The Brunswick Centre, London
On a pleasant spring day you can sit outside in the high street of the Brunswick Centre and enjoy food from the farmer’s market, peruse the shops and pick up a coffee to enjoy by the fountain. Its bustling shops and highly sought after flats have become a residential hub in Bloomsbury. The Brunswick Centre is what everyone dreams of when they imagine saving Robin Hood Gardens or Birmingham Central Library.
It was refurbished between 2000 and 2006 and when you look at what was done it really wasn’t anything radical or unfamiliar. The concrete structure was repaired, the empty and neglected ‘high street’ was transformed and the flats were gradually renovated. Importantly the bare concrete was painted white and all of a sudden the hated mega-block became the community the architect intended.
Looking at photos from before the work was done (here) it’s clear to see why there were calls for its demolition. It looks just like every other Brutalist building to have been demolished in the last decade and a half, it looks desolate and alien but look now (here). It fulfils the architect’s ideas of creating a community and that goes to prove a point. Why should we demolish buildings we perceive as failing and replace them with our own flawed ideas of architecutre? Why don’t we combine hindsight with the vision of modernist architects to create something like The Brunswick Centre?
One of the most striking and simple renovations that took place was the painting of the bare concrete. To say this was pragmatic would be untrue, it was the architect, Patrick Hodgkinson’s, original intentions to paint the building;
It was only after I left in 1970 that they decided not to paint it. I thought, ‘That’s damned stupid.’ I knew that that concrete, which was very cheap, would never stay fair-faced. And of course, after a few years it started getting filthy.
There has never been a period in time since the 60s where anyone’s made an effort to renovate these buildings (perhaps until now). Councils and planners imposed a kind of architectural apartheid on the buildings, leaving the concrete to degrade and making no attempts to breathe life into them with even the simplest of renovations. They often allowed residents and shop-owners to suffer for years in sub-standard conditions because if they repaired these structures people would begin to question whether it mightn’t just be cheaper and better to keep what was already there.
Robin Hood Gardens is ugly and decrepit but so were The Brunswick Centre and The Bullring and the Park Hill Estate. Look what they want to replace Robin Hood Gardens with (here), how is this any better than what’s there now? All they’ve done is take “streets in the sky” and make them vertical. If this monstrosity of tiny rooms and tiny windows isn’t demolished in forty years time then I’ll eat my words but for now I’m going to say that our current architectural fetish for PVC windows and poor-quality cladding is no better than the 60s obsession with utopian communities and poor-quality concrete.
We don’t need bulldozers and the heartless architecture of today we need a can of paint, a few Cypress trees and a branch of Waitrose.
Long live the Brunswick!