Neave Brown is an award-winning architect who developed social housing estates renowned within the architecture world. His buildings passionately wove people’s needs and quality of space to develop a vision for the future. Brown received the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects, recognising his outstanding work within social housing which were designed in contrast to the established beliefs about housing provided by the authority. While his housing designs are vital, his ideology and philosophy which shaped his thinking are just as important. Brown had a firm belief that social housing is simply housing. The prejudice and beliefs we continue to have, shape our designs.

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Neave Brown   

Neave Brown was an American-born British architect who designed social housing estates in the UK as well as abroad. His most notable work is the Alexandra Road Estate which portrayed Brown’s belief that every home should have a private entrance as well as a private external space. Although the design has been recognised in recent years as a precedent for good social housing, Brown left architecture due to continuous conflict surrounding the Alexandra Road Estate being over budget and issues with deadlines. His reputation was damaged by a public enquiry although it was ineffective in pinning the blame on him. He went on to study fine art in his later years. 

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Neave Brown, a pioneer in social housing. _© Garath Gardner

Brown’s Ideology 

From an early stage in his career, Brown wanted to develop solutions to problems present within modernism, an architectural movement that welcomed minimalism and stressed on the importance of function within architecture. From this, ideas of how design should be communicated came about. Part of his ideology was that form should not be the sole factor when trying to integrate design into a community but rather it should uphold the culture, the activities on the street and the lifestyle as well as the families of the people who live there. 

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Architects, especially during modernism, dictated how people should live but Brown was of the belief that understanding how people lived and identifying the expectations residence already had was vital when designing housing. It was when Brown met like-minded people who wanted to apply modernism within this solution-based approach, that the designs could be developed. When talking about this time he said, “we were young people, trying to resolve the values that we thought were important in modernism”. (Neave Brown- Building a legacy, 2018) It was by respecting the culture and what he called “life and vitality of the present” that made his designs stand out. (Neave Brown- Building a legacy, 2018)

Brown’s Philosophy 

When thinking about his philosophy for social housing, it was simply to develop housing. Differentiation was not vital as everyone deserved good living in an environment that is enjoyable. When working on a project it was important to establish designs that reached much further than the allocated site and understand how this would benefit the city. Moreover, Brown was keen on designs influenced by the community, an idea that has now become the standard for architects. In his words, it was to “revitalise and work with the society that was there”. (Neave Brown- Building a legacy, 2018)

During his acceptance speech for the Royal Gold Medal, Brown made it evident that political issues influence our designs, and that politics will influence whether designs will uphold the test of time. Division is not acceptable, addressing particularly British architects he said that “housing is not for one class, it is for the whole community”. (Neave Brown receives the 2018 Royal Gold Medal, 2017) Additionally, he noted that finance is an important issue that needs to be considered seriously, the question is not how to finance a building but how to finance its lifespan. If the political and thus the financial support is not provided the building becomes an “expense to society and a problem to the people who live there”. (Neave Brown receives the 2018 Royal Gold Medal, 2017)

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A perspective section of Brown’s Zwolsestraat in Scheveningen following the same concept of the Alexandra Road Estate. _© Neave Brown

Brown’s Work    

The Dunboyne Road Estate had a focus on plants and light, making for a healthier living space for the occupants. Although each apartment is small in size, the quality of the spaces was carefully considered. Brown developed housing which went against the public’s original definition of social housing. The spaces are flexible, and the residents enjoy the control they have over their environment. A similar idea of quality housing was developed for the Alexandra Road Estate.

Brown’s designs still reflect the modernist movement especially when considering the relationship between the inside and outside. He reduced the decorative exterior and maximised the quality of the spaces inside. This was especially true when understanding the spatial arrangement which was adapted to fit people’s way of living. The design of the estate did not stop at the houses, it was extended towards the streets, highlighting the importance of the journey and how this influences our way of living. The long road created by Brown generated an intimacy within the neighbourhood and provided a greater open space. One notable difference between Brown’s way of designing is that he prioritised pedestrians while many architects aimed to design for a future filled with cars. Designing for the present was a priority of his. 

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The long street within the Alexandra Road Estate. _© Studio Nicholson

Neave Brown was an influential architect as his designs aimed to coexist with the people. Rather than expecting the buildings to influence people, the people influenced his designs, making them enjoyable to live in. Focusing on social housing allowed Brown to place an emphasis on quality housing which should be provided to everyone regardless of financial background. By identifying what is important to all of us, he was able to design housing which can be inhabited by us all. 

References    

Youtube.com. 2017. Neave Brown receives the 2018 Royal Gold Medal. [online] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxaAmbPjNaob&ab_channel=RIBAArchitecture> [Accessed 25 September 2021].

Youtube.com. 2018. Neave Brown- Building a legacy. [online] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZYiM9HBH0w&ab_channel=RIBAArchitecture> [Accessed 24 September 2021].

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Author

Halima Mohammed is an architecture student whose passions lie in investigating what makes design connect with us emotionally. She believes that architecture is always worth questioning and discussing, trusting that architecture can be analysed like a piece of literature.

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