Tag Archives: ross becker



Words Mary-Rose Storey

Illustrations Ross Becker

“…it’s as though you’re living in the clouds, not just looking at them.”

A 1960s concrete housing estate is not an image that springs to mind when picturing the architecture of Bloomsbury but The Brunswick Centre has more in common with the elegant Georgian squares of the area than one might think.

As the architectural journalist Steve Rose wrote in The Guardian “By anyone’s standards, the Brunswick is a radical building. It would be a great setting for a sci-fi movie, with its huge concrete frame, elevated walkways and stepped ranks of apartments with curious angled windows. It’s such an odd building, variously called a “superblock” or a “mega structure”. Its banked ramparts and soaring service towers bring to mind the fantasy designs of the Italian futurist Antonio Sant’Elia; but more commonly, the Brunswick’s raw concrete and structural articulation put it firmly in the new brutalist school, alongside other ambitious structures of the time, such as Sheffield’s Park Hill housing estate or London’s Trellick Tower.”

Built in 1964 by architect Patrick Hodgkinson, based on studies by Leslie Martin, The Brunswick has had a troubled history. Initially it was intended as a private development and planned to be much larger, extending all the way to the Euston Road, but the Ministry of Defence, whose Territorial Army headquarters was in nearby Handel Street, refused permission for Camden Council’s compulsory purchase, using the excuse that the building contained a very large, hydraulically mounted gun – what if war should break out during the moving process?

Another problem for the development occurred when, in 1964, the newly elected Labour government brought in rent controls and agreed to rehouse all tenants evicted by compulsory purchase. Camden Council signed a 99-year lease in 1966, and the potential buyers of The Brunswick flats pulled out when they realised they would be sharing the building with council tenants. The developers still kept ownership of the structure and the shopping areas but the original designs were compromised due to lack of funds.

The concrete exterior was designed to be painted Crown Commissioners Cream, in keeping with the Georgian buildings of the area, but the concrete was left unpainted, resulting in unattractive streaking and water seepage problems. Over the years, the building fell into disrepair, shops began to close and it became litter-strewn and uncared for. Only the Renoir Cinema remained as a beacon of culture.

But salvation was at hand. Allied London Properties bought the freehold in 1998. Luckily, the founder, Michael Ingall, liked the property and hired Patrick Hodgkinson to submit a revised scheme. He brought in David Levitt (who actually lives at The Brunswick) and David Bernstein, who both worked with him on the original design and in November 2002, the £22 million project began. The exterior was cleaned and painted in a cream colour (Desert White). A large Waitrose store opened and The Renoir Cinema became The Curzon Bloomsbury.  New shops, cafes and restaurants were attracted to the centre and it began to be used as the architects’ vision had intended: a London village with a thriving mixture of flats and businesses, the sloping glass roofs giving the residents hours of light and sunshine.

The Brunswick is now Grade II listed and though adored by most of its residents, it has always had a love-it-or-hate-it reaction from the wider public. It has been variously described as a “Bloomsbury Prison”, “Alcatraz”, “Planet of the Apes” or, more affectionately, “Like some giant spaceship landed in genteel Bloomsbury – really cool”. The Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, who used locations of bleak urban landscapes to depict modern alienation, featured the Brunswick Centre in his 1975 film The Passenger. Its star, Jack Nicholson, can be seen striding across the square to meet Maria Schneider, who waits for him on the (since demolished) steps.

When reviewing Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s book The London Square, A.N. Wilson remarked on its failure to mention The Brunswick, stating: “It managed to achieve the sort of living space provided by the ideal square. It combines the qualities of Inigo Jones’s sunny piazzas and the domestic intimacy of Canonbury and the Lloyd Baker Estate.” The film director Jack Bond, who recently moved to The Brunswick, finds the building inspiring: “I love its brutal simplicity. Also the sky plays such a dominant part – it’s as though you’re living in the clouds, not just looking at them. From any angle, you tend to look up because you’re in this valley, this trough of buildings created by a triangular centre part. The other thing I like is that it’s a gathering place for people to come and relax, have a coffee or a meal or go to the cinema. When I look across at the flats opposite, it reminds me of those Spanish mountain villages where houses are tiered above each other.”

