This interview was originally published in abbreviated form in German in Der Standard, October 16, 2017 when Neave Brown was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal. Neave Brown died after a long battle with cancer on January 9, 2018. He was 88.
He brought intelligence, detail, humanity and elegance to the design of housing estates. I will always remember visiting him at his home in his very own Dunboyne Road Estate last year.
The architect John Winter called the era of Sydney Cook, borough architect of Camden in the 60s and 70s, a „magical moment for British housing.” How did you become part of this magic?
I had just finished the five Winscombe Street houses. Didn’t have enough work. I wondered what the hell to do. A friend of mine was working for the new Camden office of Cook, two months after it was set up. The Camden people went up and saw Winscombe Street and liked it. So I got a job there. It was the best decision of my life. We had amazing support from Sydney Cook, who if necessary broke the rules. And huge support with planners and the housing people. Without that, we couldn’t have done it. It was a remarkable period.
Modern architecture has always had difficulties being accepted in traditionalist Britain. What motivated you to change this?
When I returned to England after the war, any attitude that accepted the notion of modernism was absolutely antipathetic to most aspects of British culture. In the inter-war period there were very few built examples of modernism in comparison to continental Europe, like Germany, Italy or the Netherlands. In peoples’ minds we would go on in a traditional British way forever. Young people like me didn’t want that at all.
You and your colleagues studied at the Architectural Association (AA) in the 1950’s.
The AA was the only totally modernist school of architecture in England. All the others taught classical. The AA abandoned it totally. We loved Alvar Aalto, and Corbusier was unavoidable. But he wanted to eliminate cities – apart from a few monumental buildings – and replace them with something new. We didn’t like that. We loved his buildings, but we loathed his city planning. Instead, we wanted to take on board the benefits of modern architecture and make them fit without compromise into triviality so to speak, and benefit the culture of our cities, and the culture of our people. That was our big idea.
You turned away from the concept of towers and slabs from the beginning.
And you can see it all in Alexandra Road! Instead of being the programme for the building as an item, the programme takes on board the notions of a new society and the freedoms going with it, and the technique and methods of building. And the interesting thing to one’s head was: doing it within the social housing programme. For us, it was not “class housing”. It was housing. And what’s more: Alexandra Road is a piece of city. We designed it up to the last detail and worked on it for years until the details were so good you didn’t notice them. When you really get it right, it looks as if it has simply happened. Have you walked around the park at Alexandra Road?
With landscaping, there is a certain freedom to be poetic. The park in the middle is the compensation to what has to be disciplined in housing. It is a poetically integrated set of episodes.
The park at Alexandra Road
The whole estate is arranged to form a precise curve, 350 metres long. Was it difficult to achieve this precision with the contractors?
No, they were very good. A bit Irish, a bit funny, and we got on very well. For example, we quickly set up a bicycle race down what was then still the existing road. From then on, we had a bicycle race down Alexandra road every year during the building process. With a big party, and all our wives and children. Builders, architects, engineers, all together. Sometimes cycling through the actual structure of the building.
Alexandra Road was later criticized for being too costly.
They said we couldn’t have done the architecture unless it we had extra funds. That is entirely wrong. We knew from the start that the design would be complicated. But we had a genius quantity surveyor, and worked out everything with an absolute clear discipline within the Parker Morris standards . The reason why it was terribly expensive was, the ground was soft, so we had to change the foundation. We had one of the biggest Victorian sewers in London running below the site. So we negotiated to cover it with concrete. It had to have a load of earth on top of it to maintain the brick shape of the old sewer. So they said, we will give you one weekend to do it. So we arranged it with all the builders for Friday to Sunday to complete that length of stripping the ground and covering it with concrete. We had everything lined up, and it poured with rain. And the district surveyor came along and said: we cannot allow you to cast the concrete. That night was the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in Highgate. The sewer ran at full blast and exploded and flooded the site. It then hit the worst period of inflation in the building industry, and people in local authority housing found their contractors simply couldn’t employ people at the new rate. So the cost of Alexandra Road was well organised to begin with and frustrated by events over which we, as architects, had no control. So the notion that we had extra money is incorrect. It makes me very angry.
After Alexandra Road was finished, there was a public inquiry led by Ken Livingstone who would later become Mayor of London in 2000.
In the late 70’s, the politics was changing, and the attitude was changing towards low density and resident participation. Doing things the way people want it. Well you can’t do 520 dwellings the way people want it. The new people in the council hated Alexandra Road and were in opposition to it while we built it. We had to fight with every ingenuity you could think of. Ken Livingstone, in order to protect the politicians, instigated a public inquiry to find out what had gone wrong. What in his mind had gone wrong was the architecture of it. And in the end the inquiry blamed Camden on the whole because it needed and required more labour and they wouldn’t give it to us. Camden never knew how to recover from that. I couldn’t. No reasonable client would give an architect a job who had been subject of an inquiry. So it finished me in England. It was literally traumatic, emotionally.
After Grenfell, London has its own housing trauma. Do you have any advice on how to deal with the housing crisis?
We have to start all over. And we have to avoid the one absolutely catastrophic major error in all we did. A fundamental error.
England’s housing programmes have a longer history than any other country in Europe. We started with regulations after the fire of 1666. We have a long record of controlled aspects of housing in cities. But none of the programmes we set up had a finance programme for the life of the building like other European countries have. We have to learn from them and we need a proper programme. Including a finance strategy.
Can this be done with private developers?
No, it can’t be done. They want to get away with bloody murder! They can’t do anything that has to do with the public sector. I’m afraid. It’s not socialism, it’s just the reality of how things work. Now we are talking about the “deserving poor” as opposed to those who are, as it were, themselves to blame for becoming destroyed people. Awful. We have segregated them into towers which they hate and everyone else hates. If they are unemployed, and their kids are unemployed, you’re not going to get a decent society. We in Camden built housing to integrate.
Dunboyne Road Estate (formerly Fleet Road)
(photos (C) Maik Novotny)
The interview was initially conducted as part of a research project for the Harvard GSD Richard Rogers Fellowship.