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We all dream of an army of Neave Browns

Will Hurst
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The people need to know about the people’s architect, writes Will Hurst

Neave Brown, who has won the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, is a fitting choice for the honour. Quite apart from being the only architect with every UK scheme listed, Brown – at the age of 88 – is a role model for our times as a champion of high-quality social housing and community engagement.

In our interview, Brown comes across as a man of humanity and generosity who says what he thinks and won’t compromise on what he believes important – such as shared community space and a front door and external private space for every home. 

Aj neave neave land hellman recrop

Aj neave neave land hellman recrop

He has lived on two of the estates he designed for decades, on hand to patiently answer residents’ queries and to soak up the praise and the odd criticism. How many architects can say that? How much better would the fortunes of architects and social housing dwellers be if that were the norm, rather than the exception?

In one of the many citations provided to the Institute by members of the public in support of the honour, Elizabeth Knowles, a resident of his Alexandra Road estate, recounts a poignant conversation she had with Brown recently about the nearby Grenfell Tower tragedy and his refusal ever to build high-rise tower blocks.

Brown was consistently saying the right thing but his voice was drowned out in a rush for more bombastic and often cheaper and lower-quality design fixes

‘All of our flats have good exits,’ Knowles wrote. ‘What is more, the few fires that have occurred have been pretty much contained within the individual flat. When this summer I chatted to Neave about this, he murmured, quietly: “Yes, we did think of that.” ’

Brown was consistently saying the right thing but his voice in the post-war years appears to have been drowned out in a rush for more bombastic and often cheaper and lower-quality design fixes. The RIBA and its new president Ben Derbyshire are to be congratulated for attempting to redress that with the award of the Gold Medal at this most relevant time. Derbyshire, who chaired the selection committee, wrote: ‘The UK must now look back at Neave Brown’s housing ideals and his innovative architecture as we strive to solve the great housing crisis.’

The question is whether anyone outside of architecture is actually listening. Despite the medal’s sprinkle of royal stardust, at the time of writing the Financial Times was the only national newspaper to have mentioned Brown’s medal five days’ on from its announcement.

Within government, the Department for Communities and Local Government supposedly now oversees architecture as well as housing but no mention of Brown’s honour has been made by housing minister Alok Sharma, nor by his boss Sajid Javid. Not even a ‘like’ or a retweet from their busy Twitter accounts.

If we want the government and the public at large to wake up to the crucial role architects can play, then we need an army of Neave Browns, rather than just the one.

This article first appeared in the Offsite construction issue – click here to buy a copy

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Readers' comments (1)

  • For an upwardly mobile politician there's more kudos in spreading the dosh by building cheap (and maybe even nasty) than in having to defend what opportunistic snipers can describe as an inflated budget, and the politician will likely have moved on well before any chickens come home to roost - ask Michael Gove.

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