When architect Brendan Woods moved into The Brunswick 22 years ago, he found it a bit like Eastern Europe in terms of its general decrepitude. He was a personal friend of the architect Patrick Hodgkinson, who sadly died in February this year at the age of 85, and wrote Hodgkinson’s obituary for the RIBA Journal. He likens living at The Brunswick to living on a sailing ship. As he wrote in the Architectural Review in 2007, after the restoration work was completed: “I think the transformation is near miraculous after the years of neglect. ‘The SS Brunswick’ stranded in Bloomsbury (a bit like the SS Great Britain malingering in the Falkland Islands) was weather-beaten and appeared semi derelict.  The stained concrete and render added to its sense of abandonment and neglect. Patrick Hodgkinson had always intended that the building be painted but was thwarted by McAlpine who wanted to save money.”

Woods is hoping to develop the idea of ‘greening’ the building by introducing much more planting (new owners, Lazari Investments, support this idea and have said they will provide irrigation). He loves The Brunswick because he finds it wonderfully private with a sense of being far away from other people. He doesn’t consider the architecture ‘Brutalist’, which he thinks a much-abused term.  “I have grown to appreciate what an extraordinary achievement it is. Few architects can boast of anything comparable.” As Alan Powers wrote some years ago about the portico to Brunswick Square: “Against the evening light, or on a winter’s evening, the tall thin columns standing out against the chiaroscuro background provide one of the few genuinely sublime architectural sights of London.”



Words Darren Hawes

Illustrations Ross Becker

“I’ve always hoped to put over things as directly and rawly as I possibly can, and perhaps, if a thing comes across directly, people feel that that is horrific.”

Famed for work that often reflected the human spirit’s boundless capacity for self-destruction, Francis Bacon’s relationship with Soho was an important and appropriate one. And nothing better exemplifies the artist’s love of the aesthetic and desire to capture the human in motion than the time he spent at Muriel Belcher’s The Colony Room at 41 Dean Street. But how did Bacon come to frequent this exclusive establishment that also played host to the likes of Jeffrey Bernard and Peter O’Toole? Well, the simple answer is this; he was the owner’s “daughter”.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Although he was born in Dublin, Bacon’s family relocated to London in 1914 to accommodate his father’s work with the Territorial Force Records Office. Bacon later attributed the strong references to violence in his work to this early experience of war, saying that: “I was brought to London during the war and spent quite a lot of time there, because my father was in the War Office then, and I was made aware of what is called the possibility of danger even at a very young age.” Danger would follow him back home after the war as well: “I went back to Ireland and was brought up during the Sinn Fein movement.” As an artist who saw painting as a way of reporting on the human condition, Bacon wasn’t surprised that some saw his work as being full of horrors. He “always hoped to put over things as directly and rawly as I possibly can, and perhaps, if a thing comes across directly, people feel that that is horrific.”

The inter-war years saw Bacon travelling, from Dublin to London, from Paris to Berlin. The primary cause of this vagrancy was his sexuality. In 1926, Captain Anthony Edward Mortimer Bacon walked in on his son to witness the 15 year old modelling his mother’s underwear in front of a mirror. That was the final straw, and efforts were made to ‘make a man’ of young Francis, including farming him out to family friend Harcourt-Smith. Suffice to say, the two men spent their time sharing a double bed at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin – hardly the life lessons his father had in mind. “’We settled in Berlin for a time, it must have been 1926, and by way of education I found myself in the atmosphere of the Blue Angel.” The reference to the 1930 German film conjures up images of sexual promiscuity, decadence and punishment. After spending two months in Berlin, Francis decided to head to Paris. Harcourt-Smith had by now “grown tired” of him and “went off with a woman”. It was in France that Francis began to discover his true flair for painting; learning from masters such as Valazquez and Poussin, he began developing his own distinctly modern style out of a classical technique.

After a year and a half, he returned to London and set up a studio to work in. Unfortunately, prosperity did not follow – not least because World War II broke out not long after. The resourceful Bacon, however, had a trick up his sleeve to deal with this distraction: when conscription became mandatory, he borrowed a dog from Harrods and slept beside it for a night. Bacon suffered from asthma. Suffice to say, the dog hair worked wonders on ruining his health, and when it came time for his medical, he was in no fit state to fight for King and country. Instead, London in wartime became for him what he called a “sexual gymnasium”– blackouts provided particularly useful cover for him to engage in taboo acts; “Yes, and married men too,” he would joke.

