The Brunswick Centre: Gentrified Displacement22 minute read

The Brunswick centre, through Palimpsest, as a site of gentrified induced displacement and how this reflects the politics of who gets to live where within the context of London.

The Brunswick centre is a long, open-ended shopping precinct in the heart of Georgian Bloomsbury, London (Melhuish, 2005). Bordering along its east and west edges are sets of monolithic concrete A-frame blocks (Codrington, 2001) which house approximately 400 flats, located over a series of shops (Tappin, 2007). It was designed by the architect Patrick Hodgkinson during the 1950s and 1960s as a low-rise alternative to high-density housing, a surprising architectural decision due to the popularity of high-rise housing policies of the time (Melhuish, 2005). Throughout the 20th and 21st century it has undergone two major redevelopments, the first being its original construction after the war, completed in 1972, and then a further redevelopment project instigated in the spring of 2005 at a cost of £22 million to help revive the former ‘ghost town,’ (Tappin, 2007, P181). The overall aim of the redevelopment was for the Brunswick centre to service as a multi-functional structure in order to facilitate an all-in-one, self-sufficient urban community (Codrington, 2001). As a result of the most redevelopment, the site can now be viewed as a space currently undergoing the process of gentrification, (Tappin, 2007, Melhuish, 2005, Stewart, 2005). Due to the concern of the implications of gentrification and the subsequent displacement of residents (Ley, 1992), relating to the wider politics of affordable housing within London (Smith, 1979), gentrification will serve as the theme for this paper.

Theme identification: Gentrified induced displacement:

Gentrification is defined as the process by which higher-income households displace lower-income residents, changing the character and appearance of a neighbourhood (Lees, 2000). Gentrification has a very clear class and racial component, as higher-income white households displace lower-income minority households (Smith, 2000). It is linked directly to changes in the city’s economy, resulting in increased economic polarization of the population (Ley, 1994). A vicious circle is created in which the poor are continuously under pressure of displacement and the wealthy continuously seek to fence themselves within gentrified neighbourhoods (Marcuse, 1985). As a result of gentrification, people are displaced (LeCates, 1981).

Displacement occurs in circumstances where any household is ‘forced to move from its residence by conditions which affect the dwelling or its immediate surroundings’ (US Department of Housing and Urban Development P. 214). To cover the full range of displacement, this definition is accompanied with the ideas of exclusionary displacement and pressure of displacement (Grier & Grier, 1987). Exclusionary displacement refers to the process whereby a similar household is prevented from moving in to the area or within the same household unit, due to the gentrification of the area or household (Marcuse, 1985). Pressure of displacement refers to when services change to accommodate the tastes of higher clientele, resulting in alienation (Marcuse, 1986). In this paper I will assess the extent to which gentrification within the Brunswick has resulted in forced, exclusionary and pressure of displacement.

Research aim:

Through looking at the Brunswick centre through a palimpsestuous lens I will be able to understand the changes that have occurred within the centre and what from the past is reflected onto the present and what is not. Through the theme of gentrification I will follow the line of argument that the Brunswick centre (through the idea of Palimpsest) is currently undergoing the process of gentrification, resulting in exclusionary displacement, pressure of displacement and forced displacement (Griers & Griers, 1987) and how this has the ability to reflect the politics of who gets to live where within the context of London.

My paper will critically assess the methodological tools used to help answer my research aim, focusing on the implications of my chosen research methods. I will explicitly discuss how the Brunswick centre behaves as a Palimpsest in terms of its architecture. I will show how this post war construction is an eerie reminder of the past wars in which Britain has fought and how the building behaved as a bold modernist insert into the city after its reconstruction after the war. I will comment on how the design of the building has the ability to generate hierarchy, alienating residents of lower social status, amplified through the introduction of high end shops and services, contributing to pressure of displacement. I divide displacement into forced, exclusionary and pressure and assess how each of these are present within the Brunswick centre. I will refer to the Brunswick centre as a building reflecting past political policies and how these have evolved with the introduction of different governments and political agendas, which has now seen governments targeting those with the quietest political voice. As a result these people are often the subjects of gentrified induced displacement.

