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 administrator 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.” 4
“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.” 5 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.” 6
But it was Brown’s next project that would put Camden Council on the architectural map. Alexandra Road is not only the boldest and most celebrated of all the estates; it was also the project in which Brown most fully realized his ambition “to show what a modern piece of city building could be.”
The proposition of Alexandra Road was that, by drawing on the way in which London and other English cities had been composed, a modern urbanism could be generated without creating a rupture with either the existing grain of the city or the prevailing way of life. 7
Alexandra Road is one of most impressive spatial environments in London, vast and dramatic, but clearly domestic in composition.
To be sure, the 16 acres of Alexandra Road — with 520 housing units as well as assorted facilities for recreation, retail, and social services — do not immediately give the impression of being just another section of typical city grain. The centerpiece of the design is a sweeping 1,300-foot-long pedestrian street that follows the curve of a high-speed rail line that forms the northern border of the site. Along this edge there is a 6.5-story housing block that rakes backwards in a ziggurat formation (recalling the Brunswick Centre, a housing block designed by Patrick Hodgkinson in 1960) and faces a 3-story block across the street. The blocks are constructed of precast and in situ concrete, the windows and doors are framed in dark timber, every apartment has a balcony, and exterior staircases occur every two apartments along the way, creating a dynamic sculptural rhythm of voids and diagonals. The result is one of the most impressive spatial environments in London, vast and dramatic, but still clearly domestic in composition.
Yet this double-terrace is only one part of the complex. Across a large landscaped green space there is another 3-story terrace of houses that runs alongside an existing estate from the 1930s and mirrors the railside environment, while at the far end of the estate there is a low-rise building that accommodates a school for children with special needs and other community programs. In its bringing together of diverse functions as part of a single, massive designed environment, Alexandra Road can be seen as one of the defining projects of mid-century architectural ambition, a form of urban megastructure, the “last great social housing project,” in the words of Andrew Freear. 8
As Brown worked on Alexandra Road, Cook entrusted another member of his precocious staff, the Hungarian-born Peter Tábori, with the design of Highgate New Town. Located on a sloping site adjacent to Highgate Cemetery, just yards from the tomb of Karl Marx, the housing estate comprises 275 apartments clustered in six parallel rows and made from sand-colored concrete, partly to match the neighborhood vernacular. With its stepped terraces and exterior stairways, it is formally similar to Alexandra Road; but Tábori brought his own evolving ideas to the project. He was influenced by Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, especially her argument that successful streets were collectively protected by watchful neighbors. Thus at Highgate New Town the spaces were either private or public, with no ambiguous in-between zones. Tabori’s design put “eyes on the street” by locating the kitchens next to the front doors of the apartments so that parents could provide, in Swenarton’s terms, “general self-policing of the public realm.” This was Jacobsian urbanism without the aesthetically conservative associations that it would later take on.
Neave Brown’s assistants on Alexandra Road were Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, and afterward Cook awarded the talented duo with their own project. Located on the grounds of an old villa in upper-class Hampstead, Branch Hill was from the start controversial. Swenarton details the lengthy political battles, with the Labour Party and left-leaning locals arguing that the 11-acre site, now owned by the borough, should be reserved for council housing, and the Conservatives and their wealthy constituents countering that it should be incorporated into Hampstead Heath. But not only had the project become the focus of class warfare even before it was designed; it was also subject to a curious legal restriction that forbade terraces or flats and allowed only that quintessentially British suburban residence: the semi-detached. Benson and Forsyth were thus faced with the strange brief of making egalitarian modern architecture according to the dictates of reactionary housing, and on a site that at least some neighbors had envisioned as part the ancient wooded Heath: not social housing but playgrounds and tennis courts.
Branch Hill is surreally pastoral, the abstract houses overflowing with greenery as if to foretell the day when they will be ruins in the forest.
What resulted from these unpromising circumstances is an estate of extraordinary quality. Barely visible from the road, 42 homes are nestled into a wooded, sloping site. Narrow pedestrian streets, paved in red brick, separate the houses, which are grouped together in pairs according to the rules of the covenant. The beautifully detailed concrete houses are split level, with half staircases leading down to bedrooms and up to living rooms, and with small courtyards in front. The most striking feature are the bridges that connect each flat to the roof of the next house down the hill, which allows for the roof of one house to become the garden for another. The estate clearly draws on the ideas of Siedlung Halen, and has all the Camden characteristics; but in no other scheme is the environment so surreally pastoral, with the rigorously abstract houses overflowing with greenery as if to foretell the day when they will be ruins in the forest.
