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Neave Brown: the way to fix social housing

Accepting the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture on 2 October 2017, two months before he died, Neave Brown considered the past, and the future, of public housing

Neave Brown with his Royal Gold Medal.
Neave Brown with his Royal Gold Medal. Credit: Morley von Sternberg

This is quite overwhelming for me and, in a curious way, totally unexpected.

Because I did my work as an architect and it seems to have been noticed, one way or another, and then I finished the building in Eindhoven. After all the incredible political vicissitudes that followed the work all the way through, including massive opposition as well as support, and the politics that took it down and finished me in England at the end of Alexandra Road: all of that took place, and I finished finally, after having done my work here, by doing work abroad.

And the last building I did was with Jo Coenen in Eindhoven, the buildings you see in the photographs up there. And I finished it. And we had a magnificent party, and people like Ted Cullinan and others came to the party and we closed the party down and we flew back to London – and I gave up architecture.

I went then, in my 70s, to art school. And I did a first-year foundation course with the young, and then I did a three-year degree course, and I have been a painter and an etcher and a drawer and a life drawer and one thing and another, ever since.

But the curious thing I want to make as a point now is that, without it being a repudiation, I literally stopped being an architect completely. I gave it, so to speak, up. I no longer renewed my architecture magazines. I talked to my friends but we didn’t talk about architecture. And I did that curious thing of an old man, going back to the young man and what he wanted to do when he was 18: I became an artist.

And the funny thing about that to me was that I gave up the interest, as a day to day matter, in architecture. I didn’t know the young architects, I didn’t know what was happening.

And I felt that my buildings and the other work that was done at the same time was, so to speak, becoming that kind of curious thing of the past that you look at, that no longer was relevant to the future – in the way that we often look at history, and we then look at precedent, and we say that precedent is linear, and we dispose of items of the past. And in a curious way, because I never followed what was going on, I thought that neglect and distance was taking place about my work. And because of the politics of the world, because of the way things happen, because of the changes of people, because of Margaret Thatcher finally and all that lot, I thought that it had become a curiosity of the past that people looked at a bit but more or less forgot about.

So, I was literally dumbfounded when I heard that I was up to be the Gold Medallist. It came as an absolute surprise and – ask my wife – I’m still trembling with amazement and absolutely trembling at an event like this. So that was something that was very curious to me.

We were young people trying to resolve the values that we thought were important in modernism and at the same time respecting the culture and history and the life and the vitality of the present

The politics changed. We did that work under Parker Morris [Sir Parker Morris chaired the committee that produced the influential Ministry of Housing and Local Government report on housing standards, Homes for Today & Tomorrow (1961), generally known as the Parker Morris Report]. We did that work under the HCY1 [Under the Housing Cost Yardstick first issued in 1963, HCY1 was the form that had to be completed for every local housing scheme in order to obtain finance from central government]. And we did it with the fact that in that stage, following the precedents before, we could negotiate and talk.

And bear in mind that we were students immediately after the war and almost nothing at that stage had been built. London still had bomb sites. We still didn’t have the Clean Air Act. There was still rationing. Then later when we started work on what we were doing – how shall I say it? – we were young people trying to resolve the values that we thought were important in modernism and at the same time respecting the culture and history and the life and the vitality of the present.

But that sounds pretentious now. When we were doing it, it was just us young people struggling with a growing realisation of the reality of a certain kind of problem. And we did it, not as I say in huge pretension, though we had enormous opportunities and a whole group of people – we did it as what happened to be the correct thing to do.

Alexandra Road Estate, Camden, London in 1979.
Alexandra Road Estate, Camden, London in 1979. Credit: Martin Charles/RIBA Collections

And then, when it all went off, when Margaret Thatcher completely stopped public housing, when she said there was no such thing as society, then I became an artist and in a curious way, I put it all away.

So that that is astounding to me now.

But what I want to say about that is, we were working then to the HCY1, to Parker Morris, to the new standards that we had then. And we took them on board, not to do social housing, but to do housing.

Not to do a site, but to work on the idea of a piece of city; not to let other people occupy a bit but to revitalise and work with the society that was there.

