Neave Brown, Social Housing Elegy

Just before his death, Neave Brown received the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. At that time, he was the only living architect to have all his U.K work listed.

Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Oscar Niemeyer, Jean Nouvel, etc. These world-renowned architects all have something in common. They were all awarded a Royal Gold Medal for architecture by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). As a matter of fact, starchitects have constituted the vast majority of the happy few to be consecrated by this 170-year-old institution in the last 40 years. No wonder such a list of awardees may appear growingly conventional or even boring.

For that reason, the recent nomination in last October of Neave Brown caused a sensation. Most significantly, the proposition to award the career of the American-born British architect followed the shock caused in 2017 by a series of political events — such as the initiation of the Brexit negotiations in March or the deadly Grenfell Tower fire in June — that had disclosed the failures and vulnerabilities of a national society subordinated to the working of an economy where the rule of the free market prevailed. The Grenfell Tower fire, in addition of traumatically echoing a local history of urban disasters — the Great Plague of 1665-66 and the Great Fire of 1666 — was mainly seen as the consequence of long decades of laissez-fairein the social housing sector. Since 1980, the Housing Act had allowed private actors to buy social housings through the enactment of a ‘right to buy’. At the same time, the efforts of the Welfare State to provide price-regulated housing had been slowed down.

The personal history of Neave Brown is intrinsically linked to the neoliberal shift in urban policy-making in the UK. In the late 1950s, at the time where the Welfare State was reaching its ideological climax, Brown was starting his career at the Middlesex County Council and the Camden Council’s Architects Department. At that time, such public reconstruction agencies employed a considerable number of architects, granting them the status of civil servants. In 1968, Brown designed Alexandra Road Estate, a landmark project where he lived the remainder of his life and that summarises all the features he attempted to provide to his subsequent mass housing projects. Located next to a railway, this project embodies the ‘low-rise, high-density’ plea Brown always advocated for. It is structured around a semi-private street meant to incentivise social and family interactions. Particular attention was also given to the architecture that, through a care for details, aimed at making indoor units homely, pleasant and adaptable to a wide variety of usages at the same time.

In the 1980s, Brown’s ideals were progressively brought to death with the election of Margaret Thatcher. In 1980, the Iron Lady enacted the Right to Buy Act which gave secure tenants of council houses and some housing associations the legal right to buy, at a large discount, the property they were living in. In addition, the State withdrew from welfare functions such as the production of social housing. Public architecture agencies started to be shut off and the shortage of qualified agents in the fields of public engineering and project management negatively impacted the quality of construction and maintenance works. Since then, decades had passed. Brown, probably disheartened, had left the job. From his apartment of Alexandra Road, he had settled for contemplating all his pieces of work being successively classified, like historical remnants, as parts of the national architectural heritage.

Brown died only three months after his nomination to the Royal Gold Medal for architecture, in January 2018. Today, 4 months after his death, his nomination still sounds like an elegy made by the younger generations to a vision of public policies that is now being more and more regretted. This vision has shown us how instructive it can be, especially in our current era that is being confronted to an enduring crisis of housing. Indeed, the issue of the access to housing is becoming more crucial than ever in the Greater London — the Mayor of London still aims to build 62,000 new housings each year — at a time when socioeconomic inequalities are threatening the ability of a growing fraction of the population to find decent housing at affordable prices. As an indication, the average price of a property in the Greater London is about 475,000 GBP and the average price of a new apartment is about 670,000 GBP. According to estimations made by the GLA, by 2020, individuals willing to live in London will need to earn at least 105,000 GBP a year to afford a decent property in the City of London. By comparison, the average salary of Londoners is only 25,000 GBP.

Such prices negatively affect the real estate market as they encourage rent-seeking practices and land predation. For instance, in 2014, as part of the Heygate Estate project, 1,200 social housings were demolished and replaced by ‘empty’ housings that are almost never inhabited, being only used as financial assets. Since then, similar experiences showing the nonsense of a strictly market-enforced system have happened at Baltimore Wharf or at the Battersea Power Station. Everywhere in London, it seems that the nightmare of dispossession through private regulation that Brown was warning us against is operating and threatening to evict a growing share of the lower-middle-class population out of the city.

Facing this jeopardy, a number of public and private actors are starting to mobilise themselves to vocalise the problem. Some municipalities, for instance, have started to rebuild social housings. This is the case of the Hackney Council which is currently planning several development programmes. One must say that the borough of Hackney embodies in many regards the ‘other side of the coin’ of the neoliberal policy regime in operation in the UK for 40 years. Hackney is one of the poorest areas in the country, with an annual income per inhabitant averaging less than 13,000 GBP. Between 1996 and 2016, rent prices rose by 700% in the district, making the average price of a property soaring from 75,000 GBP to an outstanding amount of 600,000 GBP which represents no less than 40 years of income for a local resident.

In addition, private initiatives were made to help first-time buyers to become owners. The GLA financially rewarded promoters who committed to help these precarious populations to access to housing. Promoters were also involved in designing innovative economical housing standards such as ‘Pocket Living’ which offers a unique, standardised typology of housing with one-room accommodations to reduce construction costs; or ‘Naked House’ which offers empty spaces and minimal amenities, allowing tenants to design their space step by step.

Beyond the emotion roused by his nomination, the flood of tears that Brown shared during the award ceremony of the RIBA tasted bitter. It reminded us of all the objectives that this ambitious architect had been ambitioning to set out for public urban policies… all of them being currently unmet. His fragile health did not allow him to measure the impact that his nomination could have had on the timid process of changing mindsets. Brown passed away during the last month of January. Unfortunately, today, the issue of democratic accessibility to property in a growingly unaffordable city remains timelier than ever.