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/

Mia Gainsford: Utopia or Incubator? Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation as Photographed by Lucien Hervé

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Read by Francesca Humi

Text Version

La maison du fada, or rather “the madman’s house”, is the colloquial name given to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation housing project in Marseilles. The name arouses intrigue and renders the project a diversion. It has a childish appeal, like the building itself, which jumps out of its surroundings and sings colour from its windows.

Image in colour of housing project

CON_B04326_F001_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

L’Unité d’Habitation was Le Corbusier’s attempt at a utopia. Completed in 1952, it was an architectural project which sought to heal the wounds of post-war Marseilles and incubate the next generation. In photographing Le Corbusier’s housing project, Lucien Hervé made children his focus. However, it is important to stress just how rare human subjects are, of any age, in architectural photography; if people are photographed, they are photographed with a purpose. Thus, in Hervé’s photography it is important to ask whether the focus of children intends to enhance the optimism of Le Corbusier’s architectural utopia, employing them as a symbol of hope, or if instead, they are chosen as subjects susceptible to the “madman’s” diverting.

Young girl pushing on the door

CON_B04326_F001_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In discovering Hervé’s photographs amongst the Courtauld’s Conway archive and participating in the broader volunteering scheme, I could not help but reflect upon the act of labelling and giving something a name. Each image has its own code which refers to its box, folder and then place in a sequence. This act of labelling creates its own narrative; the code tells the wider story of the Courtauld’s efforts to organise and digitise the Conway photographs with the help of hundreds of volunteers, and in this, humanise the archive too.

Although this narrative is of a second order to the narrative of the photographs themselves, the Courtauld’s emphasis on retaining the physicality of the photographs, from the fibre of the brown paper they are mounted upon to the spidery annotations around an image, means that no narrative is prioritised over another. The Courtauld is striving to aggrandise the photograph’s status as object, rather than objectifying an image completely on the institute’s own terms and erasing its history. The Conway digitisation project honours how an image has been objectified in the past, and with this, creates a layering of meaning and proffers a plethora of stories which frustrates the idea that labelling is an industrial process and therefore a reductive or homogenising way to treat the photos.

In the Marseillaises’s nicknaming of Le Corbusier’s work “the madman’s house”, we see a similar supplementing and creation of narrative to that of the Courtauld. However, here the name personifies the housing project, rather than objectifying it by commenting on its physical form, like its other name “the Radiant City” does. This character of the “madman” disrupts Le Corbusier’s naïve, attempted narrative of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia. The invocation of madness becomes confusingly human. We can imagine this mythologised figure in the same vein as Carroll’s Mad Hatter, dancing with joy and performing his hospitality, but if “madman” is to be taken more literally, he becomes a victim of the trauma of war too, a man haunted by the contemporaneous austerity, as well as the past, and still suffering below his colourful pretence. Le Corbusier saw L’Unité d’Habitation as a remedy to «les maladies de villes» but for the Marseillaises, the project, as a person, was still ill.

Black and white image mounted on card of the building's profile.

CON_B04326_F001_017. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The two narratives of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia, as well as a place of great instability and pretence, are in opposition. The full extent of the connotations which derive from naming a housing development “the madman’s house” unsettles Le Corbusier’s idealistic vision. The colloquial label is more understanding of the history before L’Unité d’Habitation; it is an interaction with the past, which acknowledges the preceding trauma rather than reacting to it like Le Corbusier’s project does. It is this idea of interacting over reacting, and subsequently overwriting a narrative, which founds the Courtauld’s sensitive approach to handling the Conway archive too.

Old Man staring out of window

CON_B04326_F001_028. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Moreover, as subjects in Hervé’s photography, the children probe at the dual nature of L’Unité d’Habitation. The child’s indiscriminate and unassuming qualities mean that their interactions with the housing project are not marred by history like the adult’s. In Hervé’s work, adults are clearly preoccupied, turning away from the camera and staring listlessly at that which lies outside of the development. However, the children do not remember that which Le Corbusier is trying to forget with L’Unité d’Habitation. By consequence, they simultaneously complement the utopian idea of starting again, but also offer a vulnerability to the photographs, akin to believing that this so-called “unity of living” is the norm.

Children playing in light

CON_B04326_F001_026. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Hervé’s photographs which comprise children chasing each other between shafts of light and shadow come to represent the housing project’s competing aspects of the hopeful and the haunted. To the children, contradiction becomes a game, the light and shade facilitate play, they are suspended in L’Unité d’Habitation’s utopian narrative, creating imagined stories of their own, only related to Le Corbusier’s project through location. Through play, the radiance of the housing project with its floor to ceiling windows is equated to shadows created by the sun overhead. Here, the implications of the two names are not in opposition for the children; the children’s presence in the photographs becomes rehabilitative of competition and divisions in all their forms and thus inform the most pertinent of all the post-war reflections to come from the housing project, that unity can be found anywhere.

In July 2016, Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation project in Marseilles and its other iterations in major cities such as Berlin and Nantes were listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. This accolade adds yet another label to Le Corbusier’s work and develops the narrative further. It is Le Corbusier’s utopia which meets the criterion of “providing an outstanding response to certain fundamental architectural and social challenges of the 20th century”, rather than the public’s “madman”. However, again, through Hervé’s photography of children and L’Unité d’Habitation, we see a visual recalibration and simplification of this criterion, as for a child, the project has succeeded if it makes him or her feel safe and content.

Children playing on roof terrace

CON_B04326_F001_050. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

I was very moved by the happiness captured in this photograph by Hervé. The mother, who stares directly at the camera playing with her child, bypasses the adults’ preoccupation seen elsewhere in Hervé’s work; she is present in the moment, laughing and diverting the children herself. The skyline in the background creates a heavenly quality to the scene, the community of mothers and children are propelled above their surroundings, no longer contained by their apartments. Whilst the climbing frames themselves, with their abstract shapes and sloping angles, suggest another world entirely. The euphoria of this image becomes unearthly. The children and mothers are in a place together which supersedes the tangibility of Le Corbusier’s utopia and the “madman’s house”. They are genuinely happy and bolstered by a new-found sense of safety and longevity in this contentment. In this image, Hervé recognises that happiness alone is unchartered territory in the wake of the war, before we begin to consider the new spatial sensation of housing projects like Le Corbusier’s.

Ultimately then, Hervé’s work is no more about the children propagating an ideology of hope as it is about them being distracted from the outside world by an eccentric figure who himself, is somewhat afraid of the outside. Rather, I want to say that the photographs centre on a notion of individual transportation, a building of a habitat within above slotting oneself into a pre-packaged utopia. Whilst Le Corbusier’s architecture is certainly instrumental, and credited so in Hervé’s photography, to facilitating the contentment of the children, it only does so on a superficial basis. The children care for the light and shadows created by the huge windows and the paddling pool on the roof terrace, they do not care for, nor have need for the ideology behind their way of life. Children can make themselves happy through the living out of their own narratives, in both times of adversity and security. Furthermore, as with the Conway archive, narratives surpass labels in their power to evoke real emotion, and it is Hervé’s subversion of his own label, “architectural photographer”, which gave way to such touching and thought-provoking responses to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation.

Black and white image of children heading to the roof swimming pool.

CON_B04326_F001_042. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


Mia Gainsford
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant