How European is the Brunswick Centre?

Clare Melhuish, Director and Principal Research Fellow in the UCL Urban Laboratory, explores the interconnections between landmarks of quintessentially British modernist architecture and their European counterparts.

As the government’s ‘Check, Change, Go’ information campaign has made its presence felt on the streets of the UK, preparing its citizens for the end of the Brexit transition period on January 31st and a possible no-deal, the necessity of consolidating strong cultural and academic exchanges and collaborations with our European colleagues and friends has felt all the more pressing. I have been very pleased therefore to be involved in two publications this year which showcase British post-war architecture and urbanism in a European context, and highlight the depth of the intellectual and artistic entanglement which historically binds the UK to its European neighbours, and shapes our common urban futures.

Luxury for all: Milestones in European Stepped Terrace Housing is a beautifully produced volume of texts, drawings and new photographs (Steixner, G and Welzig, M., eds 2020. Basel: Birkhauser), which features housing estates in Munich, Ljubljana, Berlin, Ivrea, Graz, Vienna and London shaped by the stepped terrace typology. While in the UK there has been a profound and enduring backlash against the experimental social housing projects of the 1950s – 70s, sponsored by the post-war Welfare State, the Vienna-based editors of this book highlight the forward-looking green credentials of the stepped terrace typology, incorporating ‘park-like communal greenspaces, high-quality shared facilities, and urban density’ (p11). They reproduce an annotated excerpt from an essay by the Viennese architect Harry Gluck, titled ‘The Potential of the Green City’, which sets out the framework for an understanding of the stepped terraced housing prototype as part of a green urban utopia. This is illustrated by his project for Inzersdorfer Strasse residential complex in Vienna (1969-74), which as the photographs reveal, is a richly-planted terrace building, prefiguring Stefano Boeri Architetti’s Bosco Verticale in Milan, with a communal swimming-pool and terrace on the roof.

Within this context, my case study on Patrick Hodgkinson’s Brunswick Centre (1968-73), located not far from UCL in central London, stands out with barely a glimpse of green to be seen across its two stepped, linear blocks, and little evidence of provision for planting or green spaces in any form. It has been much better known through its lifetime as a concrete megastructure and insensitive intervention in the historic urban landscape of Bloomsbury. And yet, as my contribution points out, the architect’s original conception was very different: he was proud of the fact that the development returned 70 percent of the site area to open space, compared to the original Victorian terraced housing and back-yards, providing a large amount of sheltered public open space in its central precinct and first floor level terraces. Hodgkinson conceived these as ‘pleasure gardens’ open to the public, overlooking a ‘town room’ below which would provide a safe haven from traffic and a hub for local social life. The Brunswick’s green potential has been a missed opportunity, largely due to management and maintenance issues, which even its successful regeneration in 2006 has not addressed.

Hodgkinson (1930 – 2016) was the son of a Suffolk farmer who believed he could re-present at the Brunswick a romantic evocation of a unique, native tradition of construction and settlement patterns, fused with the English landscape and climate, in the form of ‘a village…overlooking nature…[a] green valley[1]. His architectural references were predominantly British – notably the Georgian squares and crescents of London and Bath, the 18th Century Adelphi development off the Strand by the Adam brothers, and London’s historic West End villages, ‘rich with the panoply of life’[2]. He rejected the French modernist model of mass housing developed by Le Corbusier as unsuitable to the British temperate native climate and customs, and later wrote that ‘I have never really forgiven Elizabeth David for trying to teach us to cook Mediterranean food, simply because it does not suit our raw materials or our climate’[3].

In light of such un-European sentiments it is all the more interesting to set the Brunswick alongside comparable European housing projects and understand the deep-rooted connections that link the work to the European context and output of Hodgkinson’s European contemporaries. Luxury for All highlights the common ecological credentials of a European housing movement which conserved land resources through its low-rise, high-density approach, and placed high value on integrated social infrastructure and open space: ‘an urban model of densification that contributes to a green(er) city’ (p9).

 Inzersdorfer Strasse, Vienna | Photo by Gerhard Steixner

The second publication, a co-edited volume led by Lorenzo Ciccarelli from the University of Florence (UCL Press, under review), focuses on transcultural exchanges in post-war architecture and urbanism between the UK and Italy. My chapter on the Brunswick in this volume examines the influence of Italian approaches to post-war urban reconstruction and the historic morphology of Italian towns and public spaces on Hodgkinson’s design of the development.

Italian architects and urbanists of the period, reeling from the impact of fascism, were deeply impressed by Britain’s embrace of Welfare State ideology and its socially-inspired, democratically-led building programme of mass housing, education and healthcare facilities, which led to the construction of ambitious new towns and council estates across the country, many of which have since been privatised and redeveloped. British architects, in parallel, increasingly looked for inspiration to the Italian humanist approach to the reconstruction of central city areas following World War 2, rooted in a sense of historical continuity – as manifested in the Architectural Review’s ‘Townscape’ campaign between the 1940s and 60s. Our new book pulls together a rich selection of contributions by British, Italian and American scholars exploring these exchanges and conduits of influence, which generated new theoretical debates and architectural and urban typologies. Among these, my chapter on the Brunswick highlights the contrast between the critics’ view of the development as ultra-modern, even Futurist, in its aspirations, and Hodgkinson’s insistence on the influence of historical precedents in the design of its spatial morphology, as well as his initial preference for traditional brick, not concrete, as a building material. He rejected the idea of the Brunswick as a ‘megastructure’, insisting on its contribution to urban placemaking and reconstruction by reference to historic models.

By presenting the Brunswick in the context of Italian approaches of the period, and exploring the connections between Hodgkinson and contemporaries who actively developed a dialogue with their Italian peers, through publications, exhibitions and meetings (eg CIAM 8 at Hoddesdon, 1951, on the theme of ‘The Heart of the City’, led by Ernesto Rogers, and the RIBA’s 1952 exhibition ‘Italian Contemporary Architecture’), I aim again to demonstrate how fundamental the European context was for the conception and evolution of the design. Notwithstanding Hodgkinson’s emphasis on British precedents, climate and customs, it is important to understand the extent to which the Brunswick emerged within dynamic flows of exchange and collaboration between the UK and the European mainland, as architects and urbanists struggled to come to terms with the destruction of war and together chart a better future for urban society and everyday life in cities.

As we career towards Brexit, in the midst of the fear and trauma generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, we are, more than ever, aware of the destructive influence of anti-European rhetoric, and the resistance to acknowledging how much we owe and have gained from collaborating with each other historically, despite the repetitive rifts caused by political and religious dissent and warfare. Architecture and urban design across the UK presents everyday material evidence of those historical collaborations and exchanges across the English Channel, which frame our lives and interactions. It is all the more important at this time to look at this evidence with greater attention and explore the clues it offers for collaboration and mutual admiration in the future.

[1] Hodgkinson 1992b

[2] Hodgkinson P (1992), Speculation with Humanity?, architect’s objection to Tranmac’s planning application, 10July

[3] Hodgkinson 2001a 

Images by Gerhard Steixner, used with permission.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s