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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

The Brunswick Centre, a pioneer in 20th century architecture

The Bloomsbury structure has proved highly influential, but is it modernism, brutalism or something else?

The Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, London
The Brunswick Centre from Marchmont Street

The Brunswick Centre is a multi-use residential and shopping development in Bloomsbury, near to Russell Square tube station. It has around 600 flats, a basement car park, a Curzon cinema (formerly the Renoir), and 80 commercial units including a Waitrose supermarket and a variety of other shops, cafés, restaurants and offices.

The Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, London
Flats of O'Donnell Court. Brunswick Square is just visible through the opening.

Part of the underground car park area is to be converted into a 207 bed hotel for Premier Inn, following the March 2024 granting of planning permission.

 

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For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.

 

The Brunswick Centre was built between 1967 and 1972 to designs by architect Patrick Hodgkinson, who included ideas developed with Sir Leslie Martin. They were interested in developing a low-rise, high density building that linked both residential and retail facilities.

The Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, London
The Brunswick Centre from Hunter Street

The two main residential blocks - O'Donnell Court and Foundling Court - step up from five storey street-fronts to eight storeys over the raised shop-lined 'street' between them.

The Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, London
The shopping 'street'

Flat roofs on top of the retail units provide terraces for the flats, parts of which enjoy an area of glazed wall and roof.

The Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, London
The terrace above the shops

The blocks are built on A-frame structures of reinforced concrete and brickwork, while the external walls are of rendered blockwork.

The Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, London
The A-frame of O'Donnell Court

The original name of project was the Foundling Estate, a name that lives on in Foundling Court. This is in honour of the Foundling Hospital, which owned the freehold to this area of Bloomsbury. It was an 18th century home for children that were either abandoned as babies or left by mothers unable to care for them (the nearby Foundling Museum preserves its history).


Some sections of the walls were painted in cream during a renovation project in 2002-2006, breaking up the concrete grey. This had been part of the architect's original plans, evoking the Georgian stuccoed terraced houses that the Brunswick Centre replaced, but funding constraints prevented this until the renovation.

The Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, London
Foundling Court from Marchmont Street

The paintwork certainly helped to lift the building from the austere appearance often associated with the modernist style of architecture of the 20th century and its concrete offshoot, brutalism.

The Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, London
The northern end of Foundling Court

Patrick Hodgkinson was not a fan of brutalism and his design departs from the purist modernism creed that form follows function and that aesthetics come only from utility.

The Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, London

He had intended to build the whole project in brick, but feared it would prove too difficult to use the same brick throughout, so he was delighted when the walls were finally painted.


The project was originally a private development by Marchmont Properties, with building firm Sir Robert McAlpine. It was to have extended to Euston Road in the north, but its size was limited when permission to demolish a Territorial Army building on Handel Street was not given by the Ministry of Defence.


The developers struggled to find enough private buyers and a new law required compensation to be paid to tenants of the former houses on the site. As a result, the residential parts of the project were leased to the London Borough of Camden in order to restore its financial viability.

The Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, London
Flats of O'Donnell Court

Camden's Chief Architect, S. A. G. Cook liaised with Patrick Hodgkinson, who then had a considerable influence on the younger architects in Cook's team. A number of housing schemes across the Borough in the 1970s display this influence (notably the Alexandra Road Estate, designed by architect Neave Brown).


However, at the Brunswick Centre, the leasing to Camden Council led to a change in the mix of accommodation, making it harder to attract retailers. Instead of the envisaged wide range of flats and householders, from penthouses to student hostels and everything in-between, the project only offered flats of two bedrooms and smaller to council tenants.


Hodgkinson left, but eventually returned to work on the renovations, which also included window replacements in 2007. The Brunswick Centre became his major work.

The Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, London
O'Donnell Court from the shopping area

Listed Grade II in 2000, Historic England praised the development as follows:

"The Brunswick Centre is the pioneering example of a megastructure in England: of a scheme which combines several functions of equal importance within a single framework. It is also the pioneering example of low-rise, high-density housing, a field in which Britain was extremely influential on this scale."


However, a 2008 article in The Guardian, bemoaning the rebranding of the Renoir as the Curzon cinema, described it as "desolate" and resembling "the sort of labyrinthine estate through which Regan and Carter of The Sweeney might routinely pursue teenage roister-doisters and leather-faced lags".


Like much good architecture, the Brunswick Centre divides opinion. My own view is that - regardless of its label (modernism, brutalism, or neither) - it has withstood the test of time and I have to acknowledge its importance as a pioneering mixed use development.

 

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.

 

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