Methodology and reflectivity:

Throughout my research I used a combination of extensive research methods through archival material, but mainly focused on intensive research methods through observations and interviews due to time constraints (Cloke et al, 2004). As intensive research is often qualitative, thus subjective, I was constantly aware of my positionality and possible power relations to ensure my research was valid and unbiased (Malterud, 2001).

Covert participant observation was conducted over the course of April within and around the Brunswick centre at varying times throughout the day on varying days, aiming to capture the varying presence of people within the space and how this changed over time. It allowed me to get a feel for the area- connect on a more intimate level and understand how the area functioned as a community (Laurier, 2010). I focused on how the space within the Brunswick centre is used at the present and what services are set in place for the people living there. With covert non-participant observation there is certain degree of ‘detachment,’ (Cloke et al, 2004) with no active participant involvement. This helps to reduce ethical concerns as participants are not actively involved within the research (Cloke et al, 2004). However, there is a degree of deception with covert participant observation as the people within the centre will not know that I am observing them so may feel as though their privacy is violated. This is understandable, however, if told, it would be impractical and could result in social desirability bias (Flowerdew & Martin, 2005). Due to this I decided to adopt a covert approach.

Interviews were conducted with the residents of the Brunswick centre, retail assistants and those attending a monthly meeting at the Marchmont street community centre, home to the Kings Cross Brunswick Neighbourhood association. Interviews are referred to as ‘conversations with a purpose,’ (Webb & Webb, 1932 P130). They allow for an authentic insight into people’s experiences (Cloke et al, 2004). The interviews followed a semi-structured format, allowing the participant to direct the conversation flow, highlighting topics they find most pressing. It is always a risk that the conversation would divert, which is why I was always aware of the flow of conversation. I had to be aware that I as an outsider looking in and that it was possible for people to refuse to speak to me (Flowerdew & Martin, 2005). I read about the effects of gentrification beforehand, largely case studies including interviews so I could identify with how the people felt (Cloke et al, 2004). I approached it in a way that considered the sensitive nature of the topic, by gently introducing myself at a monthly meeting held at the community centre. The aim was to create an atmosphere conductive to rapport in order to produce undistorted communication between myself and the respondent (Malterud, 2001). I ensured that the people I interviewed were aware of my research, consent provided and the right to withdraw upheld.

The archive material held at the Holborn Library Local Archive Centre included a number of letters written by residents during the course of the planning consultations in relation to two earlier proposals for refurbishment during the late 20th century. They offered insight into previous upset and apprehensiveness over redevelopment proposals. Access, which is usually a concern (Cloke et al, 2004) was overcome through the computerization of the letters.

Archival data provided a powerful insight into those living within the Brunswick centre at varying times (from late 1800s- 21st century), providing insight on the occupation of residents. This can implicitly imply who the area was catering for with occupation reflected through incomes and thus ability to afford housing. However, archival material does not explicitly state whether gentrification induced displacement has occurred. It is very difficult to track displacement (Twigge-Molecey, 2014). It is much easier to research the tangible manifestation of gentrification, observed through changing services. Proxy indicators can be used, for example increasing professionalization, as a proxy for gentrification, and if this was negatively related to proxies for those involved in displacement (Twigge-Molecey, 2014). However due to lack of time this was not possible. I refer to archival data in relation to the changing architecture of the building and newspaper headlines to reflect shifting views towards the Brunswick centre and gentrification more generally. The extent of gentrification induced displacement will be relied upon through interviews and observation.

A secondary source of data will be through the use of the film: The Passenger (1975). It features a five minute clip featuring the Brunswick centre before its most recent redevelopment. It is easy to manipulate images on film and so as a precaution I referred to photographs to ensure that digital manipulation was not prevalent (Gladney et Ehrlich, 1996).

