The Modernists' Guide to Essex / from the archive / issue 3

I shall start with a declaration that sadly feels like it should be a confession. I love Essex. Essex is perhaps the most maligned and derided county in contemporary culture; it's become a shorthand for class prejudice and vulgarity; the target of countless cheap jokes.  I believe this is desperately unfair and I trust, dear modernist, you are open minded enough to seek the true beauty in the area. I can't claim there is no ugliness; of course like everywhere Essex is multifaceted and has its troubles but it also holds many thrills.  Frustratingly space here allows only a whistle-stop tour of a few of its delights, so here then, in chronological order, are five of my favourite places in modernist Essex.

The Labworth Cafe, Western Esplanade, Canvey Island (1932)
Like the other sites I am highlighting, Canvey's fashionable heyday is over; it is no longer a bustling seaside resort but still I am enchanted by it. Largely cut off from the mainland, crossing the bridges means encountering an array of diverse environments. You can find dilapidated funfairs, lush nature reserves, behemoths of the petrochemical industry and a 17th century pub.  Of special interest to the modernist are the sumptuous curves of the International style Labworth Cafe, Ove Arup's only building. Designed to resemble the bridge of the Queen Mary it has undergone various modifications, including a lamentable change of typography during its 1990s renovation. However, I believe it is still a stunner. To appreciate Canvey’s melancholic charm at its best I suggest visiting on a blustery day and lingering in the Labworth over a large gin and tonic. The view from the window is not a twee seaside idyll but the blood, guts and toil of the Thames estuary. Captivating.

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The Bata Factory, Princess Margaret Road, East Tilbury (1933)
Thomas Bata had a vision to shoe the world – and a mission to marry Garden City paternalistic care for workers (and increased productivity) with a brutalist aesthetic. Zlin in Czechoslovakia was his capital but satellite towns sprung up across the world, including a stunning enclave in East Tilbury. A workers utopia, where the line between sympathy and surveillance were intertwined, it has been called “the most modern town in Britain...Life in Bata-world seems to have been a cross between a holiday camp and a prison camp. The town had its own newspaper, and there were activities and facilities galore, but beneath it all was an almost cult-like corporate philosophy” (Rose, 2006, The Guardian).  The shoe Factory is now closed and the Thames Gateway redevelopment threatens the area but Bata remains cherished by many residents.

The Roundhouse, Cliff Way, Frinton-on-Sea (1934)
Frinton confounds the usual Essex – and indeed Modernist – stereotypes.  It had no pub until 2000 and battled to keep wooden level crossing gates; it is associated with conservative values and exclusivity. However, it was here Oliver Hill was employed to design a seaside wonderland.  Ambitious plans were made for a resort, including a cliffside hotel to eclipse his Midland in Morecambe. Hill “ensured that the tone of the estate would do nothing to attract day-trippers from London, keeping Frinton for the well kept and well bred, whilst making the estate a showcase for modern British design”  (Oxborrow, online). Plots were allocated to the cream of contemporary architects and the Information Bureau (now The Roundhouse) was opened.  It showcased cutting edge design and featured a mosaic of the estate layout by Clifford Ellis on the floor.  However Hill's vision was frustrated by practicalities including a building society that would not fund concrete constructions, inexperienced builders, and a climate which put commerce above aesthetics. Work halted in 1936 with only a fraction of the houses realised; sleek curves and classic white modernist dwellings incongruous near rows of Victorian beach huts. A dream of a brave future the rest of the town failed to embrace.

The Lawn, Harlow (1951)
In my opinion the most splendid of The New Towns, Harlow's design was led by Frederick Gibberd. The Lawn was Britain’s first residential tower block; the nuance and care taken in its design is apparent in the south facing balconies every flat enjoys.  Harlow also boasts the first pedestrian precinct, an extensive cycle track network and an array of other notable buildings, although sadly the original town hall and sports centre have been demolished.  Perhaps most remarkably it has a lavish collection of public art thanks to the Harlow Art Trusts vision that everyone has the right to enjoy quality art and design every day. The Water Gardens stunning vista has been somewhat spoiled by adjacent redevelopment but there is still much to admire. William Mitchell's gorgeous concrete reliefs are an integral part of the pools and the surrounding area includes work by Henry Moore, Elisabeth Frink, Ralph Brown and others. Sculptures can be found nonchalant but proud in civic buildings, schools and shops. The sadness of course it that this should be so unusual and that every town does not seek to integrate creative design into banal spaces.

Albert Sloman Library, Wivenhoe Park Campus, Essex University (1965)
From its inception the new university embraced the modern, aiming to widen participation and be as accessible as possible. They sought to create an environment that would encourage interdisciplinary working; initially a philosopher was appointed in every department. Kenneth Capon, the architect, took inspiration from San Gimignano in Tuscany, building a campus based on public squares and towers which would nurture collective endeavour and creative practice. The functional elegance of the library makes it stand out even in such exceptional surroundings. It also features – be still my beating heart! - a fully operational paternoster lift.  A stunning place to work and study.

Alas, there is no time to champion The Royal Corinthian Yacht Club, The Dell, Silver End, or any of Southend’s fabulous ice-cream parlours.  But if you fancy a tour I'll meet you outside Rossi's at 6. 

Further love letters to Essex will be posted at www.sinesandwanders.wordpress.com 

© Morag Rose

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST