Book Review: Cook’s Camden

Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing by Mark Swenarton
Lund Humphries, 2017
Hardcover, 328 pages

Back at the end of 1999 I took a trip with my family to London for the millennium festivities. Each day I would venture around the city looking at architecture and then join my family for dinner at a pub near the hotel. Most of my day outings focused on newer buildings, such as the Jubilee Line stations and Future Systems’ Natwest Media Center, but one of the older buildings I went to see was Alexandra Road Estate, a housing project designed by Neave Brown and completed in 1979. (It’s near Abbey Road, making it a two-in-one visit for architects that are fans of the Beatles.) The project is most noticeable for the long, curving concrete terraces facing a pedestrian walk, depicted on the cover of Cook’s Camden, an impressive history of modern housing projects built in that corner of London under Camden borough architect Sydney Cook. Although the book tells the stories of numerous projects undertaken by different architects under Cook in the 1960s and 70s, Neave Brown’s presence dominates, given that its release last year happened to coincide with the awarding of the RIBA Gold Medal to Brown, who died earlier this year at the age of 88.

In turn, having only visited Alexandra Road, my reading of the book focused on it and Brown’s slightly earlier Fleet Road project (spread below). There was some overlap between the two projects in terms of approaches to stacking, unit plans, and shared outdoor spaces, but the impact of Alexandra Road has been more lasting. It was given Grade II* listing status in 1993 (Fleet Road, aka Dunboyne Road Estate, was listed later, in 2010) and its park — also a notable work of architecture designed with Janet Jack, which I included in 100 Years, 100 Landscape Designs — was restored just a few years ago. The latter is significant since it was spearheaded by residents, signifying the appreciation of the estate by those who live there, not just by fans of modern architecture or architectural historians like Mark Swenarton.

Three of the book’s twelve chapters are devoted to Brown and Alexandra Road. Two of them tell the in-depth stories of Fleet Road and Alexandra Road estates, while the third is titled “Politics versus architecture: the Alexandra Road public enquiry of 1978-81.” (An appendix also reprints Neave Brown’s “The Form of Housing” essay from 1967.) This last chapter, the book’s eleventh, digs into why such a lauded project — both at the time of its inception in the late 1960s and its listing three decades later — was seen in in interim as a “constructional disaster.” One product of the three-year inquiry was the near-impossibility for Brown to gain work in the UK, even though the protracted inquiry exonerated him; his subsequent notable projects were located in the Netherlands. Those drawn to Brown after his RIBA Gold Medal award will find much to learn in Swenarton’s book, though it’s also recommended to architects who prefer dense low-rise housing to the residential high-rises that tend to garner more attention today.

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