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Book review Visionary who realised the dream of a democratic architecture

Sydney Cook’s contribution to the development of social housing is recognised in an excellent new book, says MICHAL BONCZA

Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing
by Mark Swenarton
(Lund Humphries, £45)

SYDNEY COOK’S contribution to architecturally innovative social housing is the stuff of legend.

Post-war, many of the housing estates he inspired and helped build in London — the Alexandra Road, Branch Hill, Highgate New Town, Maiden Lane, Polygon Road and Fleet Road — are today places of pilgrimage for students of architecture and urbanism from the world over.

And it's significant that the architect at the centre of this revolutionary vision, Neave Brown, has finally been awarded RIBA’s gold medal this year. The prize hasn’t had a more deserving recipient in decades.

This book's author Mark Swenarton is an architectural historian extraordinaire and his narrative is entirely devoid of academic dryness or tedium. It approaches the most complex issues with engaging clarity and directness, a rare feat.

Swenarton tells a passionate and heroic story, placing the reader at the centre of an extraordinary period which inspired debate and the elation of witnessing breathtaking historic change but, ultimately, the most bitter disappointments that the visionary so often endures.

The London borough of Camden, created in 1965, inherited 14,700 council dwellings and embarked immediately on a programme to increase that stock by a third to accommodate 15,500 people in just four years.

Enter borough architect Cook, a natural talent spotter and impressive lateral thinker who, in Neave Brown, Peter Tabori, Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth and others, found the talent that would articulate his vision of street-based architecture symbiotically integrated into the surrounding city.

Brown's aim was to break the “stand-alone” council estate curse and engage with the cultural inheritance of 18th and 19th-century working-class housing, a model offering housing for all classes within a single format and where the whole exceeded the part — what Swiss critic Sigfried Giedion called “democratic architecture.”

For Brown, a modern urban environment could be generated ”without creating a rupture with either the existing grain of the city or the prevailing way of life.”

Yet, in 1967, the spectacular Branch Hill estate in Hampstead — one of the architectural swansongs for Cook’s Camden — became a bone of contention, with protectionist Tories in dead opposition to it being built. But the progressive alliance of Hampstead’s Labour and Communist parties, and organised tenant groups, memorably prevailed.

The Alexandra estate had just been given the last lick of paint as Margaret Thatcher's anti-societal ideology started to seep into local government thinking amid the economic downturn and the dissipation of 1960s optimism.

The build was over budget and over deadline. Heads in Camden Council were conveniently buried in the sand and Brown — although found to be beyond reproach — carried the can professionally and was forced into exile to the Low Countries. He never worked in Britain again.

The baleful consequences of losing such contributors to Cook's vision are only to clear to see all around the capital. But, as an illuminating and passionate advocate for imaginative and people-centred social housing, this book is a timely reminder of what could and should be.


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