Neave Brown: architect who transformed Camden dies aged 88
Tributes to a "towering figure" who paired ingenuity with empathy
10 January, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
Brown: architectural “giant” and defender of social housing
NEAVE Brown, the celebrated architect who saw every social housing project he designed be given listed building status, has died aged 88.
Mr Brown, who lived on Gospel Oak’s Dunboyne Road estate which he himself had designed in the 1960s, was awarded the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal last year in recognition for his ground-breaking work that changed the face of public housing in London and beyond.
The award meant he was in the same company as some of the architecture world’s most famous names, past and present, including Sir George Gilbert Scott, Frank Lloyd Wright and Norman Foster.
His Modernist style was celebrated for providing sought-after homes – that also inspired others.
RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said: “The architecture community has lost a giant. Neave showed us how intellectual rigour, sensitive urbanism, his supreme design skill and determination could deliver well-being to the community he served so well.
“His ideas, for low-rise, high-density housing with private outside space for all residents, still stand as a radical antidote to much of the unthinking, not to say degrading, housing product of the era.”
Mr Brown’s early life was split between America and Britain. Born in New York, he came to the UK as a child and was educated at Marlborough. He went on to train at the Architectural Association and after qualifying worked for the practice Lyons, Israel and Ellis, where he designed schools. From there, Neave moved to Middlesex County Council, where he designed schools. He then set up his own practice and built a row of five homes in Winscombe Street, Highgate Newtown, before joining Camden Council’s architects department in 1965.
He then designed housing in Gospel Oak before embarking on his best known project – the Alexandra and Ainsworth estate in Swiss Cottage. It would become the first post-war public housing project in the UK to win listed status.
Later in life, Mr Brown returned to his first love – painting – as well as designing exhibitions for the Hayward Gallery and the Arts Council.
Mr Brown was a passionate defender of social housing. Last year, speaking to the New Journal, he called for a new, nationwide body tasked with building genuinely affordable, publicly owned homes for all.
He added: “We have to ask what our priorities are as a nation. We have to ask if it is building a new generation of nuclear missiles we can never use, or a good standard of new housing for the people of Britain.”
Others praising Mr Brown’s work included former Holborn and St Pancras Labour MP Frank Dobson, who was leader of the council for a time while Mr Brown worked at the Town Hall.
He said: “He was one of a group of people who in Camden demonstrated it was possible to build high-density, low-rise flats that people loved. He was a very talented person, working with a group appointed by borough architect Sidney Cook, who had the view that nothing was too good for the people who they were designing homes for.”
And while the Alexandra and Ainsworth estate was controversial at the time, with worries over costs, Mr Dobson said the quality of Mr Brown’s work was never an issue.
He added: “There are always cost over-runs in large projects but the fact is Camden and their tenants ended up living in a flat they liked, in a building they liked. Neave made a massive contribution to Camden.”
Liverpool University’s Professor of Architecture and historian Mark Swenarton, who wrote the book Cook’s Camden about social housing and architecture last year, added that Mr Brown’s work was pioneering.
He said: “Neave Brown was a towering figure in British architecture in the 20th century and probably the best housing designer in Britain in the past 100 years.
“The technical ingenuity of his planning was matched only by the passion and empathy for the people who would be living in the homes he designed.”
And those who live in his homes told the New Journal of the ongoing legacy his work brings.
Elizabeth Knowles, who has lived on the Alexandra and Ainsworth estate since it was completed, said: “Neave had a vision and never shied away from standing up for people and for telling the truth.”
Fellow tenant Andrea Butcher added: “I have lived here for 25 years. He would take architecture students on tours and ask tenants to join him so they could hear from people who live here.
“He was a great support to the residents. If we had issues with the council, he would help us.”