That was the concept. But I would sound again pretentious. It was modestly felt as simply the thing that we had to do.

Now, after the [Grenfell] fire, after the terrible events that took place, we are faced with the problem of dealing with the alternatives that came along when we were there: high-rise building; industrial building; prefabrication; heavy industrialisation; standardisation; collectivisation of the boroughs; preferred dimensions – all that business that came with the high-rise buildings, which were, despite the work that was done before, then becoming irresistible.

And we knew, and we were right, that they were a catastrophe and that something terrible overall would happen. And indeed that terrible thing did happen.

And that is an absolute tragedy for all the people that lived there and we have now the notion of the inquiry and all the interest that takes place. And of course, everything should be done for those people.

However, in a curious way we are not clear enough, or thinking enough, about what the plan should be.

I’ve read bits and pieces, I’ve done certain things. I never know if the things I read are accurate. I read the other day that there are 247 point blocks about the British Isles that needed attention. That may or may not have been right but we do know the problem is vast.

So we have the immediate problem of Brexit and the long term problem of finance, standards, everything. And somehow or other, in some strange way, that problem doesn’t yet seem to have been given public voice, and public thought and public attention. And it is the vital problem that needs to be done.

Now, I have a curious idea. And it is probably wrong as it comes from somebody of my age. We were working on the Homes for Today and Tomorrow, on Parker Morris, when it was literally stopped by Margaret Thatcher. For the most part that work was directly done by local authorities. The work that will need to be done now, I don’t think is done by local authorities. I think it should largely be done by housing associations, by housing societies backed by housing associations.

And I have a feeling we ought to set up a new body – a body which looks at all the standards, at all the ideas and the flexibility that is needed beyond the way we have regimes today. Set up a new authority that looks at what we should do and how we should do it.

And that body should then work with every local authority in England to set up a new set of ideas, done, I think myself, largely by housing associations. Because the housing we are doing is not for one class, it is for the whole community.

And then on the other side of it, if we look at the history of English housing – take it back to after the Fire of London, to the four classes of housing that were built then, to the housing that was built for the underprivileged poor at the end of the 19th century, to the housing that was done by the LCC, to by-law housing, and the housing that was built after the First World War. If we look at all of that housing we see a history of various kinds of intervention and various kinds of standards. And then we look at the housing that happened after the Second World War: better homes to begin with and then Homes for Today and Tomorrow and the HCY1. We see all of these standards changing.

What we ought to do from the start is what I have experienced abroad: we set up a programme with housing societies that is for the life of the building

However in all that long history, we never set the finance up right. Because, we paid for the buildings and then the maintenance is done by the councils themselves, needing to have political support. Margaret Thatcher reduced the political support and made it impossible. Local authorities cannot look after their buildings and so not only do they deteriorate, they become an expense to society and a problem for the people who live there.

Therefore, what we ought to do from the start is what I have experienced abroad, working in The Netherlands, working in Germany and knowing about Scandinavia: we set up a programme with housing societies that is for the life of the building. That involves expense for tenants, for tenant management, maintenance, certain kinds of events – all the life of the building.

However the curious thing is, as I understand it, and having worked abroad, that the finance, though it is expensive to begin with, immediately improves, because the buildings improve. And it immediately improves because of inflation. And the problem is then solved because all those buildings that are public buildings done with public finance, as a plan by the housing societies, become the basis of an equity for the next stage of public housing.

And that needs a body of authority, and thought.

Now, I probably have it wrong. But the basis of the idea is that we have to set up a system that is flexible, has standards – standards that can change, standards that can be adjusted to each particular site – even when we are now rebuilding some of our tower blocks. That is the notion I have, possibly, of a way ahead.

So, that’s enough I think. Except for me to say it’s absolutely staggering and unbelievable for me to be here. To say thank you to all the people who I worked with, who were supportive and creative. And thank you to the RIBA for the Gold Medal. Thank you.

Neave Brown died on 9 January 2018.

This transcript of his Royal Gold Medal address was edited by Mark Swenarton.