Friday, 6 April 2012

The Passenger

This year the Brunswick celebrates forty years, a quarter of which I have shared as my home in this “good piece of city”. An apt phrase awarded by its architect Patrick Hodgkinson revealing a human quality to his iconic Central London megastructure and also honoring it’s monumentality. Originally lacking simple refinements such as heating, the blow air ductwork, more akin to the cabin of a 1950s cruise ship, blew warm air on to cold conservatory windows making condensation waterfalls like no other. Flats principally come in one or two bed sizes in which many welcome the abundant light, generous spaces and sense of designed-in democracy. All apartments share common values such as the conservatory living room, out of which was to slide a similarly profiled glass winter-garden enclosure to the balconies until it was later omitted to save costs. All flats face east or west and either look in on the ‘concrete valley’, where nearest opposing neighbours are 100metres away, or look out on framed Bloomsbury London vignettes.

Given a £30 million pound retail face-lift in 2008 the Brunswick housing above was finally homoginised and painted the colour Hodgkinson had always wanted ‘Regency Cream’ as used in the eighteenth century Regent’s Park terraces by architect John Nash. A carefully selected reference from Hodgkinson’s repertoire of another similarly ‘good bit of city’.

Unlike the Nash terraces the perceived impermeable London terraced Brunswick is broken by multiple opportunities to explore. Writer Jane Jacobs in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ talks of the way city blocks need to be perforated and short, citing “opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.” Published in 1962 to great acclaim it is likely to have influenced the young Hodgkinson fresh-faced from the Architectural Association and designing his first and, not known at the time, also his last major commission. The Brunswick is a living embodiment of Jacobs ‘short block’, the perceived impermeable walls of concrete are perforated by “fluidity of use and the mixing of paths, not homogeneity of architecture that ties together city neighbourhoods.”

Crucially the iconic stepped section and concrete A-frame makes opportunities for multiple perforations similar to that which break the Brunswick plan into ‘short blocks’. Oblique views dominate connecting offices to residences and housing walkways to the streets below. Housing walkways offer some shelter but are predominately exposed, above the fourth floor. to the weather making them more akin to external streets. Apart from providing passive surveillance and useful ‘defensive’ spaces the multiple views promote diversity and mixed uses at different times. Jacob’s talks about streets multiplying in successful city districts in which even alleyways become streets. The Brunswick void of alleyways but abundant in similarly narrow walkways that combine and link zones of activity, preventing what Jacob’s refers to as “the stagnation of these long blocks with the fluidity of use that an extra street could bring”.

The Brunswick’s inherently neighbourly design is reason why so many residents still live here since completion in 1972. Qualities no better captured than by actor Jack Nicholson in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger”, also completed in the same year, who was filmed walking down it’s steps, from housing to shopping streets, in one seamless flowing filmic cityscape,......a journey I repeat in my daily routine.

(A printed version of this is available in Blueprint Magazine Issue 314)

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