Sydney Cook started 38 housing projects at Camden; the last of his major estates was perhaps the most difficult. Maiden Lane was also designed by Benson and Forsyth, but in 1973, in the midst of the work, Cook retired due to ill health — a blow to the exceptional team he had nurtured and controlled for almost a decade. The scheme was similar in concept to other Camden projects, with strips of housing and various amenities including a nursery, squash courts, shops, and community centers. If built according to plan, Maiden Lane would have been the largest of Cook’s projects; what was eventually realized was a much reduced and altered version of the design.
But Cook’s illness was only part of the problem. By the mid 1970s, the U.K. was in the grip of severe recession, and new austerities were being everywhere imposed. Cost reductions eliminated much of the sophistication of Benson and Forsyth’s design. The passage of the Homeless Persons Act, in 1977, was a further complication; the new law required the councils to prioritize the needs of the homeless, which meant that Maiden Lane became home to tenants with complex and pressing requirements. “The result,” writes Swenarton, “was that Maiden Lane soon acquired a reputation as a sink estate.” 9
“Not as the friend but the foe of public good”
The extraordinary run of architectural achievement at Camden Council would ultimately prove short-lived. By the mid 1970s, Swenarton writes, “the large-scale redevelopment activities of local authorities came to be seen not as the friend but the foe of public good.” 10 The growing disaffection was an outgrowth of the wider economic crisis that marked the decade. The election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1979 would further accelerate the dissolution of the social democratic state and the rise of neoliberalism.
In hindsight, we can see that the West was undergoing a seismic change from what [Eric] Hobsbawm called the “golden age” of post-war welfare capitalism, marked by plenty and consensus, to the “crisis decades” of the 1970s and ’80s. 11
The extraordinary run of architectural achievement at Camden Council would prove short-lived.
For the idealistic architects of Cook’s Camden, the heady days of ambitious works and generous budgets were ended. Charges of profligacy, which had dogged the projects from the beginning, grew more heated. The initial budget of Branch Hill was high due to land values, but then as costs began to pile up during construction — due to unexpected site conditions and contractor walkouts — the project became a public scandal. In a speech in Parliament, Hampstead’s conservative MP vilified Branch Hill as “the most expensive council houses in the world.” 12 Even more damaging to the reputation of Camden Council was an extended public inquiry into cost overruns at Alexandra Road (this was the inquiry that caused Neave Brown to cease his U.K. practice). No matter that it ended inconclusively, the inquiry made the project, in Swenarton’s words, “infamous as a constructional disaster.” 13
Yet it must be said that the projects themselves made easy targets for charges of extravagance. In good social democratic fashion, the ethos of Cook’s Camden was influenced by that earlier rallying cry of British modernism: Berthold Lubetkin’s assertion that “nothing is too good for the workers.” The designs of the estates were intensely unique, and often they incorporated unusual innovations such as walls with embedded heating. In line with Cook’s commitment to purpose-made design, the projects did not use off-the-shelf construction systems. The joinery in the interiors was bespoke. And it could be further argued that the sheer complexity of the buildings was needlessly wasteful. A writer for The Architects’ Journal, upon visiting Branch Hill, commented that “it is almost inevitable that both traditional forms of construction and particularly timber-framed housing would have proved considerably cheaper.” 14 More broadly it is hard not to conclude that Sydney Cook’s decision to build innovative modern council estates had the unintended consequence of exposing public finances to additional risks. Which raises the uncomfortable question: How beneficial were its benefits, really?
In the ’80s, the political rejection of the welfare state would provoke critique of the council estates.
Throughout the ’80s, the new political mood — the political rejection of the aspirations of the welfare state — would provoke further critique. Influential books including Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space and Alice Coleman’s Utopia on Trial made explicit arguments about the contribution of modernist environments to urban crime and social breakdown. Towards the end of the decade, the council commissioned an investigation of Maiden Lane. The final report detailed a litany of complaints about the estate — spotty maintenance, vandalism, crime — and then widened into an ideological critique of the modernist architecture itself. Notoriously, the report recommended that the houses should be completely transformed, with the interiors reconfigured into conventional arrangements, and pitched roofs applied to the exteriors. The guiding idea was apparently the belief that if the estate were re-made into a more “traditional” environment with traditional aesthetics, then its problems would somehow be remedied. 15
“Part of the canon of modern architecture”
In recent years, the feverish idea that social problems were produced by the alienating effects of modernist design has mostly passed. The state is no longer interested in sponsoring housing, but it has, in certain cases, begun to protect it as heritage. Some of Cook’s Camden has been listed by Historic England: Alexandra Road, in 1993, the youngest building ever protected at that point, and Branch Hill and Fleet Road, in 2010. When Neave Brown’s Winscombe Street houses were listed in 2013, he became the only living architect to have all his British buildings protected — under the circumstances, a bittersweet honor. 16
The state is no longer interested in sponsoring housing, but it has begun to protect it as heritage.
