Neave Brown: The Neighbourhood Architect

If the sign of a good architect is really caring about the people who will live in the buildings you design, Neave Brown was one of the best. Equal parts empathy, aesthetic balance and technical ingenuity, Brown’s approach to designing public housing was ambitious: the creation of beautiful, practical homes and neighbourhoods for ordinary Londoners.

Born in Utica, New York to Anglo-American parents, Brown studied at London’s prestigious Architectural Association in the early 1950s before becoming an architect for the London Borough of Camden. Working under visionary lead architect Sydney Cook, Brown was part of a maverick group of young designers whose work is now widely regarded as the most important urban housing built in the UK in the past 100 years. Consider the backdrop of their time: still responding to the post-war housing crisis, London was a city scrambling to meet the needs of its growing population. The result? An influx of high-rise council flats and high density estates that were hurriedly built with impossibly low budgets and little consideration for the people who would have to live in them. Even now, the enduring stigma attached to council estates is hard to shake.

Aiming to improve the housing situation in their prominent corner of North London, Brown and his colleagues wanted to do things entirely differently. They rallied against the building of poor quality tower blocks by designing low density, well-designed housing estates that would in turn help to establish proud, socially cohesive communities. Undoubtedly, the finest example of Brown’s vision is his celebrated Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate. Said to be inspired by Bath’s famous Royal Crescent, the estate (commonly known as Rowley Way) is a brutalist amphitheatre; a grand arc of concrete as imposing as it is thoughtful. Addressing the innate human need for room to breathe, Brown composed a warren of community spaces and homes in which each dwelling has a front door to the street and its own open space with a view of the sky. As he said himself, the aim was to “build low, to fill the site, to geometrically define open space, to integrate". Inside, not an inch of room is wasted. Despite the various constraints, Brown employed modernist design principles to create interiors that feel remarkably generous. Now Grade II listed — the largest listed building in England — Rowley Way is a rare gem of London’s architecture: a local authority build that is as loved by its residents as the design establishment.

At the time however, the project was beset by conflict and criticism. Opposition from local residents, construction issues and a huge budget overspend. Partly blamed on the ambition of the estate’s design, Brown found himself ostracised and unable to find work — he would never design another building in the UK. After a handful of projects in the Netherlands and studying for a degree in Fine Art aged 73, he spent the last years of his life living on the Dunboyne Road Estate, his own design. In 2015 he told The Guardian that he would “choose to live nowhere else”, testament to Brown’s commitment to his ideals.

Natalya Frederick