It is with supreme irony that, last year, the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded a Gold Medal to Neave, an architect known for some of the most innovative and successful low-cost social housing of the late 20th century. This, to an architect rejected by Britain 50 years ago, was perhaps an elegy, since Neave, at 88, was suffering from the terminal lung cancer from which he has now died. At the time he had the distinction of of being the only living architect to have had all his works 'listed', that is, considered to be of 'National Importance' and preserved as such.
Neave himself, completely free from rancour, had been delighted by the news and said : “All my work! I got it just by flying blind, I seem to have been flying all my life. The Royal Gold Medal is entirely unexpected and overwhelming. It’s a recognition of the significance of my architecture, its quality and its current urgent social relevance. Marvellous!”
Speaking last summer and reflecting on his work in the 1960s and his own mortality Neave said :
“We thought these buildings would be the beginning of a new continuity, but instead they were closed away in the architectural cupboard. What has astonished me is that people are looking at these buildings again. Perhaps after the Grenfell Tower fire it seems relevant again. Perhaps it could be the beginning of a new rethinking of architecture . . . What a way to end.”
And, as a parting shot he has said :
“I’m an old, old man, so my answer is probably not the right one, but I think we need a new national agency to govern standards and fund the construction of housing for properly mixed communities – crucially with maintenance costs financed for the whole life of the building.”
His aim as a architect, which he achieved in his work, was to create something :
"as beautiful as you could make it"
This was exemplified by the work he did in North West London and for which he will best be remembered. Following the Local Government Act of 1963, the London Borough of Camden
had been created in 1965 and its new Architects' Department was placed in charge of Sydney Cook who recruited a talented team of young architects, including Neave, who joined in 1966. In Sydney's eight year tenure, he oversaw 47 social housing projects of a quality, scale and ambition that has, arguably, not been surpassed in Britain.
Neave's first project for Camden involved 71 units at Fleet Road
, near the Free Hospital in Gospel Oak, which was to be Britain's first high density low-rise scheme. It was here that he reinvented the traditional Victorian London terrace as two and three-storey blocks that ran in parallel rows with a central pedestrian walkway. He created light-filled homes, each with their own private terrace and a shared garden. In addition, it contained the features Neave would incorporate into his Alexander Road project : car parking located beneath, a variety of types of accommodation, a mixture of rendered facades, clunky, black-stained timber windows, balcony fronts, external staircases and a public realm above the car parks.
After this, Neave recalled, that he "went to see Sidney Cook one day and he said he would like me to do Alexander Road. It was a typical planning brief. Camden had got a 16 acre site. The minute they started it, people popped up from Camden, they said : "We need a site for a school. It's going to need a community centre, school, extra parking, the integration of the existing estate." It became an incredibly elaborate brief. In order that they lose housing density, the planners then realised that two acres of that four acre site would be taken for housing. Can you imagine, in your thirties getting a brief like that ? Just dumbfounding. So I started it, in complete confusion."
The result of this confusion was his masterpiece with, most strikingly, Neave breaking away from the Modernist tower template to create low-rise ziggurat-like terraces where, inside, light streamed into the duplexes, with open-plan kitchen-living rooms and bedrooms above. “It was a piece of city,”
he said, "all integrated : 520 new homes, shops, community centres, a school, youth club, play centre and it wasn’t hierarchical but continuous."
Alexandra Road : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJ_fz7uIfHk
Ironically, Neave's greatest achievement would also prove to be his undoing as an architect in Britain and bring his career here to an abrupt end. As Neave said in 2013 : "Though we began Alexander Road with the full support of the Housing Committee, the Director of Housing changed and took against it. The political system took against it. We ended with a history of constant conflict which still makes me shudder. As we got through to the end of the building it became, also, highly political and the politicians instigated a Public Inquiry as to what went wrong with Alexander Road before it was even finished. To their surprise, people longed to live there, but the consequence of that was it would be very difficult for me to find work in England, after all, you don't do to an architect whose work has been put up for a Public Inquiry to see what's gone wrong." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJ_6UuAFJdQ&t=1h40m22s
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Neave's road to architecture had been far from simple. He was born in 1929 in Utica,
upstate New York, to a Minneapolis-born American mother and and Leicester-born English father, Percy, whose grandfather had made a fortune with a string of shops selling boots and shoes in the Midlands. Neave's younger years were dominated by his wild, unpredictable, alcoholic father who set up and dissolved businesses in succession and when Neave was three, moved the family to England and over the next seven years moved the family no less than 12 times.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he was evacuated to the States to live with his Aunt and Uncle to live in the rich New York suburb of Brownsville
, where he was educated in, as he said "a very good American High School."
Of his Aunt, he said she was a "quasi mother"
and he "loved her dearly."
She sharpened his critical faculty by asking questions like : "What does that mean ?" and : "What did you mean by that ?"
On his return to Britain and between the age of 16 and 18 he was educated from 16-18 at the prestigious boys public school, Marlborough College
and it was here that, despite the fact that he was dyslexic with poor spelling and illegible handwriting, he won a scholarship to study English Literature at St.Edmund Hall, Oxford and would take up his place as an undergraduate after his two years National Service. In the Army he was commissioned as a young officer in, as he said, a "cavalry regiment which was an old one and a snob one and all that."
When he left the Army he went to Paris to see his Aunt, who had set up as a psychoanalyst and with her financial support he began a course of therapy which lasted throughout his next five years as a student and helped him cope with his "internal conflict"
which was the result of his having "a very divided, very upset, very confused and very conflict-laden childhood."
At the age of twenty, while he was in the Army, having toyed with the idea of pursuing a career as an artist when he was at school, he opted for 'architecture' and having secured a scholarship form Middlesex County Council he enrolled at the AA,
London’s private architecture school, run by the Architectural Association and the only school in Europe totally dedicated to teaching modern architecture.