Architectural Palimpsest

Reminder of Britain’s past wars:

The past has the ability to find its way through into the present (Dillon, 2005). When a city or building is rebuilt or gentrified past features, characteristics or memories of that building are not always erased but transcribed onto the present (Dillon, 2005).

Through understanding how the Brunswick centre behaves as a Palimpsest I will have the ability to assess what has remained and what no longer remains. What remains will highlight its importance and what no longer remains will reflect its unimportance. This will allow me understand the difference in views surrounding different time periods in which the Brunswick centre experienced redevelopment.

The Brunswick centre behaves as a palimpsest through acting as a reminder of Britain past wars. During the Second World War the street plan only partially survived the aerial bombing (Figure 1). As a result, the area was identified for comprehensive redevelopment (Melhuish, 2005).

Figure 1: Aerial bomb map from the Second World War of the Bloomsbury area, London. The red circle indicates where the Brunswick centre was constructed as part of a post war redevelopment (Bomb sight, 2017).
Figure 1: Aerial bomb map from the Second World War of the Bloomsbury area, London. The red circle indicates where the Brunswick centre was constructed as part of a post war redevelopment (Bomb sight, 2017).
Figure 2: Aerial bomb map of the Bloomsbury area, superimposed onto the present day. The red circle indicates the Brunswick centre (Bomb sight, 2017).
Figure 2: Aerial bomb map of the Bloomsbury area, superimposed onto the present day. The red circle indicates the Brunswick centre (Bomb sight, 2017).

Reminder of past occupations:

In terms of residential occupation, the Brunswick centre has undergone a complete circle in whom the building is occupied by. It can be viewed a as reflection of the past onto the present. As seen from Figure 3, a large proportion of what the Brunswick centre is now built upon, catered for those of middle-upper class wealth. They mainly comprised of: ‘clerks, tailors etc.’ (Booth, 1899, P107). It can be viewed as a reflection as to whom occupies the Brunswick centre today. It highlights the popularity of the area for higher income clientele in both the 19th and 21st century.

Figure 3: Ariel map of the Bloomsbury area, London and key in reference to Booths map of London (Booth, 1898).
Figure 3: Ariel map of the Bloomsbury area, London and key in reference to Booths map of London (Booth, 1898).

Reminder of past architectural phases: 

The Brunswick centre behaves as a palimpsest through its modernist architecture (The Passenger, 1975), which continued to be the dominant architectural style for institutional and corporate buildings into 1980s (Le Corbusier, 1970). It highlights the changing nature of architecture and is a prominent reflection of the time period in which it was constructed.

This styling of modernist architecture, which favours a rational use of materials, innovation and the elimination of ornament (Vogt, 2000) has been viewed as abstract, alienating, over-scaled, and largely devoid of cultural reference (Sennett, 1993). Sennett’s (1993) sentiments echo Daniel Miller’s sweeping reference to the Brunswick centre as a social catastrophe of the new built environment, identified as the most prominent expression of modernity (Miller, 1987). It stands in stark contrast to the Georgian houses it surrounds and is a constant reminder of past architectural styles. The appreciation for the Brunswick centre has since grown from the 1980s with the centre now a Grande II listed building, reflecting shifting views towards this modernist structure (Howarth, 2000).

Architectural induced hierarchy:

The flats within the Brunswick centre are all of varying sizes, their most distinctive feature being the large area of glazing to the living space, known as the winter gardens, which face outwards towards the centre of Brunswick (Levitt Bernstein Associates, 2007). Those with a restricted view are closer to the bottom of the structure. Unintentionally, due to its architectural design, the Brunswick centre generates a sense of hierarchy. Flats closer to the ground decrease in worth and thus popularity (Norberg-Schulz, 1968). For higher income clientele the flats have the means to demonstrate and maintain social authority. In this instance they are physically higher allowing those living higher up to convey a sense of superiority. Melanie Porters (2017), who lives on the 6th floor of the centre commented on how it was ‘nice to be away from it all…that everything going on below wasn’t outside the front door.’ This can lead to a sense of unease and alienation of lower income residents, especially those living closer to the ground floor of the centre, exaggerated through the introduction of services to accommodate the needs of higher income clientele.

