Rarely has the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture been awarded in an atmosphere of such genuine warmth and friendship. There had been a feeling that Neave Brown, architect of a series of exemplary low-rise, high-density housing projects from the 1960s onwards, had missed out, having withdrawn from practice after the completion of his last project, in Eindhoven in 2003, to go back to art school. The complexion of the medal jury in recent years, moreover, may not have favoured him. Now, however, with RIBA president Ben Derbyshire choosing a sympathetic jury, and in the context of a broad consensus that housing is the key issue of our time, and perhaps even the fashionable nostalgia for concrete, much to Brown’s “absolute surprise”, his time had come.
Dunboyne Estate, Fleet Road (1969-75)
Greeted to lengthy applause by an invited audience at RIBA’s Florence Hall, Brown spoke passionately of a time when architects pursued a mission to make a better world, because it was “the correct thing to do”– “not social housing but housing, not the site but a piece of the city, modest and unpretentious”. He was undoubtedly pleased that others across generations who shared such values – from Adrian Gale and Peter Ahrends to John and Su Miller, Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones and Tony Fretton – were in attendance, as were Ken Frampton, Bob Maxwell and Joseph Rykwert, architect-critics who have brought rigour to the debates.
Never one to look back, however, Brown outlined an approach for dealing with the UK’s present housing crisis, post-Grenfell, in which a new national housing authority would work with housing associations to develop standards and ideas in a framework that encourages innovation and flexibility. Drawing on his experience abroad, he stressed the need to “get the finances right” from the outset by ensuring buildings are funded for their lifetimes and avoid the maintenance issues that have dogged much social housing.
After Derbyshire stressed the relevance of Brown’s work to today’s debates, citations followed from Mark Swenarton, author of a new book on Camden’s housing, and Peter Barber, who eloquently framed the significance and “inspiring legacy” of Brown’s achievement. None were more compelling however than the praise from Elizabeth Knowles of the Alexandra Road Residents’ Association, who has lived in the building since its construction.
Ted Cullinan (RGM 2008) entertainingly described the “four camps” to which young architects of his generation tended to gravitate – Mies (the Smithsons et al), Wright (“a small group”, including Cullinan himself, we might assume), Aalto (a “Cambridge” phenomena), and Corbusier. Brown was undoubtedly in the latter camp, but soon grew to be “uniquely Neave Brown” with the design of the Winscombe Street terrace of five homes for himself and friends (“lower Highgate, more than Camden Town”, he quipped). In closing a memorable evening, Derbyshire announced that Neave Brown has offered his entire archive to the RIBA, and it is to be hoped that it can be employed in the near future to stimulate a necessary and lively debate.