The great architect was caught in the crossfire during a political battle over housing in the 1970s—but has emerged utterly vindicatedby Owen Hatherley / October 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
In 1963, the architect Neave Brown designed a terrace of houses for himself and some friends, organised as a housing co-op, in north London. These houses—cubic and elegant to the street, with a lush communal garden, and large, open-plan rooms—were a small alternative to the way re-housing was being done in London at the time, when terraced streets were replaced with towers in open space.
Impressed, the local authority, under the Borough Architect Sydney Cook, hired Brown to design two council estates for them, using similar ideas, and with identical flat sizes—Fleet Road, in Gospel Oak, and Alexandra Road, in Swiss Cottage. It’s for these three that Brown, an architect who has not worked in Britain since 1978, has just received the RIBA Gold Medal. Brown is also the only living British architect to have had all his buildings listed—less of an accolade, when you realise there’s only three of them. One reason why there are so few is the politics of Labour councils in the late 1970s, a battle where Brown and other architects were caught in the crossfire.
When London’s local government was re-organised in the late 1960s, affluent Hampstead and Holborn were merged with working class St Pancras into the London Borough of Camden. Unlike other amalgamated boroughs such as Southwark or Newham, Camden’s combination of housing problems and massive tax receipts made an unusual experiment possible. As Mark Swenarton points out in his new monograph Cook’s Camden, council housing designed under the direction of Sydney Cook was built to extraordinarily high standards, rejecting the off-the-peg towers then being offered by volume housebuilders to vulnerable and often poorly resourced local authorities.
Camden’s estates, like Benson and Forsyth’s Branch Hill, Peter Tabori’s Highgate New Town (also both listed) were different—low-rise housing fitted to the scale of the surrounding area that was nonetheless confident, modern and often sculptural. Neave Brown’s estates were the stars of the show. The earlier, Fleet Road, was designed so that after the planting had grown up, the houses resembled hanging gardens. Alexandra Road was more daring—500 ziggurat-like flats in a snaking concrete street, cantilevered like a stadium over the East Coast Main Line. It’s also where the problems started.
In its day, as Swenarton points out, Alexandra Road, built from 1972 to 1978, was “not…