City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Brunswick Centre, London

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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.



































17 responses to “Brunswick Centre, London”

  1. Phil Gyford Avatar

    I walked past the other day and it does look swish, although, yes, Skoob Books will be missed. But while sprucing things up like this is preferable to letting them rot, I do get annoyed by the way everything gets homogenised.
    I know the state of British high streets, with their identical supermarkets, mobile phone shops, chain clothes stores, etc has been written about endlessly… but there must be something to say about the more “quality” smart chains that are ubiquitous, and increasingly dull, in modern city (re)developments (at least in London): Brunswick Centre, Royal Festival Hall, Spitalfields, by City Hall.


  2. Dan Hill Avatar

    Completely agree Phil. That’s what I meant by hoping that this “mixed-use development is mixed-up a bit more.”
    I guess it’s even questionable as to whether dull, ‘smart’ (cos it’s not really smart) redevelopment is better than letting it rot, in some respects. It certainly gets less urban the more mundane and ubiquitous it gets.
    But generally, if there’s a genuine interplay between these franchised developments and some unique, local, bespoke developments, that can work.


  3. Duchess Avatar

    As a local I thought that any renovation would be an improvement but the inside is starting to look like every other shopping thoroughfare.
    It would have been nice to have given it a bit more of a retro feel; a nostalgic nudge back to the 60s perhaps.


  4. Pete Avatar

    I love the Brunswick for many of the reasons stated above (though continuing survival of the Hare And Tortoise noodle bar is central to this love). I find the juxtaposition between the modernist architecture and the way the tenants actually organise the flats very instructive. The sun room part, which has often looked like a tagged on greenhouse as an afterthough is, in most cases, lined with net curtains. Whilst probably too high to see into, the direct line of sight across the “canyon” on the centre probably made this necessary for perceived privacy, but makes for a bizarre sight. I do hope some money in the refurb will be going in to the issues such as the heat/cold and privacy whilst maintaining an overall aesthetic.
    Looks nice with the new cladding, and lets see how the new shops actually do?


  5. Esther Kaijim Avatar
    Esther Kaijim

    I would love to live at the brunswick square…
    are there any opportunities?
    Appartemnts for rent or rooms?
    Thank you, Esther


  6. Dan Hill Avatar

    Tyler Brulé has some interesting and entire valid points on the Brunswick Centre in his FT column this week [subs. reqd.]


  7. john-paul hodges Avatar
    john-paul hodges

    nuke It
    Its horrible
    youll all get alzheimers
    that jingle of babylon has been there since
    1994. I saw it towering over bloomsbury and
    had to go out my way to get there
    I could’nt look at any of you so thankfully I only went there once. And the cinema
    also was a little surprise on my retreat from the complex


  8. john-paul hodges Avatar
    john-paul hodges

    I could allways start a coffee shop
    under a canopy in the center there
    landlords and venture capitalists please contact my email


  9. Paul Mison Avatar

    “the quaint obsession with owning your own house rather than living in an apartment”
    When so many apartments are shoddy conversions of Georgian terraces – or indeed on-the-cheap modernism – and you can hear your neighbours walking around upstairs and the slightest hint of their TV, can you blame people?
    I’m lucky; for some reason I’m able to ignore little noises like that (and deal with the Tube and buses when they break, and so on), but not everybody is so well adapted for city life.
    +1 on Phil’s point about the checklist of chains, though, although I suppose there’s a certain level of hypocrisy there in the fact I do appreciate those upmarket chains being scattered around.


  10. Dan Hill Avatar

    Ta Paul. (I’m crediting Phil’s account with the +1 accordingly.) As for apartments, they’re built to incredibly poor standards in the UK. That’s the problem; not the form of habitation itself. Compare to Swiss or Austrian building standards in urban apartments, say, and it’s quite different. Solid walls, doors, well-designed spaces, high-quality build, communal spaces incorporated, services and shops built into a holistic plan etc etc and so on. Families live there quite happily. I find it frustrating that British cities have never quite got the possibilities of apartment living purely as a result of shoddy craft. (There are other theories as to why apartments don’t work British cities, such as class concerns, but it’s clear that there’s gap in the market for properly built apartments for the average punter.)


