The Brunswick Centre, London

The Brunswick Centre, London

Despite being a child of the 60’s the Brunswick centre still feels distinctly futuristic, a neat trick considering its last century lineage predates the technological innovations which define modern notions of cutting edge. Yet among the otherwise genteel Georgian Streets of Bloomsbury the monolithic concrete architecture of the Brunswick still evokes visions of tomorrow. The rectangular slab looks like a super block of reinforced Lego that has fallen from space and embedded itself in north London.

Inside its walls the elevated pedestrian central precinct is a clinical open space, flanked by shops and residential units which run the length of the development and cascade down toward street level. The tiered construction is the architectural equivalent of a tea plantation with the flats terraced back against an invisible hillside. Huge service towers stand watch over the building, reaching for the heavens like the ramparts of a futuristic citadel. The effect is dramatic and distinctly sci-fi, you really wouldn’t be surprised to see a Cyberman or bowler hatted Malcolm McDowell giving the place the once over.

Our visions of the future are usually played out cinematically against two distinct architectural backdrops. On the one hand there is the grim, grimy and nihilistic tomorrow as seen in films such as Robocop. On the other our offspring are seen to inherit a sleek, minimalist, usually white robed world, often harbouring a sinister secret. Check out Jenny Agutter in Logan’s Run for a good example. Before its £24 million revamp the Brunswick centre would have fitted neatly into the former category. In the late 1990s the building was neglected and shabby; its concrete walls turned a dour shade of inner city grey by the British weather. The unloved design coped badly with neglect and the Brunswick looked increasingly like the sort of place Judge Dredd patrols in the pages of 2000AD. This state of affairs was hardly surprising given the history of wrangling and compromise which dogged the development.

Architect Patrick Hodgkinson started work on the project in 1959 with a brief to develop the site for the private sector. However an 80ft height restriction on the site hampered the initial plan for two large towers. To avoid compromise on density, Hodgkinson sketched the Brunswick, a modern London village complete with underground car park, shops, homes and subterranean cinema. New laws regarding the compensation levels for those who would be evicted to make way for the building threatened to end the scheme. However a compromise plan provided a solution whereby Camden Council agreed to take over the development and house the evicted tenants. Unfortunately this deal rejected the original mixed use scheme, incorporating sixteen different types of accommodation, in favour of one which had only bed sits along with one and two bedroom flats. Things turned increasingly sour when the original developer sold the project to McAlpine whose insistence on a cheap and quick completion resulted in the departure of Hodgkinson.

The Brunswick finally opened in 1972 but the flawed execution doomed it to membership of an inauspicious club of similar buildings which all shared a love of concrete, as well as the knack of being distinctly unpopular. Other offenders included the Trellick Tower in west London, the Bull Ring in Birmingham and the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth. These ambitious structures were collectively labelled as Brutalist architecture, a style which became synonymous with failed social projects. Decline was often hastened by government reluctance to supply adequate funding during the recessions of the 70s and 80s. Over the years the public association between brutalism and decay became entrenched and the buildings became a prime focus for Prince Charles’ carbuncle obsession. Yet, although often flawed, the modernist utopian vision which underpins the schemes is emblematic of a post war vision to engineer a better world. That their design still provides us with a powerful sense of the future so far in the past, perhaps says much about our contemporary desire and ability to build a better tomorrow.

In recent years a reappraisal of the brutalism has taken place resulting in a rebirth of neglected schemes. The Trellick tower is now trendy, whilst the Brunswick looks sleek and for once happily space-age. The refit has been fairly straightforward, shop fronts have been revamped with fashionable glass panels and the concrete has been painted the cream colour which Hodgkinson originally stipulated over thirty years ago. Whilst other structures such as the Tricorn have succumbed to the bulldozer, the Brunswick has gone from ghetto to grade II listed. The transformation has come at a price, however, and the arrival of high street chains to replace local favourites tells you that the centre is hoping to attract a new type of customer. I’m not sure that all the locals welcomed the arrival of Waitrose to replace the more down to earth Safeway supermarket. At present 320 of the 400 homes have council tenants but with two bed flats now fetching £430,000 one wonders how long it will be before the yuppies become a majority.

Brunswick Centre photos


More photos from the Brunswick Centre Flickr pool

How to get there

The Brunswick Centre is a stone's throw from Russell Square Tube on the Piccadilly Line. Exit the station and turn right.


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Links

There are also a large number of excellent images, past and present, in the Brunswick Centre Flickr Pool.

Comments

The Brunswick is also home to the Renoir Cinema. Film fans who like their cinemas to be dark and womb-like will appreciate its subterranean comfiness.

I was up there yesterday and had similarly mixed feelings about the Brunswick's revamp. It's narrowed the gap between the drawing board and reality remarkably and restored a sense of the optimism in which these buildings were originally conceived, the vision of a newer cleaner more streamlined future that they embodied. But the price of that has been a frill of the same old same old shopfronts from the apirational end of the high street. As you say, the social diversity is likely to suffer as a result - too much temptation for tenants to cash in and move on.

In the meantime, it's interesting to feel like you're visiting the past and the future simultaneously. Maybe more Fahrenheit 451 than Logan's Run..?

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