And so we come to 1948 and the birth of a private members’ club in the heart of Soho, created mostly as a way to avoid strict licensing laws. Green was the colour chosen for the walls, an inspiration arising from that most potent beverage – the devil in a bottle – absinth. To enter into the tiny attic room you first had to climb a staircase lined with putrid bins. On the opening day of this less-than-esteemed establishment, Francis was to instantaneously become a permanent member. Muriel Belcher did not care for art, but she liked artists, mostly because they are usually last people who want to talk about art when trying to relax. It helped that Francis had some links with fame and fortune too. Muriel paid Francis £10 a week for him to “bring people you like”, and he would often spend £10 a week on the bar bill. Although free drinks were involved in his Colony Room ‘pay packet’, he was a strong advocate of picking up the tab: “real pain for sham friends,” he would announce, “and champagne for real friends.”

The clientele Bacon attracted to the Colony came in the form of other personalities from the art world; the most important of these were Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and Tim Behrens, a group that very soon became known as ‘Muriel’s boys’. She had a way with names: ‘cunts’ were those she disliked, those she liked were given the sobriquet of ‘cunty’, those she really liked were ‘Marys’; but only one received the highest honour, and this was reserved for Francis, for he was Muriel’s ‘Daughter’. In return, Muriel was honoured to be the subject of three portraits by Francis: his Three Studies for a portrait of Muriel Belcher. She was a woman of such complexity that her multiple personality traits demanded to be represented in multiple ways. 

All was not as it seemed however, and Francis Bacon did not always find comfort and solitude as centre of attention at the Colony. His friend Daniel Farson remembers clues that betrayed the tortured soul of the artist: “When he wandered off to the lavatory with his glass in his hand as if he could not bear to part with it, when he threw the contents away; he drank less while filling the glasses of those around him.” Other times, a discomfort with his self-made notoriety was expressed in more destructive forms. “An artist… came into the Colony one afternoon to present the club with his latest painting, which was still wet. This generous gesture was accepted politely until Francis made his entrance. He shook his bottle of champagne, aiming it at the picture, whose colours dissolved into an even more frightful mess than it was in the first place.” Of course this did not distract from a sometimes charitable and supportive side. “One afternoon an art student naively showed him a leaflet he had produced. Francis asked if he could buy a copy, adding that he would be grateful if the young man would sign it for him.”

Of the numerous private members clubs that sprouted in Soho after the wars, Muriel’s was different, and this is due in no small part to Francis Bacon. It was a place for those who identified as misfits, outsiders. With a lesbian proprietor and openly homosexual founding member, the Colony Room provided a safe space for those who wanted to remove themselves, even for a short time, from the norms of society and spotlight of modern celebrity – a true escape from the horrors of the world reflected in Francis’s art. It has been almost four decades since Muriel Belcher passed away, almost 25 since the death of Francis Bacon, and, despite outliving its founders, the Colony Room finally shut its doors in 2008. But the spirit of freedom from societal oppression can still be found in the nooks and crannies of Soho. The flame of decadence still burns, and sexuality is, if anything, more fluid and openly expressed than ever before. When Bacon shuffled off this mortal coil and the Colony Room closed its doors, it wasn’t the end of the flamboyance they had distilled: Francis and Muriel had shared it around in all its rawness, and their values – once hidden – have become values still to be found in Soho to this day.

Middlesex Voices

Middlesex Voices

Words Kirk Truman

Illustrations Ross Becker

“I want it to be immersive and to resonate. I want people to feel something…”

Voice by voice, Fitzrovia has come to reveal much about itself in recent years. Independent, creative, and far from the madding crowd: this is the Fitzrovia we know today. Among the many voices of today’s Fitzrovia, though, many of us have also heard those of its history – a history often bound up with medicine and healthcare, and especially with the Middlesex Hospital. It was a place that took on a deeply personal significance for many people, both local and from afar, and now the past of the hospital and its many stories are set to come back to life. This June will see the launch of a new annual Fitzrovia-based music festival called FitzFest, helmed by festival director, Fitzrovia resident and musician Daniel Bates. Through the musical talent of Robin Rimbaud, alias Scanner, the memories of people whose lives were intertwined with the Middlesex Hospital will be explored through an installation at the recently restored Chapel.

Scanner has created a body of work that explores the connection between sound, space and image. He makes absorbing, multi-layered sonic pieces that manipulate technology in bewildering ways and across a range of genres. Since the early 1990s, he has been involved with producing various concerts, installations and recordings, often collaborating on projects with the likes of Bryan Ferry, Wayne MacGregor, Steve McQueen and many more, as well as putting out acclaimed albums of contemporary electronic music, such as Mass Observation (1994), Delivery (1997), and The Garden is Full of Metal (1998). Now, turning his attention to Fitzrovia, he is creating a work for FitzFest that will evoke memories of the now demolished hospital that stood for so long at the area’s heart and bring its only surviving building back to life.

