The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Michael Neylan

by Elain Harwood

Michael Neylan, who died in June after a long illness, was working with Bill Ungless for Chamberlin, Powell and Bon when in 1960 a competition was announced for housing at Harlow.  They decided to enter individually and form a partnership if either won, as CPB had done when they entered the Golden Lane competition in 1952.  Neylan won, with a radical design for low-rise, high-density housing.  This was Bishopsfield (1968), also known as The Casbah, which has been visited several times by the Society.  Neylan and Ungless formalised their partnership in 1967.

Michael Neylan was born in Wimbledon in 1931, where he studied architecture at the School of Art, before moving on to Kingston when the course folded.  CPB had taught there, and recruited many of its brightest graduates.  Neylan worked on the Golden Lane Estate between 1954 and 1959, developing a new design for Crescent House, the curved building on Goswell Road that makes an interesting comparison with Bishopsfield in its use of courtyards carved out of the block.  Neylan then travelled to Turkey and Persia with Australian friends who were heading home.  Returning to CPB felt like a mistake; it was time to move on, and Bishopsfield fulfilled that need.

By 1960 the Government was pushing for Harlow to be expanded at a higher density than Frederick Gibberd had hitherto adopted, and a competition was held to inject some new ideas into its housing.  Neylan developed the sloping site of Bishopsfield to have the character of a hilltop town.  Patio houses on either side of pedestrian lanes climb to a central concourse where four-storey blocks of flats and maisonettes ring a raised piazza over car parking.  The Mediterranean imagery, courtyard housing and pedestrian separation were all motifs being discussed in 1960-61, but it was here that they came together.  Some modifications were made to the flats by Florian Beigel in the early 1990s, but the patio houses have proved most popular with residents, who admire their privacy and convenience.

The scheme was published in the Architectural Review in 1963, where it was seen by Ian Lacey, chief planner at Camberwell and, later, Southwark.  He was looking for an architect to take on small infill sites in the borough, and wanted a low-rise, pedestrianised scheme for Linden Grove in Nunhead. The result, with houses and pensioners’ flats set either side of a street raised over parking, was a triumph.  As Neylan explained, ‘we were trying consciously to use traditional builders’ techniques in a modern way, exploring different things to do. For complicated shapes and sections tile hanging and slate hanging were God’s gift.’

Linden Grove was followed by Emmanuel Church, an awful site between a 20-storey block of flats and a railway viaduct, built in red brick with small units arranged in courtyards on the roof over maisonettes.  A scheme in Lordship Lane included one enclosed, semi-private courtyard which was sufficiently popular to be repeated at Neylan and Ungless’s most prestigious scheme, the Setchell Road Estate in Bermondsey.  Setchell Road got a higher yardstick because of its density: it was assumed to be a high block.  Designed in 1971-72 but not built until 1974-78, it has nothing higher than three storeys, and the upper floors are concealed within big pitched roofs; most flats have a front door at ground level. It was followed by larger units at Keetons, begun off Jamaica Road in 1976.

One of the Southwark architects, Peter McKay, went on to be Chief Architect at Enfield so Neylan and Ungless got work there in Horseshoe Lane and at Town Road, both completed in 1979, and in Fitzjohns Avenue in Camden.  After 1980 they worked extensively for Housing Associations in London and designed a development of 70 houses in Emmen, the Netherlands.

Michael Neylan was dedicated to building humanely, the intensity of his vision mixed with great personal kindness.  ‘I just liked small, and rated what I felt comfortable with,’ he confessed. Today the novelty of the Southwark schemes is easily overlooked, because of their denudation as windows have been replaced and roofs retiled, but Bishopsfield remains as radical a piece of design as ever. The architect Emily Greeves has been making a study of the architects’ work, and it must be hoped that at last their housing is again being appreciated.

Michael Neylan, born 2 June 1931, died 13 June 2012.