New Town Utopia: Finding beauty in brutalism

Review: Exploring the artistic undertones of England’s largest post-war ‘New Town’

As with all architectural utopias, especially those associated with mid-20th-century modernism, the increasingly brutalist landscape began to resemble “a prison for the working class”.

Film Title: New Town Utopia

Director: Christopher Ian Smith

Starring: Jim Broadbent

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 80 min

Fri, Jun 8, 2018, 05:00

   

Basildon became famous during the 1980s as the hometown of Basildon Man, a Thatcherite construct invented to account for those working class voters who were suddenly voting Tory, a kind of class traitor, as cartoonishly embodied by Harry Enfield’s flash, shell-suited Loadsmoney creation.

In Christopher Ian Smith’s fascinating chronicle of the much-maligned Essex settlement, one horrified Basildon grandfather recalls younger family members refusing to put up Labour posters in their window and worse, refusing to vote Labour.

Other residents note the compound ironies of Basildon Man, who benefited from being able to buy and sell his council house, thereby decimating social housing, and who earned his “loadsamoney” because of the strongly unionised factories in the area, factories that, under Thatcher, were eventually de-unionised and closed. A town that was once characterised as Moscow-on-the-Thames, a hub for the Communist Party, Socialist Workers, and the Anti-Nazi League, had changed utterly.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. New Town Utopia opens with the words of Lewis Silken (voiced beautifully by Jim Broadbent), the British minister for town and country planning in a parliamentary speech from 1946.

Relevance

More than 70 years on, his words retain a certain relevance: “The demand for the erection of large numbers of houses and the need to rebuild war-damaged towns are pressing. Large numbers of people in the towns are living in grossly congested and overcrowded conditions and there is almost always a serious lack of open space, particularly in the poorer parts of our towns.

“I announced in this house the creation of some 10 new towns. I believe we may well produce a new type of citizen. A healthy, self-respecting, dignified person. With a sense of beauty and culture and civic pride.”

Basildon, the largest and last of Britain’s seven post-war New Towns, was created in 1949 to house migrants from London’s East End. Speaking to director producer and cameraman, Christopher Ian Smith, older Basildonians recall being lured by the comparatively luxurious promise of “a bathroom and a toilet”.

Prison

As with all architectural utopias, especially those associated with mid-20th-century modernism, the increasingly brutalist landscape began to resemble “a prison for the working class”. Demands for uniformity meant you couldn’t touch your own garden. Successive Conservative governments ensured that such “extras” as sports equipment, public lavatories and art centres disappeared.  

The art, however, didn’t. Basildon became known for its futurist forms and statues, the post-punk electronica of Depeche Mode and Alison Moyet, and a play Arnold Wesker wrote for the town.

Thatcher’s rent-to-buy scheme may have disrupted the transplanted East End camaraderie, but local songwriters, painters, rappers and artists remain confident that Basildon can still be something of a utopia.

As with Kate McCullough’s exemplary gliding camerawork for The Quiet Architect, Smith uses graceful Steadicam and elegant composition to find beauty in brutalist forms.