Thanks to a £24 million facelift, the Brunswick Centre is now somewhere you‘d actually want to go
Imposing, uncompromising and grey, the Grade II-listed Brunswick Centre, in Bloomsbury’s otherwise elegant Georgian heart, was both adored and abhorred by those who lived or worked in and around it. If you’ve been away for the past couple of years, you’ll find the new development – a vast, cream, open space with glass shop fronts and outdoor cafés, punctuated by sleek steel and wood benches, sculptural rills and a central avenue that opens up to the sky – almost unrecognisable.
When the huge Waitrose (42,000 square feet of it) opened in July, it marked the beginning of a new gentrified quarter in central London. The old shops have been replaced with a raft of mid-range chain stores including Hobbs, Oasis, Coast, LK Bennett and Space NK, with more due over the coming weeks. Scruffy but much-loved greasy spoon Panino d’Oro has moved out and Carluccio’s, Giraffe and Starbucks have moved in. Brilliant independent bookshop Skoob Books couldn’t afford the rent and has decamped to the internet (though it is hoping to make a comeback to the Brunswick in 2007). Just two of the original independent traders – popular restaurant Hare & Tortoise and esteemed optical specialist Drury Porter Eyecare – remain, alongside existing chains such as Boots, Holland & Barrett and William Hill.
Property developer Allied London bought the building from another developer, Rugby Estates, in 1998 and architects Levitt Bernstein were appointed to work on the £24 million facelift alongside the centre’s original architect Patrick Hodgkinson, with whom they had worked on the original designs. For Hodgkinson, now 76, it was a chance to make the centre the ‘superblock with shops’ that he had envisaged before his original designs were diluted by ’60s council wranglings. ‘It has a very mixed history – it started up in the 1950s as a completely private development, but developer Robert McAlpine got cold feet in the ’60s and it meant making revisions to the plan. They didn’t paint it the shade of “Crown Commissioners Cream” like the one in Regent’s Park I’d wanted so the concrete got dirty. Now it’s more like the colour I had originally intended.
‘Bloomsbury was miserable in the ’60s – the Georgian buildings were all in an awful state. We weren’t allowed to build higher than 80 feet, but we still achieved the maximum density allowed. It was originally going to extend to Tavistock Place, but they ran out of money. I became known as a Brutalist, but I wasn’t at all.
‘It had been intended for quality retailers but as soon as people heard it was going to be council housing they ran away. Camden [Council] took it over. When I was forced to resign in the early ’70s and it stopped being built, I was very disappointed.’
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