Social housing plea of RIBA gold medal winner
George Gilbert Scott, Frank Lloyd Wright... Neave Brown - council estate designer wins prestigious architecture award
06 October, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
Neave Brown [PIC: Garath Gardner]
AN architect who transformed Camden by building council homes that became modern masterpieces has been given one of the profession’s highest accolades.
Neave Brown, who designed the Alexandra Road estate in Swiss Cottage, was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) Gold Medal last week, a prize won by only a select group of designers that includes Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Frank Lloyd Wright and George Gilbert Scott. Mr Brown holds the distinction of every building he designed being awarded listed status and much of his work came to life while he was employed as an in-house architect by Camden Council in the 1970s – a role which no longer exists in local authorities.
The 88-year-old, who lives in the Dunboyne Road estate in Highgate – one of his own designs – said the importance of good housing is no longer appreciated. “We have to ask what our priorities are as a nation,” he told the New Journal. “We have to ask if it is building a new generation of nuclear missiles we can never use, or battleships, or a good standard of new housing for the people of Britain. It is about what we consider to be our priorities.”
He said that a new national body needs to be set up to co-ordinate the building of new, genuinely affordable homes, similar to the way things are run in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, and that social housing should not be seen simply as a last refuge stop-gap for the very poorest.
“What we have seen happen to housing in our cities is a disaster,” said Mr Brown. “Affordable housing is a complete delusion – it is utter balderdash. People seem to be seduced by the term because they do not understand what it means.” He added that the Grenfell Tower tragedy showed the scale of the crisis. “There are thousands of buildings that need to be dealt with,” he said. “They are dangerous, they are unsatisfactory, they destroy communities. And they need to find a way to deal with this that does not become paralysed.”
The Alexandra Road estate, pictured during its construction, was designed by architect Neave Brown
Mr Brown’s work ranges from a small terrace of five homes in Winscombe Street, Highgate Newtown, built in 1965, to the complex in Swiss Cottage, also known as the Rowley Way Estate, which took more than 10 years to design and build. Its appealing split-level design has proved attractive to several film-makers who have shot scenes there, with the estate appearing in Breaking And Entering, starring Jude Law, and the first Kingsman movie, with Colin Firth. Mr Brown trained at the Architects Association in the post-war period, a time which is now seen as a golden period of housing. “We never thought of our housing schemes as social housing – we thought if it as urban housing,” he said.
RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said his ground-breaking schemes in Camden should be seen as a guide for London. “The UK must now look back at Neave’s housing ideals and his innovative architecture as we strive to solve the great housing crisis,” said Mr Derbyshire. “The government must empower and then encourage every single council across the country to build a new generation of well-designed, affordable and sustainable homes that meet the needs of the millions of people currently failed by the housing market. He added: “We need to build 300,000 new homes per year for the foreseeable future to tackle this crisis: a radical programme of mass council homes, inspired by Neave Brown’s work, must be part of the solution.”