Figure 5: Archival image of the final design of the Brunswick centre (Melhuish, 2005).
Figure 5: Archival image of the final design of the Brunswick centre (Melhuish, 2005).

Gentrified induced displacement:

The metaphors of the 1970s and 1980s that geographers had associated with the gentrification process ‘urban rebirth’, ‘urban pioneers’ (The Observer, 27 June 1999: 17) are being headlined by the media once again, as more negative images such as ‘urban guerillas’, ‘scene of gentrification battles’, ‘class war’ (The Sunday Times, 11 April 1999: 2). The continuance of gentrification has led to more conflict (over displacement) between the working-class population and middle to upper classes within London.

Exclusionary displacement:

Exclusionary displacement is when one household vacates a housing unit voluntarily and that unit is then gentrified or abandoned so that another similar household is prevented from moving in, the number of units available to the second household in that housing market are reduced. The second household, therefore, is excluded (Marcuse, 1985).

From interviews conducted at the Kings Cross Brunswick Neighbourhood association it was clear that previous housing set aside for council house tenants had since been renovated and now supported higher clientele with ‘more rich people moving in every day’ (Resident Brian Dout, 2017). A decrease in the number of tenants who are below the national minimum wage has steadily increased since the redevelopment, and replaced by those often looking for a ‘temporary place to stay whilst working within the city’ (Resident Chris Locksdale, 2017). Exclusionary displacement did not seem to be the most prevalent form of displacement within the Brunswick as it appeared, from the residents I spoke to, that it was unlikely that someone would move out voluntarily as the flats are in such ‘high demand’ (Resident Amber Woods, 2017).

Forced Displacement:

Forced displacement is the most extreme form of displacement. Market trends result in increased prices, resulting in increased rent prices as landlords rehabilitate for a higher-income clientele. This form of displacement is described as impersonal (Marcuse, 1985).

Residents made it clear from interviews conducted at the Marchmont street community centre and within the Brunswick centre, that they believed the landlord to be personally responsible for the increase in rent prices and how there appeared to be an underlying vendetta to remove them from the area. Residents spoke of how rent increase meant that they were just about ‘getting by.’ One resident (Clara Albott, 2017) spoke of how in the past she would occasionally visit the Renoir cinema with friends, however with ticket prices averaging at £16 for an adult, it is no longer a viable option (Renoir Cinema, 2017). She commented on how rents ‘just appear to be going up and up,’ and soon she feels as though she will have ‘no option but to move.’

Figure 4: Screengrab displaying membership and ticket prices for the Renoir Cinema (Renoir Cinema, 2017).
Figure 4: Screengrab displaying membership and ticket prices for the Renoir Cinema (Renoir Cinema, 2017).

Displacement pressure:

When a family sees the neighbourhood around it changing dramatically, largely relating to the services it provides the area can feel alienating and less liveable. Families living under these circumstances may move as soon as they can, rather than wait for the inevitable. Nonetheless they are displaced (Marcuse, 1985).

It is clear to see from initial observation that the area within the Brunswick centre caters for higher income clientele from the shops lining either side of the centre, including retail units such as LK bennet, Hobbs, and The Fragrance shop. One resident, who has lived inside the centre for the past twenty years (Resident A, 2017) spoke of how she is now forced to go to Camden to find affordable shops, especially those selling food. She spoke of how since the Safeway moved out and Waitrose opened in August 2006, a lot of residents are forced to do the same. Residents continually vented their frustration about how they felt as though their space was invaded towards those who worked within the Bloomsbury area and how the restaurants and eateries surrounding the Brunswick centre have changed to accommodate these higher tastes.

Figure 5: Archival image of Safeway (Melhuish, 2005), later replaced. Photograph showing the Waitrose, among the new shops that have established residency within the Brunswick centre (Left).
Figure 5: Archival image of Safeway (Melhuish, 2005), later replaced. Photograph showing the Waitrose, among the new shops that have established residency within the Brunswick centre (Left).

