Basildon: New Town Brutalism

The second half of the twentieth century saw a plethora of new urban models, ideas and designs specifically geared towards the design of the ultimate ‘City of the Future’. In this period the construction of these new integrated urban systems had an almost megalomaniacal belief in the future visionary urban utopias that have since disappeared. With the passing of the New Towns Act in 1946, a total of 27 new towns were subsequently built in the UK, of which eight surrounded London and Basildon, in Essex, was one of them.

Freedom House and East Square by Andrew Cadey


Basildon was founded in 1949, when Lewis Silkin, the Minister of town and country planning at the time, ambitiously envisioned that:


"Basildon will become a city which people from all over the world will want to visit. It will be a place where all classes of community can meet freely together on equal terms and enjoy common cultural recreational facilities."


The town was purposefully planned, developed and built as a remedy to war damaged, overcrowded and congested London, rehousing people in freshly built, new and fully planned towns that were completely self-sufficient and provided for the communities themselves.


Basildon Town Centre, 1965


After Basildon’s rationally modernist planned town centre, the most identifiable architectural character was its concrete brutalism. Andrew’s series of five illustrations explores the considerable richness, robustness and timelessness inherent within the brutalist architecture that was employed in the construction of the first phase of Basildon’s town centre.


This architectural style dominated Britain's post-war landscape and has always provoked visceral emotions, but at the time architects and planners were genuinely attempting to alleviate the very real problems left from the devastation of World War Two with new solutions. French architect Le Corbusier's daylight filled concrete structures were an inspiration to many, leading to the development of building systems that could be delivered both economically and with speed to relieve the pressures of chronic housing shortages and overcrowding.

Town Square and Southgate House by Andrew Cadey


The result was to bring with it a clean minimalist aesthetic and the presence of angular structures. The illustrations show the array of town centre forms, facade configurations and material treatments, from the rich sculptural pattern-making and articulation in their solid and transparent arrangements, to the generously cantilevered canopies that provided shoppers with the much-needed protective shelter all year round.


Brooke House by Andrew Cadey


In the town centre stands Basildon’s landmark tower; Brooke House. It is a high-rise residential block designed by Sir Basil Spence in 1962 and is now Grade II listed. This is set off by a carefully designed and well-detailed hard landscape with graded approaches, a water feature and the sense of enclosure made by lower-rise retail blocks and wide-open precincts. Today, Brooke House now presides over the skeletal remains of East Square, and beyond it, the unlisted Freedom House which has now gone, soon to be replaced by a new cinema and restaurants, aiming to bring life back into a zone that was considered unworkable.

East Walk by Andrew Cadey


New towns like Basildon may have since been perceived to be somewhat of a disappointment and living proof of how modernist planning has failed. This could be blamed partly on the mismanagement and neglect of its existing building stock, followed by the notion that by grafting over of the latest fashionable architectural intervention might help to provide a new layer of vibrancy and meaning to these existing places. Yet despite them being the subject of mockery, new towns were in fact fairly successful. There is, and should rightly be, an increasing sense and awareness that modernist heritage is now heritage – one that should be valued and respected, just as much as the value we hold in our Victorian and Georgian architecture.