Following the closure of the Middlesex Hospital 11 years ago, the future of its grade II listed chapel looked uncertain. Now, with the Fitzroy Place development finalised and the chapel incorporated into the design of the new structure, what once stood at the centre of the hospital will be open to visitos again, having benefitted from a thorough £2m restoration. The chapel was built and designed by one of the great Victorian architects, John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897), after whom the newly unveiled Pearson Square is named. Built in red brick and decorative marble, with later mosaic additions, the chapel was completed in the mid-1920s. It is laid out as a simple rectangular nave with a small ante-chapel at the west end, lined with white marble memorial tablets with incised inscriptions that provide a valuable record of the building’s past. As you enter today, a newly added plaque greets you – a prominent reminder of the Middlesex Hospital. Now, the trustees of the Chapel Foundation will ensure that its long history, which began over a century ago, is preserved for the future.

Originally opening as an 18-bed infirmary on Windmill Street, the Middlesex Infirmary moved to Mortimer Street in 1757, where it became the Middlesex Hospital. Various extensions were added to the original building, but by 1924 the building was found to be structurally unsound. It was replaced by a completely new building (constructed in stages to avoid having to close the hospital), which was completed in 1935. Back in the hospital’s heyday, many nurses, nuns and hospital staff lived locally in Fitzrovia. In December 2005, after almost 250 years of being based on Mortimer Street, Middlesex Hospital finally closed its doors, with the main building and three-acre site earmarked for sale to developers. When the hospital was demolished in Spring 2008, the unconsecrated 1890 chapel was preserved, along with the historic facade on Nassau Street and corner building on Mortimer Street.

The work that Scanner plans to create for his installation will be an attempt to evoke the past, present and future of the chapel and the memories and voices of all those for whom the Middlesex Hospital was an important place. The piece will grow out of a series of recorded interviews with people connected to the hospital, prepared by festival director Daniel Bates, forming the basis of a soundscape which will run 24 hours a day throughout the festival. Launching on the first evening of FitzFest, the soundscape will be accompanied by improvisations from a variety of musicians throughout its tenure, responding to the music composed by Scanner. The musicians will work continuously in shifts throughout the day, true to the working patterns of the medical staff of the former hospital. Open to the general public up until the closing concert several days later, this is likely to be the longest period for which the chapel will ever be open to visitors.

For Scanner, events in his recent family life have made the atmosphere and acoustics of hospitals significant, transforming the Middlesex Voices project into something much more personal: a reflection on the beginning and end of life. “It is interesting how sound works: you sort of listen to it, but you kind of don’t,” he tells me. “I want to create something that is contemplative. I would still argue that music today is something that is crucial in life – something that has to be experienced. Whether you buy music, whether you attend concerts, it still plays such a vital role in the well-being of people and in bringing them together,” says Scanner. “Hospitals are very much about allowing space for people to heal. I want to use a combination of voices that tell stories, but with the use of electronic and acoustic instruments, which I record and process, that will actually be very warm. To me, it needs to be engaging, it needs to draw you into the space, it needs to keep you there… in a sense, it won’t have any sharp edges. I want it to be immersive and to resonate. I want people to feel something. I want it to resonate with the passion people felt for the hospital. I want it to touch the heart and the mind. I want it to make people think about time.”

As a creative response to a building with many emotive memories and associations, a place at the beginning and end of many peoples’ lives, Middlesex Voices will be very much be at the centre of the festival. Both Daniel and Scanner express hopes that the installation could even become a regular feature during what will hopefully be an annual event.

FitzFest kicks off in June, and as well as Middlesex Voices will include a performance by celebrated German clarinettist Jörg Widmann of Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Quintet – in the very room on Great Portland Street in which Weber is thought to have died. Supported by the Arts Council of England and backed by a number of local businesses, organisations and partners, the festival is set to become an annual addition to the Fitzrovia calendar, staging a series of concerts and events that will celebrate the music and art of the neighbourhood. In addition to the festival’s musical focus, a number of community-led events, including workshops at All Souls Primary School, talks, exhibitions, and guided walks highlighting the cultural history of Fitzrovia, will be added to the schedule.