The history of Basildon is documented by Gillian Darley. In the 1920s Londoners were enticed out of the city to buy plots of land which, they were promised, were to have easy access to utilities and transport. These benefits failed to materialize and as I understand it most of the land was obtained by compulsory purchase order by Essex County Council to form Basildon New Town.
Dense housing in the town centre and a Ford factory brought numbers to the settlement. This was at the expense of the class diversity which grows organically in older towns. By the time South Woodham Ferrers was created in the late 1970s ‘retail barns’ and ‘designer double garages’ had been prioritized over ‘civic modernism’. The model which Basildon and Harlow were based on had been upscaled.
University of Essex
Another planning history lesson which engrossed me was the section on the University of Essex by Jules Lubbock and Jess Twyman. The institution’s nature and image has undergone an interesting transformation. It was originally intended to be a British equivalent of MIT, turning out engineers and scientists in the early 1960s. The New Brutalist architecture was meant to be memorable rather than pretty. Differing departments, students and teachers, males and females were physically unable to avoid each other. Humanities subjects were to be a counter balance to technical ones.
But from the late 60s to the early 90s the growth of sociology and related subjects contributed to the university becoming a hotbed of protest with ‘numerous demonstrations, pickets and sit-ins’. Physically separated from the ancient town of Colchester, the place was a sort of ivory tower in reverse. Conservative newspapers wondered if the students’ subversion was a reaction to the deliberately ugly environment they inhabited.
Whereas previous generations of parents had sometimes been put off, in recent years the university’s student intake has grown. Overseas students have made up nearly a quarter of the total number of students. Buildings have been added to the main site and new campuses opened in the south of the county. More tellingly, Jess Twyman reports that the Student Union has left the National Union of Students in favour of debating issues itself before acting. She also states that ‘Brutalism’s sculptural forms and soaring lines’ (have finally gained) ‘the admiration they deserve’.
A Walk to Bata-Ville
Rachel Lichtenstein rounds off the written section of the book with an account of her walk with Iain Sinclair from Tilbury to the Bata Shoe Factory.
It’s a place I haven’t been to, along with all the other locations in the book bar the University of Essex. But I feel as if I’ve taken an architectural and historical tour of the county. Neither an add-on to London nor part of a fully distinct region of England but a colourful combination of the two.