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
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)