Words Mary-Rose Storey
Illustrations Ross Becker
“…it’s as though you’re living in the clouds, not just looking at them.”
A 1960s concrete housing estate is not an image that springs to mind when picturing the architecture of Bloomsbury but The Brunswick Centre has more in common with the elegant Georgian squares of the area than one might think.
As the architectural journalist Steve Rose wrote in The Guardian “By anyone’s standards, the Brunswick is a radical building. It would be a great setting for a sci-fi movie, with its huge concrete frame, elevated walkways and stepped ranks of apartments with curious angled windows. It’s such an odd building, variously called a “superblock” or a “mega structure”. Its banked ramparts and soaring service towers bring to mind the fantasy designs of the Italian futurist Antonio Sant’Elia; but more commonly, the Brunswick’s raw concrete and structural articulation put it firmly in the new brutalist school, alongside other ambitious structures of the time, such as Sheffield’s Park Hill housing estate or London’s Trellick Tower.”
Built in 1964 by architect Patrick Hodgkinson, based on studies by Leslie Martin, The Brunswick has had a troubled history. Initially it was intended as a private development and planned to be much larger, extending all the way to the Euston Road, but the Ministry of Defence, whose Territorial Army headquarters was in nearby Handel Street, refused permission for Camden Council’s compulsory purchase, using the excuse that the building contained a very large, hydraulically mounted gun – what if war should break out during the moving process?
Another problem for the development occurred when, in 1964, the newly elected Labour government brought in rent controls and agreed to rehouse all tenants evicted by compulsory purchase. Camden Council signed a 99-year lease in 1966, and the potential buyers of The Brunswick flats pulled out when they realised they would be sharing the building with council tenants. The developers still kept ownership of the structure and the shopping areas but the original designs were compromised due to lack of funds.
The concrete exterior was designed to be painted Crown Commissioners Cream, in keeping with the Georgian buildings of the area, but the concrete was left unpainted, resulting in unattractive streaking and water seepage problems. Over the years, the building fell into disrepair, shops began to close and it became litter-strewn and uncared for. Only the Renoir Cinema remained as a beacon of culture.
But salvation was at hand. Allied London Properties bought the freehold in 1998. Luckily, the founder, Michael Ingall, liked the property and hired Patrick Hodgkinson to submit a revised scheme. He brought in David Levitt (who actually lives at The Brunswick) and David Bernstein, who both worked with him on the original design and in November 2002, the £22 million project began. The exterior was cleaned and painted in a cream colour (Desert White). A large Waitrose store opened and The Renoir Cinema became The Curzon Bloomsbury. New shops, cafes and restaurants were attracted to the centre and it began to be used as the architects’ vision had intended: a London village with a thriving mixture of flats and businesses, the sloping glass roofs giving the residents hours of light and sunshine.
The Brunswick is now Grade II listed and though adored by most of its residents, it has always had a love-it-or-hate-it reaction from the wider public. It has been variously described as a “Bloomsbury Prison”, “Alcatraz”, “Planet of the Apes” or, more affectionately, “Like some giant spaceship landed in genteel Bloomsbury – really cool”. The Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, who used locations of bleak urban landscapes to depict modern alienation, featured the Brunswick Centre in his 1975 film The Passenger. Its star, Jack Nicholson, can be seen striding across the square to meet Maria Schneider, who waits for him on the (since demolished) steps.
When reviewing Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s book The London Square, A.N. Wilson remarked on its failure to mention The Brunswick, stating: “It managed to achieve the sort of living space provided by the ideal square. It combines the qualities of Inigo Jones’s sunny piazzas and the domestic intimacy of Canonbury and the Lloyd Baker Estate.” The film director Jack Bond, who recently moved to The Brunswick, finds the building inspiring: “I love its brutal simplicity. Also the sky plays such a dominant part – it’s as though you’re living in the clouds, not just looking at them. From any angle, you tend to look up because you’re in this valley, this trough of buildings created by a triangular centre part. The other thing I like is that it’s a gathering place for people to come and relax, have a coffee or a meal or go to the cinema. When I look across at the flats opposite, it reminds me of those Spanish mountain villages where houses are tiered above each other.”
When architect Brendan Woods moved into The Brunswick 22 years ago, he found it a bit like Eastern Europe in terms of its general decrepitude. He was a personal friend of the architect Patrick Hodgkinson, who sadly died in February this year at the age of 85, and wrote Hodgkinson’s obituary for the RIBA Journal. He likens living at The Brunswick to living on a sailing ship. As he wrote in the Architectural Review in 2007, after the restoration work was completed: “I think the transformation is near miraculous after the years of neglect. ‘The SS Brunswick’ stranded in Bloomsbury (a bit like the SS Great Britain malingering in the Falkland Islands) was weather-beaten and appeared semi derelict. The stained concrete and render added to its sense of abandonment and neglect. Patrick Hodgkinson had always intended that the building be painted but was thwarted by McAlpine who wanted to save money.”
Woods is hoping to develop the idea of ‘greening’ the building by introducing much more planting (new owners, Lazari Investments, support this idea and have said they will provide irrigation). He loves The Brunswick because he finds it wonderfully private with a sense of being far away from other people. He doesn’t consider the architecture ‘Brutalist’, which he thinks a much-abused term. “I have grown to appreciate what an extraordinary achievement it is. Few architects can boast of anything comparable.” As Alan Powers wrote some years ago about the portico to Brunswick Square: “Against the evening light, or on a winter’s evening, the tall thin columns standing out against the chiaroscuro background provide one of the few genuinely sublime architectural sights of London.”