Ben Britton: “The New Towns are no longer new” – Basildon in the Conway Archive

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Black and white Conway image of the whole Brooke House and Basildon Town Centre mounted on board

Brooke House and Basildon Town Centre. CON_B04252_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

In 1956, before Brooke House was built, or any part of Basildon for that matter, there was a sign in its place that read: “This is the site of Basildon Town Centre”. Over the next few years, the first buildings of what was already Basildon were put up, fulfilling the sign’s prophetic message. I was particularly intrigued to find a folder in the Conway Library containing 20th Century municipal and residential architecture, not least of all because it is shelved directly opposite several boxes-worth of photographs of the Hagia Sofia, which is about as iconic as European architecture gets. There is something important to be gained, I think, from recognising the aesthetic and historic value of a medium-sized post-war town in Essex, alongside so much other human achievement.

Black and white Conway image of East Walk, Basildon, featuring mostly low-rise buildings. The image is mounted on board.

A predominantly low-rise town. CON_B04252_F001_009. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

“The New Towns are no longer new”[1] reads a parliamentary select committee’s investigation into the problems now faced by the swathe of purpose-built towns following the end of the Second World War. These towns were, in theory, a continuation of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City vision to house those displaced by slum-clearance in an overcrowded London. There is certainly a shared utopian ideal between the New Towns and the Garden Cities, and not one mutually exclusive of pragmatism. But there the similarities end, as finally the avant-garde of British architects were given permission, and funding, to build the modern sorts of towns that they had always dreamed about.

Among them was Sir Basil Spence, who, having won the contract to redesign Coventry Cathedral (beating competition from Giles Gilbert Scott), rose to prominence and became Britain’s most prolific modernist architect. He, along with A.B. Davis, designed Brooke House and the vast majority of Basildon’s town centre.

Black and white Conway image of Brooke House taken from below. The image is mounted on board

A view of Brooke House divorced from its surroundings. CON_B04252_F001_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

It is tempting, as with so much Brutalist architecture, to make claims of the building’s dominance over the low-rise landscape, and certainly it is possible to indicate this with a Rodchenko-esque photograph (see above). But the general impression given by the pictures in the Conway Archive is not one of overbearing concrete. Both up close and from a distance, we are able to see how the entirely residential building inhabits a humbler space at the centre of town, acting as a sheltered forecourt for the surrounding shops. Even the undoubtedly massive pylons even have a slight slimness to them, to the point of looking vaguely insectoid and flimsy under the immense weight they support.

A black and white image of Brooke House's forecourt, mounted on card.

A view of the forecourt. CON_B04252_F001_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

What this goes to show is the humanist bent of the design of the New Towns. Certainly they are monumental (the problems they were attempting to remedy necessitated their scale) but equally they were a radical approach to the problems of working-class living conditions at the time. The Liberal MP Lord Beveridge, whose work laid the foundations for Britain’s welfare state, described the ideal New Town as one of “beauty and happiness and community spirit”.[2] It is the effort towards these ideals that I think is captured in these photographs, before the subsequent economic downturn and regeneration programs undergone by Basildon.

Black and white Conway image of Blenheim House, mounted on board.

John Gordon’s mosaic on the façade of Blenheim House (formerly home to the Locarno Ballroom), the largest of its kind in Britain at the time. CON_B04252_F001_009. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

It is not the case, as the Parliamentary select committee’s report seems to suggest, that New Towns such as Basildon were always devoid of community cultural centres. Instead that these facilities (a cinema, an arts centre, a library etc.) required a consistent investment which the New Towns, unfortunately, did not receive. Equally, accusations of the towns’ lack of heritage in the 2008 report contradict the assertion that they “are no longer new”.

Indeed, in Basildon’s case, just before the release of the 2008 report, National Lottery funding had been used to establish a heritage trail through the town focussing on its post-war architecture. And the aesthetic effect of this architecture has its own heritage in England’s radical humanist tradition, of the likes of Milton’s poetics, or More’s Utopia. So to find photographs of Basildon amongst so much readily-accepted great architecture is a reassurance; its place in an archive of this significance is a foothold for its place in the grand scheme of British architectural history. And, in its own way, it is an investment, of sorts.


Ben Britton
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
Ben Britton is a writer based in London with an interest in modernist aesthetics and cultural heritage.

References:

[1] House of Commons, Communities and Local Government Committee. ‘New Towns: Follow Up’. Ninth Report of Session 2007-08. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmcomloc/889/889.pdf

[2] Boughton J (2018) Municipal Dreams. London: Verso Books, p. 79.

Useful links:

John Boughton’s Municipal Dreams blog: https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/