Clare Melhuish reviews momentary transformation of the Brunswick Centre
The Brunswick, in Bloomsbury, has been a cause célèbre for years now, awaiting some kind of transformative action to give it new life, but hotly contested at every step.
After Allied London took over the freehold and ownership of the shopping precinct in 1999, it became a remarkable example of an architectural icon re-entrusted to its author after a 30-year absence. Not only were Hodgkinson's new designs vehemently criticised from certain quarters, but a decision was finally taken to list the building, ensuring its 'protection' from future alterations.
Despite its success in obtaining the approval of both English Heritage and Camden's planning department, Allied London's intentions still seem unclear; more shops than ever stand empty and the concrete monolith looks increasingly bleak and unkempt. Until last week, that is, when a group of determined residents pulled off a momentary transformation of the building.
'Visions of Space and Sanctuary' was a series of artists' interventions in the building, which demonstrated its vitality at an experiential level, and its continuing relevance to debates about the architecture of urban inhabitation. At the same time, it made a clear statement about the building's cultural status as an architectural monument set apart from the normality of the dwellings in which most people live out their lives.
When I carried out ethnographic research at the Brunswick two years ago, it was striking how the housing and shopping complex seemed to act as a stimulant to the imaginations of those involved with it - a rare effect in modern-day social housing. It was this phenomenon that became manifest in the artworks located along the terraces and first floor areas of the building; areas which the public does not normally have access to, but which, in the original scheme, were public gardens.
The mere act of traversing these upper-level spaces significantly altered one's perception of the Brunswick, reinstating a multi-dimensional spatial hierarchy, while the experience of encountering these pockets of creative intervention engendered a great awareness of the pleasure of haptic discovery of the building. The sense of playfulness and artifice provided a powerful counterpoint to the standard narrative of defensible space, and its litany of dangers lurking in dark corners, long walkways and twisting staircases.
In this representation, such locations became sites of an intimate tea for two, of a video installation seen through a peephole, fusing the concrete surfaces of the building with the animate flesh of the human body, or an archaeological excavation of those surfaces to reveal the traces of human presence in contrasting material forms (such as wallpaper). The familiar portico was draped in a red, flowing veil. Together, these works dressed up and civilised the exposed body of a building never intended to be left in a raw, unclothed state.
'The Brunswick Project: Visions of Space and Sanctuary', was at the Brunswick Centre between 46 April. Visit www. thebrunswickproject. co. uk