Dublin-based architectural and performance photographer Ste Murray captured the Brunswick Centre in London on its 50th anniversary, as part of a photographic series of capturing buildings at 50 years old. Here he tells us about what attracts him to Brutalism, the challenges of renovating mid-century buildings and how photographing a building is a great way to get to know a city.
The Grade II listed residential and commercial Brunswick Centre was designed by Patrick Hodgkinson based on the work of Leslie Martin and built 1966-1972. The complex was restored and renovated, including upgrades and expansions to the shopping ‘street’, by Levitt Bernstein in 2006. Murray’s photography of the built environment explores patterns and habits of societies and the changing nature of space; he gives us some insight into his interest in 20th century architecture and his photographic process.
What do you like most about the original architecture of the Brunswick Centre?
I’m attracted to the inherent ambition in many brutalist buildings. There were big housing questions to be solved and this was met with big answers. I think these solutions were relevant to the time and shouldn’t necessarily inform how we try to address these ongoing concerns in today’s society. I also love the textural quality of its concrete, how light moves in and around the spaces, and how its masterplan addresses the streets either side and its own street within.
What interests you about that 50 year moment in the life of a piece of architecture?
I began photographing buildings as they turned 50 for a few reasons. Firstly, I’m drawn to this era on an aesthetic level – I love mid-century design and the attitudes of this era; from the furniture to the fashion. Secondly, this half-century mark not only serves as a means of narrowing down the myriad of options, but is an appropriate timespan on which to reflect and (re)present these modernist icons to a contemporary audience. These photo essays aim to pay tribute, while also looking through the more critical lens of today.
The Brunswick Centre was renovated in 2006 with the major upgrade of the shopping street and the addition of a supermarket. What do you think of the Brunswick Centre of 2023?
I’ve only visited the Brunswick Centre after its upgrade, so it might be hard for me to compare correctly, but I think it’s fair to admire the intention to renovate rather than demolish. Many 20th Century buildings fall into a limbo territory of not being quite old enough to be revered and romanticised, but not quite new enough to fit for today’s needs of working and living.
We certainly fall victim to this in Dublin, where some prized pieces have already suffered at the hands of the planning system. The shopping street in The Brunswick Centre feels a little commercial with its chain store names, but again, seeing it used to such intensity is admirable.
When did you first visit the Brunswick Centre? Please can you tell us about that experience?
I visited in the summer of 2022, while on one of my trips to London. I try to get over every couple of months for work and to keep in contact with my London based clients. Photographing a large building in a busy area is a great way of getting to know a city; you’re watching intently, connected to the cadence and rhythms of the street, aware of the shortcuts people take, the places they sit, lean, and take shelter. I work with natural light, so there’s a feeling of being deeply connected to the passing of time as you watch a shadow take its last breath before being extinguished by a passing cloud.
When did you take these photos? What were the challenges of photographing the buildings? Did you discover anything surprising, intriguing or enlightening when you photographed it?
I made two half-day visits in order to make this essay. I probably would have liked to stay a little longer, but visiting at these two different times of day did give me two alternative weather conditions, as well as light on the east side in the morning, and the west in the evening.
I chatted with a couple of residents as they passed. I try to do this so that I can reassure them that there’s nothing to worry about; sometimes when people see me with the tripod, they might think I’m doing a survey with a view to tearing down their homes, whereas my visit was very much the opposite; paying tribute to this special structure. It was lovely to hear residents proudly proclaim that the building was ‘50 years old this year!’ and how they enjoy being so close to so much in London, while also being able to come inside to the much quieter circulation space.
Why do you like photographing architecture? Can you tell us a bit about your background, photographic style, and what you are drawn to photograph and why?
I try to photograph things I’m interested in. I believe it starts things off on the right foot, and means there is an element of respect built in from the beginning. It doesn’t mean I can’t use the camera to be critical, but if I start off being interested, it leads to curiosity and conversation.
I studied Architecture in University College Dublin, and worked for a while under photographer Roland Halbe in Stuttgart. I’m inspired by his formal approach, his eye for detail, and the legacy aspect of photography as archive.