Archival letters centred on residents concern surrounding services. One letter focused on how service changes would directly impact resident’s wellbeing: (it would be) ‘impossible to make everyone happy, but why should residents that have been living in the Brunswick centre be the ones who are least happy with the changes.’ Those residents who were part of the Brunswick centre long before its redevelopment, abet many few, spoke of how there was once a community in which ‘everyone felt a part of,’ (Meryl Holt, 2017) but how that had since deteriorated and with it the community spirit.

Shop staff noted that it was often surrounding businessmen or those shopping within the area that would likely visit the stores. A young retail assistant within Waitrose said she found it ‘sad that former residents are moving away’ and that there should be ‘services to help different people’ (Waitrose Staff A, 2017).

By far this was the most prominent form of displacement, with residents speaking of being ‘unable to fit in,’ and ‘feeling out of place.’

Politics of gentrification:

Smith and LeFaivre (1984) argue that capitalism is based on its ability to displace the working class. Looking through a palimpsestuous lens this is demonstrated throughout history in which legislatures, the wealthy and the politically influential have managed to move the poor when it was portable or expedient to do so and thus areas which were commonly prescribed to those with lower incomes, have now been occupied by higher clientele. The clearance of the Scottish Highlands (Prebble, 1969), the development of the railways (Haywood, 2009), slum clearance programmes (Young & Willmott, 1957), and housing grants (Hamnett, 1973) all moved large sections of the population, inevitably the poorest. A line of least resistance is often followed. They attack the tenure insecurity of those with the quietest political voice and with the least equity, in order to ensure that compensation will be low, ignoring the effects that such movement have on individuals and wider social networks (Le Gates & Hartman, 1986). The people of the Brunswick centre lacked a say in how the redevelopment was to incorporate their needs. Tappin (2007, P184) described how the pre-planning consultation for the redevelopment ‘was far too limited, and many of the design and construction issues should have been discussed beforehand at meetings with the residents.’ It is clear that the wants of those of higher class dominate. The question then begs as to what responsibility do we have to give those of lower social status a voice?

In 1964 following the election of a Labour government a majority of the tenure within the Brunswick centre changed to council housing. They achieved this through the reintroduction of rent controls, together with requirements to compensate or rehouse people who were relocated as part of inner-city redevelopments (Tappin, 2007). Looking through a Palimpsestuous sense, it is clear that the Brunswick centre is a reflection of past government policies in that there are council tenures currently operating within the Brunswick. However these are dramatically reducing. After the completion of the redevelopment in 2005, it is clear from both interviews and observations that the residents who were of council tenure are currently facing gentrified induced displacement. This is a further reflection of the changing government policies with the mechanisms for regulating prices generally left for landlords to fix since the introduction of the Housing Act in the 1980s (Lind, 2010).


This paper has demonstrated how the Brunswick centre behaves as a space of gentrified induced displacement through both forced, exclusionary and pressure of displacement. It has shown how increase in rents have resulted in those of lower economic status being forced out of the area, displaced by those with higher wealth. The services provided cater exclusively for this higher income clientele which results in alienation, emphasised through the architectural structure of the Brunswick centre. The displacement reflects shifting politics on who gets to live where within the context of London. Governments have the overarching power of deciding who gets to live where within a city. With London facing an existential housing crisis, the government prefers to house those who can afford to live within the city centre, often allowing the free rein of developer and landlords to increase rents as they deem fit, forcing those unable to afford the increase to move to outskirts of the city, where land is cheaper (Lind, 2010). The centre of the city becomes an area of exclusivity, unrivalled by those whom it displaces. It is clear that people view this as an unfair system, but little is being done to challenge the policies set in place, and with market logistics dictating rent prices and showing now hint of slowing down, rent prices are likely to continue to increase. All forms of displacement are likely to continue within the Brunswick centre. Displacement pressure being the most prominent as services change.


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