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Obituary: Michael Brown

Tom Stuart-Smith
Thursday 07 March 1996 00:02 GMT

Michael Brown was one of the most distinguished British landscape architects since the Second World War. He designed the landscape setting for many celebrated metropolitan public housing developments of the late Sixties and Seventies and his practice became the acknowledged leader in the field. He was a dogged eccentric who got his way because of an almost messianic conviction in his approach to design.

Following an initial training as an architect at Edinburgh University, Brown worked for a while in the architect's department of London County Council. In 1955, after a year of marriage, he applied for a scholarship to study furniture design at the University of Pennsylvania. He did not succeed, but was offered a landscape design scholarship instead and was fortunate to study and later teach with Ian McHarg, whose strongly ecological approach to landscape planning remained a central concern of Brown's. It is a testament to McHarg's extraordinary influence that he taught and inspired so many of the finest British landscape architects of Brown's generation.

Brown also worked for a short time in Vermont with the eminent designer Dan Kiley, where projects included the landscape for the Rockefeller Institute, New York. Brown wanted to stay on, but his wife Joan persuaded him that they should return to Britain to live in the country and educate their three small children.

After a number of attempts to buy a house in Oxfordshire, the family settled in London and Brown began work as a landscape architect for Eric Lyons. In 1962 he set up on his own, at first from the back room and then from a rented corner shop with designers' drawing boards bolted on to a number of old doors he had salvaged. From the mid-Sixties the office expanded and tended to specialise in landscape design for housing.

In London, projects ranged from the intimate Span Housing at Field End in Twickenham (with Eric Lyons), to the Brunel Estate, Paddington; Beavers Farm, Hounslow; and the gargantuan scale of the Grahame Park Estate on the site of the old Hendon Aerodrome. The prodigious output of this period ensures that in London one is rarely more than a few miles from a Brown landscape. Other notable schemes include Euston Square Gardens and the delightful roof garden at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where the centrepiece was a ceramic sculpture designed by his wife. With the masterplan for Redditch New Town in the late Sixties, Brown was able to develop many of the ideas he had first encountered with Ian McHarg on a wider canvas and it became the first town plan in the UK with ecology as a central guiding principle. Watercourses were retained rather than culverted, a network of green spaces permeated the built fabric and earth mounding, with careful planting of native species to improve microclimatic conditions.

His schemes were always impeccably detailed and introduced a human scale to the landscape, often in contrast to an intimidating surround of deck access housing. He used sinuous paths, scattered groves of trees and subtly contoured brick surfaces or grass banks to achieve a quiet sense of adven- ture. A small sandpit in the office helped envisage the effects of proposed land modelling.

By the mid-Seventies, Brown was running one of the largest practices in the country with 20 staff. However, with the demise of the public housing programme and the reorganisation of the London boroughs the work began to tail off and he became progressively more preoccupied with broader issues. He set up his own conference and field study centre to explore new ideas on a range of issues including ecology, sustainability, Yoga, Buddhism and landscape design. In 1981, with no warning, he dissolved the partnership to give himself greater freedom to follow his interests.

He re-established a smaller practice with most of the work coming from the private sector. His most notable scheme of this later period was the headquarters of Redland Brick at Horsham, which won the Brick Development Association award in 1987, but few of his other clients were as indulgent or as sympathetic to his ideals. He found the sharp commercialism of the Eighties, with flash clients and their attendant troupe of impatient project managers, hard to stomach, but he enjoyed giving the new boys a run for their money. I recall one occasion when a large commercial project was running late, with heavy penalty clauses being threatened by the client. Brown called the design team outside to inspect some unsatisfactory earth shaping. He lay on the ground, to demonstrate that the slope was all of three inches out of true - the imperfection was more readily discernible from this position. An assortment of 20 design professionals looked on in amazement. At the time, I was acutely embarassed, but with hindsight I can only admire the courage of conviction and perfectionism which guided his entire approach to design and meant that he was impervious to the petty embarrassment most of us do so much to avoid.

Always wearing trainers and a wide grin, Brown cut an animated and outlandish figure. He had a great thirst for knowledge and contributed to public debate. He remained deeply concerned about the health of the planet and the spiritual quality of life. Landscape design was for him a way of improving both.

Michael Browm, landscape architect: born 8 May 1922; married Joan Bruford (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died 20 February 1996

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