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.