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Brian Anson (1935-2009)

Richard Rogers remembers the architect and planner Brian Anson, who died last month aged 74

Brian was tireless in his battles for the rights of those whose problems others overlooked or thought insurmountable, and was driven by a profound understanding of, and sympathy for, the underdog.

He will be remembered for his role in the fight for Covent Garden in the late 1960s. He lost his job at the Greater London council as a result of siding with local residents against the council’s plans to tear down the historic buildings and install a monstrous car-dominated redevelopment, after the relocation of the fruit and veg market to Nine Elms in south-west London. It was an epic battle between developer and citizen, a pattern that was occurring across Europe at that time, but Brian and a tight group of friends prevailed against the odds. Had they lost, London today would be a far less humane and beautiful city.

Small in stature, but wiry, resilient and endowed with talents that grew and matured over time, Brian was a wonderful wordsmith, a considerable artist, a beautiful

Brian was brought up in Bootle, the docklands area of northern Liverpool.  It was a tough area in tough times, yet Brian saw the way that humour and solidarity kept the community together.  He was small in stature, but wiry, resilient and endowed with talents that only grew and matured over time – he was a wonderful wordsmith, a considerable artist, a beautiful draughtsman and a true raconteur. 

I was first introduced to Brian over forty years ago when Alvin Boyarsky, then principal of the Architectural Association (AA), asked me to review the work of a couple of their 5th-year students, whose class was being taught by Brian.  The students, dubbed ‘The Cabbage Patch Unit’, had been working on a project about planning garden allotments (what we would probably call ‘sustainable urban farms’ today) and the AA was concerned that their work could be seen as inappropriate training for a career designing buildings.

In the end, the students passed, not least thanks to Brian’s dogged determination to get them through and his commitment to supporting their avant garde approach.   Nobody who knew Brian would have been surprised at this: he had always valued forward-thinking and activism and, throughout his career, focussed his considerable energy on creating an awareness, in society as a whole, and in architectural education in particular, of the difficulties faced by disadvantaged communities.

Brian caught the attention of the AA through his involvement in the fight for Covent Garden, where he lost his job at the Greater London Council as a result of siding with local residents against plans to tear down the historic buildings and install a monstrous car-dominated redevelopment.  It was an epic battle between developer and citizen, a pattern that was being repeated across Europe at that time, but Brian and a tight group of friends prevailed against all odds.  Had they lost, London today would be a far less humane and beautiful city than it is today.

As a result of his period at the AA, Brian set up the Architects Revolutionary Council (ARC) in 1974 and then the Schools of Architecture Council (SAC) – a forum for open debate among architecture students – in 1979.  His commitment to empowerment was also reflected in his work for Planning Aid in the early 1980s, when he toured round Ireland and the UK in the ‘Mobile Planning Aid Unit’ – a converted VW caravanette – helping communities to fight injustice.  

It was during this period that he became closely involved in the fight for the rights of those living in the Divis Street Flats, a grim and dehumanising housing estate in Belfast where, to add insult to injury, the British Army had constructed an observation post on the roof and occupied the top two floors of the building.

‘Divis was a nightmare!  In all my community struggles I have never seen anything like it,’ Brian wrote to me at the time. ‘The residents asked me to help in their crusade to demolish the place.  We found ourselves taking on the British Government… and we beat them after five years. Naturally, I lost my job again… I was once more on the dole.’

However, ten years ago, the battle to conserve the Hoxton Square area in London finally got to Brian.  He told me he sensed an avarice and bitterness there: the love of money was rampant.  Nor was it difficult to understand why, when Old Street was all that separated Hoxton from the richest square mile on the planet.  The contrast between this battle and all his previous ones struck him forcibly. Then, one morning, he just didn’t want to work anymore. Semi-retirement in France beckoned.

His sense of justice still drove him on, though: the socialist element of the French architectural establishment adopted him as one of their own, and he would occasionally give one of his remarkable lectures at their behest – I particularly remember one at the Venice Biennale and another at the Sorbonne. 

From 2001, Brian came back to the UK to teach at Birmingham University every year.  The module on community involvement that he ran there, with his great friend Mike Beazley, focused not on a one-way flow of knowledge, but on unlocking and sharing the deep understanding that students had about their own communities.

At the end of his life, he lived in a small cottage in the Dordogne with his wonderful wife, Mary.  He talked constantly about her and what a tower of strength she had always been, as well as about the four children of whom he was very proud. 

A great friend, leader and teacher, Brian was one of a tiny handful of heroes I have had the good fortune to know. We exchanged letters regularly over the years – he was a marvellous correspondent – about everything from political horrors to daily life, and we met to talk whenever we could. I shall miss the long discussions over many a beer in dark pubs, discussing the ways of the world and plotting the next revolution. Brian, more than anyone, taught me to understand those who suffered indignities at the hands of our society.

Brian Anson, architect, born 26 March 1935; died 22 November 2009

Readers' comments (1)

  • There are now more than ever since WW2 disaffected, and disillusioned Architects, some are even turning to religion, yoga, tai-chi and other mystical forms of psycho-somatic light relief, but not many turned to revolutionary politics and practice.

    There goes a heroic comrade

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