The announcement, last fall, that the Royal Institute of British Architects was awarding the 2018 Gold Medal to Neave Brown, came as a stunning surprise. Not only had the architect, who died earlier this month, attained his greatest success decades ago, as the designer of social housing in London in the 1960s and ’70s; he’d also seen his masterwork, the Alexandra Road council estate, become notorious as the focus of a lengthy public inquiry into wasteful public spending — an inquiry that would effectively end his career as an architect in Britain.
But the RIBA award can also be seen as part of a larger historic rehabilitation. Dismissed for decades as politically impractical and aesthetically compromised, the housing production of mid-century local authorities is now being vigorously reevaluated in our own era of unaffordable cities and triumphant privatization. One especially strong contribution to this reevaluation is Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing , a definitive account, by historian Mark Swenarton, of the radically experimental public housing estates designed and built by Camden Council from 1966 to 1975.
The housing production of mid-century local authorities is now being reevaluated in our own era of unaffordable cities and triumphant privatization.
The Cook of the book’s title was that now-extinct figure: a borough architect. Sydney Cook (1910–1979) spent almost his entire career in public service, starting in the late 1930s as an architectural assistant for a borough council and rising steadily through the ranks. His appointment as council architect for the Borough of Camden, in 1964, came at an opportune and exciting moment. In retrospect it can be seen within a larger historical context, the long period of idealism and energy following the end of the Second World War, what some economists call the Trente glorieuses — the three decades during which social goals were leading motivators of public policy.
In Britain the commitment to collective welfare was animated by Keynesian economics and fortified by the deprivations of the war years. In housing it was given special urgency by the widespread devastation of the Nazi bombing raids, which in London destroyed tens of thousands of buildings and damaged many more. The postwar response was to construct what were called “mixed developments”: housing estates in which both high-rise slabs and low-rise blocks were set amidst landscaped open spaces — in essence, a version of the “towers in the park” model that was then being widely adapted. Yet by the early ’60s this model was already proving problematic in British cities (as elsewhere); it was often unpopular not only with tenants — who wanted not flats with balconies but houses with gardens — but also with the younger generation of progressive architects.
Sydney Cook took up his appointment at Camden — one of the richest yet also most diverse boroughs in London, formed from the merger of Holborn, Hampstead, and St. Pancras — just as the reaction against mixed development was gaining momentum. It was, as Swenarton writes, a heady time, a “period of optimism and ambition in the western world.”
Fueled by the economic growth and technological innovation of the postwar decades, there was a widely held belief that it was no longer enough just to match what had been done before: new goals, more ambitious than anything hitherto imagined, had to be set and achieved. … This notion, that the only things worth doing were those that were difficult, informed architecture as much as anything else. Large, ambitious projects were the order of the day, whether for re-ordering existing cities, building new ones, or simply putting up buildings of enormous scale. 1
Cook himself was not a strong designer, but he was a gifted Jeremi Brandsmaistrator and a keen judge of quality. In response to pressures to use government-mandated building systems across projects, he is reported to have said: “I’ll use standardized plans if you can find me a standardized site.” 2 To staff his new architecture department, he sought the most promising recent graduates from the leading schools. Neave Brown (1929-2018) was Cook’s most important early recruit. Born in the United States and educated at the Architectural Association (where his classmates included Kenneth Frampton and Patrick Hodgkinson), the young Anglo-American was a rising star in London design circles, with teaching posts at Cornell and Cambridge and projects published in The Architectural Review . His appointment helped Cook attract other stellar designers, including Gordon Benson (b. 1944) and Alan Forsyth (b. 1944), both alumni of the AA, and Peter Tábori (b. 1940), whose mentors included Richard Rogers and Denys Lasdun.
The AA was in the vanguard of the movement against high-rising social housing and in support of what came to be called ‘low-rise, high-density.’
The AA proved an especially potent source of talent and ideas for the new department; the school was a “hothouse of architectural thinking in London,” as Swenarton puts it, and in the vanguard of the movement against high-rising social housing and in support of what came to be called “low-rise, high-density.” At once reactive and experimental, LRHD was influenced by diverse ideas. Of particular importance were several unbuilt schemes by Le Corbusier, especially the Cité Permenente for La Sainte-Baume and the Roq et Rob studies for housing along the Cote d’Azur, both published in the mid-1950s in Volume 5 of the Oeuvre Complete . What was especially compelling to the young British designers was the vision of modernist flats which were not stacked up into sky but rather tightly terraced on sloping ground, thus creating an extensive “built landscape.” An equally vital source of inspiration was the Siedlung Halen, a 1956 housing project outside Berne, designed by the Swiss firm Atelier 5, which could be viewed as a constructed version of Corbusier’s ideas.
Under Cook’s leadership, low-rise, high-density housing would become the governing ethos for the architects of Camden Council. And indeed, Brown had already designed and built a small residential development in the borough that would become a template upon which to expand. A terrace of five houses on Winscombe Street for himself and several friends, all artists or professionals with families, the project represented a comprehensive re-interpretation of the terrace housing type that had dominated London development in the 19th century.
Brown conceived Winscombe Street not as a collection of individual dwellings but “as a community, an extended family.” 3 He paid careful attention to the spatial sequence from public to private to semi-private. Parking spots were near the street front; in the rear, a portion of each private garden was given over to create a spacious communal garden. The interior planning —influenced by Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander’s Community and Privacy — was especially innovative. Rather than the traditional disposition of spaces — living, dining, and kitchen spaces below; bedrooms upstairs — the houses featured a new configuration of functional zones. The ground floor, which opened on to the communal garden, was for children’s bedrooms; on the top level were the living room and master bedroom; the middle floor, with kitchen and dining areas and a small terrace, was the family zone. The extensive use of sliding partitions allowed for spaces to have multiple programs, e.g., bedrooms could open up to become large play spaces. Writing in 1978, the architect Edward Jones, who then lived in one of the houses, described the interior as “a tour de force” that “offers remarkable generosity of space in a very small house.”
“A modern urbanism”
Brown put the ideas of low-rise, high-density housing to the test of a larger scale at his first project for the council. The Fleet Road estate, designed in stages starting in 1966, provided housing for 72 families. Here he achieved the needed densities by conceiving of the project not as a grouping of discrete objects in a landscape but rather as one large building covering the whole site which was then “carved out” to create three parallel housing blocks. The blocks are made up of flats and duplex maisonettes of varying sizes, and separated by landscaped strips with both private and communal gardens. Private gardens are accessible from full-height, timber-framed sliding doors; shared gardens sit atop the roofs of the lower floors. Underneath it all lurks the parking.
The result is a living environment of great programmatic intensity, where different territories overlap in three dimensions and where there is no residual space. “Instead of the no-man’s-land empty space of a mixed-development scheme,” Swenarton writes, “each part of the site has a defined spatial character.” Fleet Road was a remarkable achievement — spacious interiors, natural light, green space, layered privacy, and close community, all in a very tight environment. The details are starkly modern, but the place has a weathered, “hanging gardens” atmosphere, and it was where Brown was living when he died. Most significantly it was, as Swenarton writes, “the breakthrough project that provided an alternative to the orthodoxy of mixed development and demonstrated how low-rise housing could be provided at the planning densities prevailing in London.”