A man I’d never heard of before by the name of Neave Brown was honoured recently with a RIBA Gold Medal – British architecture’s most prestigious award. This is remarkable for two reasons: first, he is best known for innovations in his design of social housing, and second it was one of these projects, tragically and ironically, that led to the ruination of his career in Britain. Why should we care?
Neave Brown has never made any distinction between his designs for social housing as being any different from those of any other client. In his own words, “In each case, I didn’t think I was designing social housing, but just housing. Good London housing.”
And we happen to live in times which call for just this kind of intelligence and decency.
Housing availability and affordability issues are prevalent in almost every major city in North America and many of our smaller centres as well. There is no need for this. It is not only preventable, but betrays a degree of irresponsibility and carelessness on the part of those in charge whose duties are to serve the needs of the greater social good.
Neave’s designs stand as testimony to the fact that ‘social housing’ can not only be done with an eye to the critical importance of aesthetics where mental health is concerned, but affordability as well. Bad design costs infinitely more in the long run as the Grenfell Tower fire and crime-ridden housing developments everywhere attest. I personally don’t know anyone whose demeanour wouldn’t improve significantly with more civil living conditions – conditions that include both a small terrace and a view, for example. This is what Neave Brown has built into all his ‘social housing’ projects.
If we expect our urban social conditions to improve, if we expect people to live inspired, responsible and creative lives, then we need to make more generally available the conditions under which this is most likely to emerge, and quit adding insult to injury by making those less fortunate more responsible for their position in life than they most often actually are.
Inspired, responsible, creative lives require the civilizing influence of inspired, responsible, innovative housing solutions.