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Michael Neylan dies aged 81

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Bill Ungless, founding partner of Neylan and Ungless, remembers his colleague Michael Neylan who died last month after a long illness aged 81

Michael Neylan studied at Kingston School of Architecture when Jo Chamberlin, Geoffrey Powell and Christof Bon taught there. Although all three were part of the modern movement they also looked to history for their ideas, and this twofold way of looking at architecture set Neylan on a course which he was to follow throughout his professional life.

After Kingston, he went on to work for Chamberlin, Powell and Bon where there was a dozen or so of us employed in their mews office. We applied ourselves quietly to our drawing boards and, from time to time, one became aware of footsteps padding to and fro. It was Neylan walking up and down considering a problem on his particular job. He did this often over the course of a day, sometimes for minutes at a time, and always with fierce concentration on his face. Nobody turned a hair, it being generally accepted that the disturbance was worthwhile because of the quality of the solutions which emerged. It was not that he was seeking ideas; his struggle was to tease out the appropriate one from the many, in order to suit a particular context. After pacing, he would return to his board and sketch out beautifully and clearly his preferred option.

At one o’clock he would emerge from his private world and at lunch he would engage with everybody. The subjects of his conversation could range from Persia (from where he had recently returned from a study trip), to his ancient aunt’s bamboo bicycle (about which he seemed inordinately chuffed), or indeed any subject which involved ideas with which he could grapple. His mind was always able quickly to elicit the essence of any concept or subject.

It was not merely abstract ideas which interested him. He had an inborn architect’s outlook. I remember once chatting as we walked back from lunch through Pelham Crescent in South Kensington. Suddenly he slightly lengthened his stride and set off counting his paces. When asked, he said that he was comparing the size of this space with the central place in a housing-scheme he was designing for a competition at Bishopsfield in Harlow. This was his concrete way of applying historical precedent to an actual building and it demonstrates how strongly Neylan felt the physicality of architecture.

A Michael Neylan scheme in Harlow

A Michael Neylan scheme in Harlow

He went on not only to win the Harlow competition, but to display, in an elegant and effective way, many of the ideas which our generation of architects were concerned with. Concerns about how to provide buildings where an individual might feel at home in the community. This was in reaction against a prevailing view that technological efficiency was the key to providing for the demand for new housing accommodation.

Overnight Neylan became a rallying point for those of us who could see that it was possible to build local authority housing which was both radical and of its time, while being sensitive to family needs.

When I returned from working abroad, two years after his competition win, it was clear that this success had come at a price. Getting this novel and radical scheme off the ground had been stressful. Stressful for the contractor, for the client and particularly for Neylan. But Bishopsfield (see AJ 20.02.71), after all the angst, was a remarkable achievement and is still a yardstick for other young architects in the housing field. It  won a Civic Trust Award and is now a conservation area. The locals affectionately call it the Kasbah.

Recognising that we were like-minded, he asked me if I would join him in practice to help overcome the problems he was having and, of course, to share future design processes and benefits (1964). Indeed, benefits did come because a commissioning architect was attracted by the ideas of Harlow and gave us a housing scheme to design which happened to be in an urban area. This in turn enabled us to find work for other urban sites and we were able to develop ideas for low-rise high-density housing from one site to the next over the coming thirty years (1964-1998); probably the most successful was the Setchell Development for the London Borough of Southwark for which we won a DoE Good Design in Housing Award.

Mostly we were building quite large hand-knit schemes at a time when standardised mass housing prevailed. This often led to struggles with finance departments, the strain of which we both felt. However Neylan never let difficulties deflect him from what he thought was the right path. He was held in great esteem by our office staff and they were unfailingly supportive. It was a very fulfilling time for all.

Neylan a compassionate man whose religion was central to his life. His view was that everybody should  be treated equally wherever possible and this found expression in Bishopsfield. Firstly, in the way he provided every dwelling with a private open space and a front door at ground level - not an easy task with higher density schemes, and secondly, in the way that the scheme, necessarily comprising  many similar sized units, is designed in such a way that everybody could identify with their own particular dwelling, as well as with the very poetic community as a whole. I, on my part, am proud that I was able, within the practice, to develop these same ideas on various schemes and particularly in stretching them to apply to the five-storey block which we built on Fitzjohns Avenue for the LB of Camden. 

Society is lucky that these and Neylan’s other ideas have been made concrete in his buildings and are thus available for future generations to unpick and be inspired by. Just as we are; we who were fortunate enough to have been his colleagues.

Bill Ungless 

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