  11. phil cook Avatar

    Hello to you all.
    I worked in the brunswick centre for nearly 5 years, in a photographic studio next to what was then LEEDS. On leaving employment I started taking pictures over a 3-4 year period, not knowing what was in-store a year later.
    I have now been asked by allied london to launch the new gallery space within the centre ( where the flower shop used to be) with my pictures. There is also going to be a book. Yes, you may be thinking…………allied want this to show just what a good job they’ve done. Well I’m not so sure. I love the finished building. Well over-due, but I’m not so sure about the new residence of the retail units….the USUAL SUSPECTS. If anyone has intersting/comical/stories from before the face-lift I’d love to hear them. I’m needing help to put this story together. I only have a few days to get this done as Allied want the book and exhibition up by the 1st dec 2006. If you’d like an invite to the gallery launch let me now your details.
    thanks alot
    Phil cook


  12. Dan Hill Avatar

    A year on, it’s worth noting that I’ve rarely seen a space so transformed. It’s lively, busy and well-used every day. It’s kept clean, and everything seems to be working beautifully. The mix-up of shops is still too homogenous – it could handle a few independents – and that street furniture still seems a bit odd. But you have to say, it’s busy again, and that’s great.
    And better still, Skoob Books is still there! Just around the back of the building. Shame it’s there and not in front, but they have new premises near the Marchmont St. entrance.


  13. Jill Ramsey Avatar
    Jill Ramsey

    Remember the Brunswick Centre from when it was still a bit of ruin in ’01.
    It has been revamped nicely and is now a fave place to shop in Bloomsbury. Has great shops and Waitrose is always brilliant.
    The lights glowing from the apartments above the shops is a cosy sight at night.
    I too would like to live there.
    The commentary above was informative, but found this comment a bit confusing and on the offensive side:
    “and the quaint obsession with owning your own house rather than living in an apartment”
    Quaint obsession? What’s “quaint” about owning your own home?
    And why is home-ownership an “obsession”?
    Also, why is living in an apartment preferable to owning a house?
    Some of the assuptions of the writer are to questioned, in my view.


  14. judy roberts Avatar
    judy roberts

    I actually lived in a house on the Brunswick SQuare side of (now) the Brunswick Centre. My grandparents owned No 13 Brunswick Square, a Hotel, The Rathgar House Hotel,which was the third house from the left as you turned into the Square from Bernard Street, on the West Side. All along the West Side and where the University of London residences are were Georgian Houses.
    I dont like the description in one of the articles here that stated “most of the buildings around were run down terraces” that is not true. Brunswick Square was NOT run down – yes there were a couple of places bombed and not repaired, but the rest of the square remained intact. Maybe I am looking through rose tinted glasses. Growing up I took living in Bloomsbury for granted, Russell Sq tube just round the corner for transport, history in every nook and cranny. My grandparents were one of the many residents that HAD to leave when the (unknown) developer bought up the whole block, they petitioned along with others, but of course Money won the day. Luckily my grandparents owned another property and so had somewhere to go.
    I have never liked modern architecture, and see the design of the Brunswick Centre as a monstrosity. Although upon visiting recently, was pleasantly surprised to see a complete revamp to the shopping area.
    I also worked out that what was our garden then would have stood where Starburcks Coffee House is now.
    Lately, I have been interested in finding out who bought up the area that houses the Brunswick Centre and I now find lots of information online on this subject. I wonder why they chose Brunswick Square and surrounding streets and not other Squares?
    Brunswick Square still holds lots of memories for me.


  15. robert shepherd Avatar

    Perhaps the Brunswick somehow retains some memory of the “injured ” Queen she is named after: Queen Caroline of Brunswick,
    banned from the coronation of her husband, George V1, loved by the people of London, and allegedly poisoned by the King. She is the quintessential bad Queen Caroline as opposed to good Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg.
    Just compare the two squares.


  16. Emma Avatar

    Hey Phil,
    I am currently studying the Brunswick Centre as an Architect student and it would be really helpful to talk to someone who worked in and on the Brunswick centre. If you have the time, would you be interested in emailing me ( with any information/views you have on the Brunswick?
    thanks a lot,


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