Frank Gehry (2000), RIBA has awarded Brown the gong, which the Queen per­son­ally signs off, purely for his vi­sion­ary pub­lic hous­ing – not a mil­lion­pound mon­u­ment in sight. Brown is the only liv­ing ar­chi­tect to have all of his UK projects listed, yet as hard­work­ing as his build­ings are, the prize was a bolt from the blue.

‘The Medal is en­tirely un­ex­pected and over­whelm­ing,’ he said at the time of its an­nounce­ment. ‘It is recog­ni­tion of my ar­chi­tec­ture, its qual­ity and its cur­rent so­cial rel­e­vance. Mar­vel­lous!’ Brown’s re­ac­tion per­fectly cap­tures his fa­mous good cheer, mind for de­sign and se­ri­ous so­cial con­science – the hat-trick of tal­ents that made him, dur­ing his ca­reer at Cam­den Coun­cil, what we might now call a ‘dis­rup­tor’.

Brown grew up in up­state New York and stud­ied at Lon­don’s renowned Ar­chi­tec­tural As­so­ci­a­tion be­fore go­ing on to spe­cialise in so­cial hous­ing, build­ing projects in Italy, the Nether­lands and Bri­tain. His most fa­mous work is the high-den­sity, low-rise Alexan­dra Road es­tate (above) in Lon­don’s Swiss Cot­tage. As de­scribed in Cook’s Cam­den: The Mak­ing of Mod­ern Hous­ing (Lund Humphries, £45), a new book that doc­u­ments the ground­break­ing projects built dur­ing the 1960s and 70s when Syd­ney Cook was the bor­ough’s ar­chi­tect, Brown wanted to cre­ate ‘a piece of city’. For him this meant a con­vivial con­crete com­mu­nity with shops, work­shops, a spe­cial-needs school and a park, as well as 500 new homes built around an ex­ist­ing es­tate – as the book puts it, ‘a task of gar­gan­tuan com­plex­ity’.

Brown be­lieved that ev­ery home, what­ever the bud­get in­volved, needed two things:

‘THE MEDAL IS RECOG­NI­TION OF MY AR­CHI­TEC­TURE, ITS QUAL­ITY AND ITS CUR­RENT UR­GENT SO­CIAL REL­E­VANCE’

a front door open­ing di­rectly onto a path or street of the city, and some pri­vate out­door space that’s open to the sky – be it a gar­den, roof ter­race or bal­cony. The re­sult is arc­ing maisonettes and stu­dio flats, all stacked in the cas­cad­ing style of an an­cient zig­gu­rat tem­ple, linked by al­leys and punc­tu­ated by trees. To­day, a visit to the busy, bustling es­tate re­veals its evo­lu­tion 40 years on: the stepped ter­races over­flow with palm trees and plants re­sem­bling an ur­ban Hang­ing Gar­dens of Baby­lon. Un­sur­pris­ingly, it’s of­ten used as a TV and film lo­ca­tion.

RIBA’S pres­i­dent, Ben Der­byshire, has de­scribed Alexan­dra Road as an ex­em­plary scheme, where high den­sity is achieved with­out high rise, from which Great Bri­tain needs to take in­spi­ra­tion. ‘The UK must look back at Neave Brown’s hous­ing ideals and in­no­va­tive ar­chi­tec­ture as we strive to solve this hous­ing cri­sis,’ says Der­byshire. ‘ We need to build 300,000 new homes per year to tackle the cri­sis – a rad­i­cal pro­gramme of mass coun­cil homes, in­spired by Neave Brown’s work, must be part of the so­lu­tion.’

Other ca­reer high­lights (also in north Lon­don) in­clude Dun­boyne Road es­tate, a scheme for which Brown reimag­ined the Vic­to­rian Lon­don ter­race as two- and three­storey blocks run­ning in lin­ear rows, and 22-32 Win­scombe Street, a co-hous­ing project Brown built for him­self and friends, where dwellings were ‘up­side down’, with liv­ing spa­ces on the up­per floor to re­ceive the lion’s share of nat­u­ral light. Alexan­dra Road proved to be Brown’s fi­nal project, due in part to the move away from so­cial hous­ing by sub­se­quent gov­ern­ments that re­sulted in cuts to coun­cil ar­chi­tects’ fund­ing.

Hav­ing al­ways en­joyed draw­ing, Brown, aged 73, re­trained, tak­ing a BA in Fine Art at City & Guilds of Lon­don Art School. His work is beau­ti­ful, and more ab­stract than might be ex­pected from the prag­ma­tist whose schemes are fa­mously func­tional.

Al­though the re­cent resur­gence in the pop­u­lar­ity of Bru­tal­ist and Mod­ernist build­ings means that when any of Brown’s pri­vate-lease flats come up for sale, they are ad­ver­tised on cult on­line es­tate agent The Mod­ern House and snapped up al­most im­me­di­ately, a sense of com­mu­nity be­tween in­hab­i­tants new and old re­mains.

El­iz­a­beth Knowles has lived on Alexan­dra Road since it was built and is a mem­ber of the Alexan­dra Road Res­i­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion. ‘ When we were lucky enough to be given a flat on the es­tate in the 1970s, we al­ready knew it was spe­cial,’ she says. Dur­ing the 80s, when the es­tate fell into dis­re­pair, she re­calls how Neave Brown and the res­i­dents ‘ hung in there, cre­at­ing a co-op­er­a­tive that man­aged the place for 12 years’. Knowles is at pains to point out Brown’s gen­eros­ity to stu­dents who come to the es­tate.

‘In light of the nearby Gren­fell Tower tragedy, we were re­minded of how spe­cial our con­crete vil­lage is,’ Knowles said in a state­ment on be­half of the As­so­ci­a­tion. ‘ When Neave Brown was asked to build tow­ers, he in­stead built low rise, high den­sity. Thank you, Neave Brown, from the bot­tom of our hearts for a very spe­cial com­mu­nity.’ ( neave­brown. com; ar­chi­tec­ture. com; alexan­draandainsworth.org)

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