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

Audio Version

Text Version

 

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/

Sophie Bailey: “I suppose it’s not the place’s fault”

Audio Version

Read by Elena Vardon

Text Version

Philip Larkin, when he was “coming up England by a different line”, remembered Coventry as the place “where my childhood was unspent”. New Towns like this are remembered (or unremembered) as gaps in the map of Britain, places to be avoided and embarrassed of. But before they were a joke, they were a dream. Stevenage was one of the many “New Towns” which would be conjured into reality by the New Towns Act of 1946 as part of the construction of Labour’s promised “New Jerusalem”. This included the creation of the NHS and the introduction of the tripartite school system. The old town of Stevenage was selected to be developed as were other well-known New Towns such as Hemel Hempstead, Harlow and Basildon. These were all near London but far enough to allow Londoners to escape the smoke, smog and overcrowding of the city, and would help to reduce the housing crisis in the aftermath of the war. The “Year Zero” phase after the war and the relatively small existing populations in the towns allowed for New Towns to be constructed upon a virtual tabula rasa. Town planning corporations managed the developments of the towns and supplied housing, which was carefully managed to ensure a mix of social classes.

Lewis Silkin, the Labour Minister for Town and Country Planning and the principal planner for Stevenage declared: “[I] am most anxious that the planning should be such that the different income groups living in the new towns will not be segregated… When they leave to go home I do not want the better-off people to go to the right, and the less-well-off to go to the left. I want them to ask each other “are you going my way?””. He intended Stevenage to be “gay and bright” and like all New Town planners aimed to replicate the neighbourly spirit of London slums within a self-contained community, near to the countryside but equipped with its own shops, schools and leisure facilities.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, "Stevenage High Street Constable".

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Stevenage High Street Constable”. CC BY NC.

Nonetheless, like all things once designated “New”, the New Towns suffered the indignity of ageing and today the modestly utopian vision of the 1950s has faded as fast as the murals. Hemel Hempstead, part of the original wave of New Town developments, once topped a popular vote of the ugliest British towns, with other New Towns like Hatfield (and Coventry) also made the Top 10. Lewis Hamilton, one of Stevenage’s most famous sons, caused a stir in the town when he seemed to refer to it as a “slum” in reference to his life story when accepting an award. Doubtless Hamilton did not mean to compare the town to a real slum, but it is somewhat ironic that New Towns, once symbols of hope, are now associated with the very environments they sought to replace.

The photographs of architecture in the Conway Library at the Courtauld allow us to see these towns in a different light: already a concrete reality which people inhabited, where they shopped and worked, but not yet touched by stigma or decayed by years of neglect. The Conway Library also contains numerous photographs of innovative new private houses, each remarkable for its modernity and worthy of documentation. However, New Towns represent an artistic and political project on a grand scale. More than those of private houses, these photos preserve a moment in the life of Britain.

Many of the photographs depict new developments in pristine condition, imposingly tall and with spotless concrete.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Kent House”. CC BY NC.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Stevenage Mural”. CC BY NC.

However, the most interesting photos are those in which we can see people interacting with the environment around them. As hoped by its planners, crowds of shoppers fill Stevenage town centre, trailing bags and children. An arm curves round a window to wash it from the outside. Children hold hands under the domineering concrete porch of Kensal House. The beauty of these photographs, and the instantly inhospitable effect created in the photos without people reminds us of the original dream of the New Towns. They were not intended to become dilapidated “concrete jungles”, but to provide dignity and security for the post-war generation. Their inhabitants, perhaps defying the photographer’s wish to capture the buildings and towns alone, insist on presenting themselves to the viewer and making their human realities the central issue of the towns.

 

Further material:

New Towns Spotify playlist

These songs are by people who grew up in or want to record new towns, council estates, the great sprawling suburbs. They capture the mood of these places, the boredom, the evocative images of hot tarmac and train station platforms, the struggle of trying to live a new childhood in a place which seems destined to be forgotten.

Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown Project

Arcade Fire’s 2010 album The Suburbs perfectly captures the monotonous beauty of the suburbs. Their collaboration with Google Labs is an innovative use of technology for an evocative artistic project. Enter your home address and the website will personalise a short film to your location.

 

 


Sophie Bailey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant