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Learning to love my Brutalist childhood home

The Brunswick’s ugliness once mortified me, but now I appreciate its utopian roots

Last summer, I flew to Marseille to spend a night, alone, in the hotel that occupies two floors of Le Corbusier’s La Cité Radieuse. I had plans to meet friends in the city the following day, but this part was a solo pilgrimage: I wanted an afternoon to see the perfectly preserved Brutalist masterpiece up close. For architecture nerds, this decision requires no further explanation. For my mother—to whom I texted a photo while watching the sunset from the building’s iconic rooftop—it was a source of amusement. She brought me up in a landmark Brutalist council estate in London inspired by the very building where I was now a paying guest—and I had hated it.

Spreadeagled in the center of leafy Bloomsbury, the Brunswick Centre is a monolithic residential and shopping development, notorious for the love-hate response it tends to evoke. Designed by British architect Patrick Hodgkinson in the mid-1960s, it began as Hodgkinson’s fourth-year student project at London’s venerated Architecture Association in 1953, a proposal inspired by the opening of Le Corbusier’s first Unité d’Habitation in Marseille just one year before.

Unlike Corbu’s proud Brutalist prototype, which is still occupied and operating in seemingly perfect running order, the Brunswick Centre had already lost its way by the time it opened in 1972. Though Hogkingson had envisioned a village-like utopia of spacious homes and municipal facilities, the building abruptly lost its funding around 1970 and was sold off to new developers, who finished it quickly and on the cheap. By the time we moved there in the early ’90s, the building’s concrete exterior was streaked with dirt and rain, and a host of nefarious characters (drug dealers, you could safely assume) lurked in its shadowy maze of inner corridors. If the Brunswick had been built in the spirit of Le Corbusier’s declaration that a house is “a machine for living in,” then our manufacturer’s warranty must’ve long expired.

Inside the apartments, the heating system consisted of a single metal vent in the living room that blew an insipid stream of warm air from October to May. There was never enough hot water for a full bath (we topped it up with a boiling kettle), and once you were in it, large flakes of damp paint would peel off the bathroom ceiling and drift, like snowflakes, onto your head. The elevator smelled persistently of pee.

None of this really registered with me until I started at one of London’s best public girls’ schools at age 11. The Brunswick’s central location landed me squarely in the school’s wide catchment area, which also welcomed girls from council estates in Tower Hamlets and Hackney to the east—we dubbed ourselves “fob crew,” on account of the scratched plastic keys we all used to access our buildings—and girls from affluent neighborhoods like Westbourne Park and Primrose Hill to the west and leafy North. I felt a sense of solidarity sharing sneaky cigarettes with the fob crew on our lunch break, while secretly longing to live in the elegant white townhouses that the wealthy girls went back to after school. On the rare occasions I allowed those girls to sleep over, the Brunswick’s unavoidable ugliness mortified me in the way only 15-year-old girls can experience mortification (that is: truly, madly, deeply).

At 16, I switched schools to finish my secondary education at a vast co-ed institution in North London, partly in a last-ditch attempt to persuade my long-suffering mother that we should move to nearby Dartmouth Park or Gospel Oak. The places we might’ve afforded there were mostly poky basement flats in unremarkable Victorian terraced houses, but at least they would be normal. My mother entertained the idea for a while (or at least pretended to) before very rightly deciding she would rather stay put in her home of 15 years, a place that, for all its faults, was still flooded with light and had a balcony, was across the street from a tube station and above an arthouse cinema, and was in an area enshrouded by quiet green squares and independent bookshops.

At 19, I moved out and moved on, eventually leaving London altogether to start new lives in Los Angeles and, later, New York. With the exposure to different models of city living came a retrospective affection for the clunky, awkward building I had left behind. In LA, I became conscious of my absurd privilege in having grown up walking everywhere from the heart of central London, as well as the daily cultural education I received simply from living where we had lived: side-by-side with Bangladeshi, Ghanaian, and West Indian families, whose food smells and dialects warmed the landings of our damp communal corridors.

Later, walking the streets of New York (as well as Barcelona, Berlin, and Mexico City), I found my eye was often drawn by buildings which shared the Brunswick’s stark geometry and aura of utilitarian purpose. This was an aesthetic awakening, for sure, but a political one, too, rooted in a newfound understanding of Brutalism’s utopian ideal that design-led social housing should not be an anomaly, but the norm.

When I told people in the U.S. that I’d grown up in “the projects” I was usually met with an expression of horror or disbelief. After a few years of living in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn (home of the infamous Marcy Projects, where the rapper Jay-Z grew up) I began to understand why. Like health care, public housing in the United States offers a stark and potent example of the country’s vast economic divide. In the U.K., council estates might be dilapidated, but they are rarely ghettoized in the same way. You can find them dotted across even the most affluent parts of London, and they often feature interesting, even beautiful, architectural design, two factors that mitigate the risk of residents ending up relegated to the fringes of urban life.

Meanwhile, the Brunswick Centre underwent an evolution of its own. In the mid-2000s, the building was regenerated by a team including Hogkinson himself, who came out of retirement to paint the entire thing a shade of glossy cream, just as he had always intended. It is now a grade II-listed building—meaning it cannot be demolished or altered without a rigorous approval process—and widely revered by architects and Brutalism fans alike (there are a lot more of us these days), who travel there to admire its unique cascading layout and sweeping greenhouse windows.

Sometimes, I’m among them. My mother moved out of the Brunswick Centre a decade ago, but I still migrate there on return trips to London, finding myself in its central atrium—now full of buzzy restaurants and stores—as if on autopilot. That imposing concrete structure I once wished so desperately to escape is the place where I am still, somehow, most at home.

Phoebe Lovatt is London-born writer and moderator, currently based in the U.S. Find her at phoebelovatt.com and @phoebelovatt.