After 40 years of professional oblivion, Neave Brown’s RIBA award is thoroughly deserved

The great architect was caught in the crossfire during a political battle over housing in the 1970s—but has emerged utterly vindicated

October 09, 2017
Rowley Way is part of the Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate. Photo: Jaggery
Rowley Way is part of the Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate. Photo: Jaggery

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 so much famous as an architectural triumph as infamous as a constructional disaster.” In 1974, the oil crisis and the resulting inflation hit councils hard. The London left wondered what to do next. For the right, the solution was austerity; an emboldened left aimed to continue municipal housing in a way that fit the straitened circumstances. In 1978 the “hard left” took over Camden, and one Ken Livingstone became the chair of housing. Resources were put into buying up dilapidated old stock and doing them up as council houses, and the grand projects of an earlier, better funded era were under suspicion.

“For the new left of the 1970s, modern architecture meant concrete monstrosities that the architects themselves would never live in—though Brown did, and does”
Livingstone regarded Alexandra Road as “expensively unsuccessful”—there had been massive cost overruns—and ordered an enquiry, which ran for three years. In the end, it proved little, other than that Camden's housing department was understaffed and that the construction company charged with building estates had underestimated costs; but it was a gift to the new Right. In Swenarton's words, “the story of the Alexandra Road ‘disaster’ conformed to the pejorative right-wing view of local government,” and by the time the enquiry was over in 1981, council housing on this scale was made almost impossible by the new Conservative government.

They have had their ups and downs, but all of Brown's estates are hugely popular today. Residents of Alexandra Road provided testimonials to the RIBA, and made their own celebratory film, Rowley Way Speaks for Itself. Brown himself recently moved from Winiscombe Road to Fleet Road. Flats, when they make their way to the open market, can sell for over £1 million. Brown has been utterly vindicated, which may make up to some extent for nearly 40 years of professional oblivion.

So why did the Labour left have such hostility to his work? Partly, this was because the ambition of it made for difficulties in building—in his autobiography, Livingstone wrote more sympathetically about Camden's housing, but noted that building flats over railway lines was simply beyond the borough's means by the mid-70s. But the way the enquiry was conducted, assuming that any problems were the result of the malfeasance or incompetence of the architect, and the loaded language of “disasters,” showed something less understandable. For the new left of the 1970s, modern architecture was one of those “conspiracies against the layman,” concrete monstrosities that the architects themselves would never live in (though Brown did, and does), too avant-garde for ordinary people to understand. If it became complicated to build, that was because of corruption, not because building something to last takes time and money.

Labour is promising a massive council house building programme if it wins the next election. It can learn some lessons from the quality, sanity and bravura of Camden's housing; but the resurgent left could also learn a few lessons from how its forbears treated Neave Brown.