The recent awarding of the RIBA Gold Medal to Brown must also be understood in the larger context of British housing. For surely it is a sign of the degree to which the architecture profession now feels powerless to confront the unaffordability and inequality that year after year are only worsening. The Camden estates have become paradoxically symbolic of this inequality. When Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, news reports were made from Highgate New Town. First inhabited in 1979, the year she came to power, the estate was chosen as a symbol of how dramatically the politics of housing had changed, in particular due to the Thatcher-supported “right to buy” legislation of 1983 that allowed council tenants to buy their homes at a discount. One-third of the estate is now privately owned, producing a mix of comparatively wealthy new residents along with many of the original tenants. Indeed, in 2014, by a process of obsessively hunting through property advertisements, my partner and I found a flat to rent there as private tenants. The attractions — world-class design, beautiful landscaping, location in leafy North London — are ample, and I feel lucky every day to live here. This is a friendly community, despite the glaring fact that to buy a one-bedroom apartment at Highgate costs almost 15 times the average annual London salary. Private tenants pay half that amount every year, even as their council neighbors pay about 15 percent of it.
Another reason for the choice of Highgate New Town as a representative council estate is its uncompromising appearance; once seen as futuristic, then as anathema, the building is now viewed with nostalgia, 19 and no doubt the Brutalist Revival has enhanced the appeal of Highgate and the other Camden estates. Today you can view the houses in coffee table books and study them in histories and polemics. 20 You can read about those who have chosen to buy houses in council estates. 21 You can engage an estate agent that specializes in marketing architect-designed homes to those with knowledge and means. As Swenarton writes, “Prospective purchasers — typically ‘young creatives’ in their 20s and 30s — started to view properties that came up for sale on the Cook estates not as generic ‘ex-council stock’ but as part of the canon of modern architecture.” 22
Once seen as futuristic, then as anathema, Highgate New Town and other council estates are now viewed with nostalgia.
Swenarton is emphatic on the issue of architectural significance. At their best, he argues, the Camden estates “demonstrated an architectural resolution unsurpassed not just in social housing but in urban housing anywhere in the world.” 23 This is perhaps too emphatic: the estates could not really be confused with the luxury housing of their day. It is also arguable as to whether they truly improve upon earlier models of London housing. For as it turns out one of the remarkable features of 18th- and 19th-century terrace houses is their flexibility. Due to their constructional systems — heavy masonry exterior walls; lighter timber framing for floors and rooms — these traditional houses have been reconfigured many times over, from townhouses to subdivided slums and back again to private houses. None of the Camden estates allow for that sort of programmatic flexibility, as their ingeniously designed interiors are locked in place by heroic concrete structures. In the time scale of an ever evolving city, that can be seen as a serious limitation.
Another limitation is their ambivalent relationship to the street. The Camden estates were conceived in an era when car use was not simply taken for granted; planning policies of the day also recommended that cars and pedestrians be kept separate. 24 As a result several of the estates incorporate parking garages which today are considered problematic; indeed, a garage at Highgate New Town was closed years ago after it became the setting for anti-social behavior. The estates further commit what is now considered a cardinal sin in urban planning: mostly they are indifferent to the existing streets beyond their perimeters, often presenting blank walls or privacy-protecting landscape to passers-by. Despite protestations of continuity — again, Brown’s stated desire not to create a “rupture” with the existing city — the estates of Cook’s Camden present themselves as complete, novel, and separate environments in which ground planes seem to be effectively dissolved, and verdant landscapes grow upon the decks, balconies, and rooftops. 25
In his foreword to the book, Kenneth Frampton describes the Camden estates created under the direction of Sydney Cook as exemplary of an “international movement towards achieving denser, anti-suburban, proto-ecological patterns of land development.” We might also wonder whether these residential landscapes — artificial, egalitarian, vehicle-less, densely covered in foliage — might better be understood as a way of approaching the “garden city,” that long sought synthesis of town and country. In the pursuit of this goal, the ideas of Cook’s Camden remain as relevant as ever.