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BOOK

REVIEW

The Life and Times of the Brunswick, Bloomsbury By Clare Melhuish.Camden History Society, 2006. £7.50

In Polanski's - lm Chinatown, Noah Cross tells us: 'Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all become respectable in time.' For much of its life the Brunswick Centre was thought of as just such a building. Originally developed by Alec Coleman (also responsible for Portsmouth's reviled Tricorn Centre), its creation involved the demolition of three and a half blocks of Georgian housing in the 1960s, making it a cause célèbre of the conservation movement. There is the not unusual irony here that the 'new' building is now listed and has arguably been more fought over than the 'old' buildings which were demolished to make way for it.

Indeed, the Brunswick Centre provides one of the more tortuous episodes in the recent history of listing. Originally put forward in 1992 against strong opposition from its architect Patrick Hodgkinson, it was granted a certificate of immunity for five years, only to be listed in 2000 when that had lapsed - but this time against the opposition of Docomomo UK. Given the results of the centre's recent redevelopment by Patrick Hodgkinson and Levitt Bernstein, one wonders if they should apologise.

Now a much-loved monument to Brutalism in the heart of Bloomsbury, its status as a small-scale megastructure is one that Hodgkinson has always resisted. 'Drawn more to Futurism than Cubism', he prefers to think of it as a village in the city, based on such diverse models as Oxbridge quads, Haddon Hall, the work of Louis Kahn, and the Adams' Adelphi scheme. Now rebranded as 'The Brunswick', it would appear that Noah Cross was right and the centre has become not only respectable but cherished - at least partly for demonstrating the virtues of high-density city living.

I've certainly never lost the thrill of stumbling across this bit of Sant'Elia in the middle of London. Clare Melhuish's slim, scholarly study tells the story from the centre's conception in the late 1950s and completion in 1973, through its difficult years of neglect to its present refurbishment. Her account is more than welcome, despite the privilege she seems to give to the architect's voice. But then Hodgkinson has had a peculiarly close association with his creation, determinedly marking out his territory like a new cat on the block.

To have produced the usual architectural history which stopped when the keys are handed over would have taught us little, and the Brunswick Centre still has much to teach, for it gives the lie to two myths that still seem hard to counter.

High-density doesn't have to mean tall (it was first conceived as 40 storeys by Covell and Matthews); and, as the centre's current popularity makes clear, listing needn't keep a building in aspic.

Julian Holder is an architectural historian in Manchester

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