Elain Harwood recalls the life and work of the acclaimed housing architect who died this month, aged 88, less than four months after receiving the RIBA Gold Medal
Neave Brown designed some of Britain’s most imaginative post-war public housing. He rejected the idea of high-rise flats, instead designing ground-hugging, high-density schemes that maximised natural light and gave each unit private outdoor space. Above all, he made no distinction between public and private commissions – a scheme for himself and friends at Winscombe Street, Highgate, established an ethos that he then expanded into two major housing schemes for the London Borough of Camden: Fleet Road and Alexandra Road.
Brown was born in 1929 in Utica, New York, where his British father was a businessman and his American mother a publisher. After a childhood divided between the two countries, in 1945 he attended Marlborough College, Wiltshire, where old boy Bill Howell encouraged his interest in architecture and suggested that he study at the Architectural Association after National Service.
At the AA he joined an exceptional cohort that included Patrick Hodgkinson, Kenneth Frampton and John Miller, who in a hothouse environment all studied alternatives to high-rise housing that they went on to develop as real schemes in later life, working individually but sharing common ideas.
Brown’s first housing was for himself and four other families on a tiny wedge of land at the end of Winscombe Street
A highlight in their first year was organising a student lunch with Le Corbusier, then fresh from building the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles. For Hodgkinson, the research culminated in central London’s Brunswick Centre, while Brown’s response was a more complex study of the way families lived.
On graduation, Brown joined Lyons Israel Ellis, where creative colleagues included Miller and Alan Colquhoun. He designed schools briefly for Middlesex County Council before briefly forming a small practice supported by teaching at the AA.
Winscombe street riba
Source: Martin Charles/RIBA Collections
His first housing was for himself and four other families after the engineer Tony Hunt found a tiny wedge of land at the end of Winscombe Street. After long discussions with each household, Brown designed five identical houses, each with ground-floor children’s rooms opening into a partly shared garden and a living room and master bedroom at the top where there was most light. They had to meet Camden’s council housing standards to secure a mortgage – useful when, short of work, Brown applied to join the new authority’s architect’s department, which was being established by Sidney Cook. Other architects followed because Brown was there and ‘Cook’s Camden’ became a byword for fine housing, as recognised in Mark Swenarton’s recent book of that name.
Alexandra Road’s curved terrace has the grandeur and simplicity of its Georgian forebears
Brown developed his ideas with 72 flats and maisonettes in five terraces on a slightly sloping site at Fleet Road (now called Dunboyne Road). Careful planning behind a broad frontage makes each dwelling feel generously sized, each with its own front door off a pedestrian street. Basement parking and an upper pedestrian walkway intended to link to other housing in the area helped to maximise use of the site. Brown explored the complexities of his approach and the importance of clear pedestrian routes in ‘The Form of Housing’, published in Architectural Design in 1967 as the project awaited construction, delayed by problems with Camden’s Direct Labour Organisation.
Meanwhile, Brown designed a far larger scheme, for 522 dwellings on Alexandra Road, where the Eyre Estate had proposed replacing run-down Victorian villas with a tower block. Brown’s curved terrace has the grandeur and simplicity of its Georgian forebears – flats on one side screen the railway line into Euston while the other has more of the maisonettes found at Fleet Road, and a terrace of houses like Winscombe Street are placed next to a public park.
Alexandra road estate under construction, camden, london bw
This formal structure survived the addition into the scheme of many other elements: Brown himself designed a school and community centre with shared kitchens, while other architects who similarly combined practice and teaching, including Eldred Evans and David Shalev (who also recently died), designed more specialised accommodation.
An underground spring and soaring inflation in the 1970s led to Alexandra Road being built late and over-budget. A complex inquiry eventually vindicated Brown, but he could get no more work in Britain. He turned to exhibition design and work abroad, in Italy at Bergamo and in The Netherlands at The Hague and Eindhoven, where his Medina scheme, completed in 2002, comprises an eight-storey block that provides shelter from traffic noise for the lower units behind.
Brown cared passionately for his buildings, eventually moving from Winscombe Street into Fleet Road and campaigning for Alexandra Road to be listed in 1993, when it became England’s first post-war listed housing.
He was finally honoured by the award of the RIBA Gold Medal last September and a standing ovation at a sell-out Architecture Foundation-organised interview at the Hackney Empire in October.
Brown leaves behind his wife, Janet Richardson; children Victoria, Aaron and Zoe; and grandchildren Tabitha, Reuben, Elian, Pierre, Isabelle and Sylvie.
Elain Harwood is an architectural historian at Historic England
Dunboyne estate riba
Source: Martin Charles / RIBA Collections.