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Neave Brown's ‘skilfully composed’ Winscombe terrace listed

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A terrace of houses in Camden by post-war architect Neave Brown has been grade II-listed

The decision makes Brown the first architect to have all his work in the UK protected under the listing system.

The ‘skilfully composed’ terrace of five three-storey houses in Camden, north London, was completed in 1965.

The project – 22-32 Winscombe Street – was built as a home for Brown’s own family and a small number of friends, including Michael and Patty Hopkins.

In a statement English Heritage said: ‘The house plans - devised with Brown’s characteristic mastery of domestic space - embody various innovative features and reflect a distinctive, community-spirited vision of home life.’

It was the first piece of work the architect, who later went on to work for Camden Council Architects Department, completed on his own.

The scheme acted as a prototype for Brown’s other celebrated housing including the Alexandra Road estate which was grade II*-listed in 1993, becoming the first post-war council housing estate to be listed.  

Brown lived in Winscombe Street until 2007.

Neave Brown's 22-32 Winscombe Street

Extract from English Heritage’s listing report

The Winscombe Street terrace is clearly of historic interest as the first independent work by Neave Brown, whose subsequent work for the London Borough of Camden made him one of the most respected local authority architects of the post-war period. It is on a far smaller scale than any of these later public housing projects, but several of the features pioneered here went on to become part of the ‘Camden style’, and Winscombe Street’s character as a prototype and microcosm contributes greatly to its architectural interest. Some of these features relate to the planning of the individual houses: the placement of living areas on the top floor to maximise light, for instance, or the provision of self-contained and separately-accessible children’s accommodation. Others relate to the overall disposition of the group, for instance the use of stepped sections and the careful modulation between inside and outside, shared and private spaces. Finally there is the handling of forms and materials: the trademark juxtaposition of pale concrete (here combined with sand-faced brick) and chunky dark-stained joinery, the starkly expressive contrast of solid and void, the fascination with spiral and terraced forms - all anticipate not just Brown’s own work at Dunboyne Road (Grade II) and Alexandra Road (Grade II*), but also that of Camden colleagues like Benson and Forsyth at Branch Hill in Hampstead (Grade II).

Winscombe Street is more than just a dry run for Brown’s later work

But, importantly in the context of the listing assessment, Winscombe Street is more than just a dry run for Brown’s later work. Even had their influence been less seminal, these houses would still be of great interest in their own right, as a beautifully-conceived piece of three-dimensional design, and as an inventive and highly successful response to a challenging brief and site. As in several of the later Camden schemes, Brown aims at a reinvention of the ordinary London terrace, preserving its scale, intimacy and architectural good manners whilst reconfiguring the plan and its expression in accordance with Modern Movement principles. In one sense, these are traditional three-storey town-houses, each with a raised front door, a stair hall, a half-basement with its own entrance and access to the garden, etc. Even the shared garden area was not an uncommon feature of C18 and C19 developments on constricted sites - witness the garden squares of inner London - while separate studio units like No. 22 could be found associated with London artists’ houses from the late C17 onwards. In other respects, the model has been transformed in line with Modernist ideals and the requirements of C20 domesticity: the stress on light and air, the interpenetration of inside and outside space, the integration of kitchen and dining areas and the autonomy of children within the family.

It combines homeliness with a quasi-Brutalist delight

These innovations are given an architectural expression that combines homeliness with a quasi-Brutalist delight in raw materials and the separation of forms. The street elevation, for all its display of modern materials (glass bricks, blockwork and board-marked concrete) and elementary geometrical forms (cylinder, cuboid and slab), sits entirely comfortably at the end of a Victorian cul-de-sac, while the interiors - well-preserved throughout the terrace - show that mastery of ordinary domestic space for which the best of the Camden schemes are renowned. The way the houses address the garden behind is another particular strength, the gradual transition from private to shared space achieved by the deftest of gestures and without the need for barriers: a prime example of architecture suggesting, without dictating, an appropriate manner for its own inhabitation.

The Winscombe Street development is particularly rewarding in that it is neither a one-off design nor a big housing scheme. Here is a small, self-contained group of houses, built for a modest number of like-minded clients - including the architect himself (always a source of added interest) - and designed, like many Georgian terraces, to read both as a single composition (this is particularly true of the garden front) and as an ordered collection of individual units. A further dimension of its significance lies, accordingly, in the way it expresses neither a municipal approach to housing nor the idiosyncratic outlook of an individual architect or client, but rather a common vision of (partially) shared domesticity and the built forms best suited to accommodate it. Perhaps what is ultimately most memorable about these houses, and part of their special interest, is the way they evoke a particular ‘experiment in living’, a distinctive and attractive version of 1960s bohemia that went on to become a template for some of the best mass housing schemes of the period.

 

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