Neave speculated that : "It may even be me, on a subtle level, why I wanted to become an architect, because you make bases. You make places. You make events come together in something called a building and I think there's an aspect of that in accordance with the way I wanted to operate with the world."
He described the experience at the AA as "a staggering relief, because it was free, relatively, of the class, social and certain kinds of limited cultural associations, that had been waded at me from different sides as a child and it allowed me to feel that they began a degree of independent thought."
The School and its contacts was also important to him because he was now completely without a family, his mother having separated from his father and returned to the USA,
Neave said : “Very little had been rebuilt after the war, there was still smog and food rationing, and we were confused schoolboys coming out of the Army with a naive view that we wanted to change everything.”
It was only with hindsight that he told Mark Swenarton in 2013, that he recognised the unique set of historical and cultural circumstances within which he had found himself when he joined the AA in 1950 : "The thing about that independent thought, remembering this was just a few years after the War, it was in the context of the radical thinking of the Modern Movement between the two Wars"
and "There was the whole problem of the reorganisation of England, the remaking of it and the idea that you could remake it and improve it." http://www.aaschool.ac.uk/VIDEO/lecture.php?ID=2276&t=12m50s
Having graduated in 1955 at the age of 26 and at a loose end, he flew to Dar es Salaam
in Tanzania and designed a house for his sister which didn't get built and an up-country hospital for an American Methodist Mission, which did. He later reflected that he was : "Straight out of the AA. Never built anything and in Dar es Salaam writing a brief for a hospital. I don't know how I did it, but we wrote a brief accepted and they agreed the brief, together with their bloke who knew about hospitals."
Back in Britain he now joined 'Lyons, Israel and Ellis', a practice which provided a finishing school for both him, James Stirling and James Gowan. It would be a three year stint and he described it as a "training hotbed"
and "You went their in the morning and you worked : drawing, drawing, drawing and you argued and you talked and every now and then you argued with the partners. I can't imagine a better place for learning what you needed to do. It was like continuing an education."
In addition the working "like a bloody demon"
he found that "You learnt what you were doing from the overall building, you adapted the overall building to the technical aesthetic and then you worked the whole kit and caboodle out in accordance with that aesthetic to be as beautiful a you could make it."
In accordance with these principles he designed a new workshop building for Hammersmith Hospital before he left the practice and joined Middlesex County Council.
While he was at Middlesex he designed 5 schools, two of which were built and also taught evening classes at Regent Street Polytechnic and after a relatively brief stay at the Council he left and gained his first experience of urban housing designing a couple of houses and extensions and a small terrace of houses. This served as a prelude to his design, in 1963, for a small terrace of 5 modernist houses for himself and friends in Winscombe Street,
in London’s Highgate. They applied for, and received a 100% loan form Middlesex Borough Council and he later reflected : "Not only did they pay for my scholarship at the AA, they loaned the money for the construction of those houses. It seems incredible.”
At the age of 34 with his design of 22-32 Winscombe Street in Dartmouth Park, North London and their completion two years later, Neave showed the world what he could do. Children’s bedrooms were placed on the ground floor, with big barn doors opening on to a communal garden; the parents’ bedroom and living room were at the top, while the family zone was in the middle, the whole connected by spiral stairs. “It was built as a community, an extended family,”
he said, “When you heard children’s laughter downstairs, you were never quite sure if they were your kids or someone else’s.”
It was towards the end of the building period that he crossed the Atlantic and did a semester teaching at the University Cornell University in Ithaca, New York at the invitation of Colin Rowe
who became the Professor of Architecture in 1962 and went on to be acknowledged as a major intellectual influence on world architecture and urbanism in the second half of the twentieth century. Neave, however, rejected the idea of becoming an academic saying that : "I think I would have been a bad academic because, if you're teaching and you have attitude, you teach with that attitude,"
Ironically, Neave's greatest achievement in Camden would also prove to be his undoing as an architect in Britain and bring his career here to an abrupt end.
As Neave said in 2013 : "Though we began Alexander Road with the full support of the Housing Committee, the Director of Housing changed and took against it. The political system took against it. We ended with a history of constant conflict which still makes me shudder. As we got through to the end of the building it became, also, highly political and the politicians instigated a Public Inquiry as to what went wrong with Alexander Road before it was even finished. To their surprise, people longed to live there, but the consequence of that was it would be very difficult for me to find work in England, after all, you don't do to an architect whose work has been put up for a Public Inquiry to see what's gone wrong." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJ_6UuAFJdQ&t=1h40m22s
Neave resigned from Camden in "confusion and despair
" and he didn't work in Britain again. It is however, important to remember that his type of housing was expensive and sometimes complicated to build. It had its growing pains and the heated walls at Alexandra Road initially made the residents boil and it was often poorly maintained by the Borough, leading to a degraded public face. Mainly, however, Neave was a casualty of a powerful swing against 'Modernism' that ended his run of great London housing and a swing that came as much from the 'left' as from the 'right'.
Britain's loss was to the gain of the Netherlands and his design of the Zwolestraat Development, Schreviningen, The Hague, which consisted of 500 apartments, hotel, school hostel, landscape and the largest underground car park in the Netherlandsand and Smalle Haven
in Eindhoven in 2002 with terraced apartments shopping and office space.
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Neave was poetic in his description of his craft as an architect in relation to Alexander Road :
"It comes to a moment or so, when the thing becomes secure in your mind as to the overall strategy and it needs endless development and that development is what you see as the architecture in the end. But then in the process of doing this. there is the enormous struggle in the detail to arrive at something that in the end looks inevitable, almost as if it hasn't been the product of struggle."