One of Britain’s few remaining modernist, even brutalist, housing projects – the Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury, London – is currently undergoing a transformation.
The place had been tatty for years, with the main thoroughfare feeling dangerous at night and run-down during the day. Yet underneath the peeling paint on the metal windowframes and the giant slabs of stained concrete, a brave and optimistic structure stands, filled with brave and optimistic residents. "I see it as a huge ocean liner or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon", says one. Here’s an early image of the Centre (architect Patrick Hodgkinson):
Yet a quick glance at Wikipedia reveals a sorry but all-too-familiar tale of a British modernist housing project unfinished and left to wither by the developers and councils:
"After failing to attract private buyers on time, the block was sold to London Borough of Camden for use as council housing.
The exterior of the building was never painted because Camden Council
could not afford to complete work on the building after they took
control. In Hodgkinson’s design each flat had a sun room but as the
building programme was truncated, flats were equipped with neither
adequate glazing nor ventilation units, and as a result were too hot in
the summer and too cold in the winter." [Wikipedia]
This lack of guts, vision, care and attention-to-detail is largely why modernism has a bad name in Britain – that, and the quaint obsession with owning your own house rather than living in an apartment – with only the Barbican and a few others bucking the trend slightly. But maybe the Brunswick is about to turn a corner.
The entire building is being redeveloped, with the concrete spruced up and the main strip is about to feel the combined effects of French Connection, Oasis, Starbucks, Carluccio’s, Waitrose et al. While it’s good to see the Renoir cinema still there, I’ll miss the scruffy but engaging Skoob Books second-hand store, and it remains to be seen what these new shops will do for the Centre by themselves. They’re good interventions, on the whole, but I hope the vision of mixed-use development is mixed-up a bit more than this.
Will it become a desirable place to live, hang out, shop – and provide the existing residents with a better quality of life? Or will the existing residents be forced out over time, as the place gentrifies? Will those brands still be there in a year, will the Centre be maintained properly, or will it descend once again to its previously fallow state? While the space and architecture will always be far from perfect, I’m hopeful it’ll do well actually, as long as the place is seen as an ongoing development.
The 20th Century Society has a great, if out-dated, piece on the Brunswick, as does The Observer and there’s some good (early 70s?) snaps of the Brunswich at Art&Architecture. The Brunswick project also has a site.
Below a quick photo-essay on the first opening weekend of the new Waitrose supermarket. More pictures, detailing the landscaping, revamped structure and new shops, after the link below.
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