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Obituary: Neave Brown (C1 1945-48)

Neave Brown (C1 1945-48), who has died aged 88, was the architect of what is widely considered the finest housing built in Britain in the last 50 years. In the 1960s, through a series of housing projects in Camden, north London, of increasing scale – first five houses (Winscombe Street), then 72 (Fleet Road), then 522 (Alexandra Road) – he demonstrated a street-based alternative to high-rise housing that was immediately acclaimed both in Britain and abroad. But then in the 1970s and 80s, when the reaction against the welfare state set in, he was left high and dry, and it was solely in mainland Europe that he was to build further projects. Only in his final years, and especially in the last six months of his life, was his work recognised with the award of the Royal Institute of British Architects royal gold medal in September 2017 and a series of public appearances to sell-out audiences, culminating in a “for one night only” performance at the Hackney Empire, at which he received a 10-minute standing ovation.

What distinguished Brown as an architect of housing was that the technical ingenuity of his planning was matched by his passionate empathy for the people who would be living in the homes he designed. His flat and house plans were a masterpiece of compression, with not an inch of space wasted – allowing him to create in Britain, within the space and cost constraints of local authority housing, interiors that felt remarkably open and spacious. But these plans he saw not as an end in themselves but as the setting which the various residents would take and use as they wished. This humanistic quality was fundamental to his approach.

I got to know Brown over the past decade in the course of researching my book Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing (2017). He had a leading role during the time that Sydney Cook was the borough’s chief architect.

Neave was born in Utica, New York, into a wealthy Anglo-American family – his British father, Percy, was a businessman and his American mother, Beatrice, worked in publishing. He was educated in the US (at Bronxville high school, New York, 1939-45) and the UK (Marlborough college, 1945-48) and won a place at Oxford University to read English; but while doing his military service he decided to switch to architecture and applied to the Architectural Association, where he studied from 1950 until 1956.

After graduating, he worked for three years at Lyons Israel Ellis – the pre-eminent training ground at the time in London for high-flying young architects – and then for a short time for Middlesex county council, before setting up his own practice, which he combined with teaching in the UK (at the AA and Cambridge University) and the US (Cornell University).

At this point he designed his first built scheme, a group of five houses in north London for a co-op that he and four of his friends set up for the purpose. Completed in 1966, the Winscombe Street houses followed the latest ideas coming from the US about zoning, with an adults’ zone on the top floor, a children’s zone on the bottom floor (spilling out into the garden) and an intermediate zone containing kitchen, dining and entrance on the middle floor. To secure a council loan for the co-op, the houses had to meet local authority requirements; but the efficiency of Brown’s planning meant that he was able to deliver four bedrooms and two bathrooms within the space and cost limits that had been prescribed for a three-bedroom, one-bathroom unit.

On the basis of the Winscombe Street project, Brown was hired by Cook. Camden was one of the richest of the newly formed London boroughs and its ambition was in line with its resources: namely, to be the flagship borough. For Cook, charged with delivering up to 1,000 dwellings a year, this meant bringing in the best young talent that the London architectural world had to offer. Appointed in 1965, Brown was the key figure in this process, his reputation and charisma soon afterwards helping to attract other bright young stars such as Peter Tábori, Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth.

At this time, in the mid-1960s, the housing being built by local authorities often included tower blocks, the defects of which for family homes were already becoming apparent. At his first scheme for Camden, Fleet Road (now Dunboyne Road), designed in 1966-67, Brown showed that there was no need to build high in order to achieve the prescribed densities. Instead of a high building surrounded by empty space, a low “carpet” of buildings filled the site. Every dwelling had a front door opening on to the street as well as its own open-to-the-sky private external space – often, as at Winscombe Street, comprising a balcony (adult zone) overlooking a courtyard (children’s zone) – as well as a communal garden beyond.

Brown’s follow-on scheme for Camden, Alexandra Road, near Swiss Cottage, designed in 1967-69, was on a far larger scale, including not just housing but also a public park, school, shops, light industry, play centre, youth club and community centre, as well as integration with an existing London county council estate. In designing this “piece of city”, Brown aimed to create a modern version of London’s traditional urbanism, based on a vocabulary of streets and squares. As in Bloomsbury or Pimlico, the dwellings were in rows entered directly from the street and every dwelling had its own open-to-the-sky external space; and as with a Georgian square, the 1.8-hectare (four-acre) park at the centre of the scheme constituted “the picture in the frame”, the landscape offset by the hard edge of the terraced housing.

Constructing such an ambitious project in the 1970s, when annual inflation at one point reached 25%, stretched the management capabilities of a local authority to the full, and by the time the project was finished in 1979 it was way over budget and schedule. Sensing a PR disaster, in 1978 the councillors had set up a public inquiry that they hoped would lay the blame on the architect; but when the inquiry, commissioned by Camden from the National Building Agency, was finally completed two years later, the finger was pointed not at the architect but at the councillors. As a result the report was quickly buried, but the fact that Brown had been the subject of a public inquiry, and that it had lasted so long, did irreparable damage to his reputation as a practising architect, and when he left Camden he found there was no work for him in the UK.

Instead he designed exhibitions (including two at the Hayward Gallery for the Arts Council – Le Corbusier in 1987 and Thirties British Art and Design in 1978) and found work abroad, teaching in Germany (as professor at Karlsruhe University) and designing projects in Italy (Bergamo) and, particularly, the Netherlands (at The Hague and Eindhoven). Of these the Eindhoven project, the Medina, completed in 2002, was his final project and also, to many, his final masterwork. After it was finished, he had a change of direction and did what he had planned to do as a schoolboy – study for a fine art degree (at the City & Guilds of London Art School) and work as an artist.

In person Brown was always polite and courteous, with the apparel and demeanour of an artist; but it took only a few minutes of conversation for the penetrative power of his intellect to become apparent. He was in a now rather old-fashioned sense a “public intellectual”, with a voracious appetite for the latest writing on every subject, but especially politics and history. As his public performances demonstrated, both the charisma of his personality and the lucidity of his thinking remained undimmed to the last.

He is survived by his wife, Janet Richardson; children, Victoria, Aaron and Zoe; and grandchildren, Tabitha, Reuben, Elian, Pierre, Isabelle and Sylvie.

With thanks to The Guardian who gave permission to reprint. The original can be seen on The Guardian website.