The Modernist County: Radical Essex

The history of architecture in Britain could be documented as a page bound in technicolour. Due to this, some might argue it should be celebrated more widely in order to educate the public about its rich and diverse past. Radical Essex has been set up specifically for this purpose. Launching their festival, The Modernist County  explores the innovative constructional history of Essex. Held across three locations – the Bata Estate in East Tilbury, Frinton-on-Sea and Silver End village – the weekend-long programme leads visitors to revisit the role Essex played as the forefront of Modernist architecture and experimental community models in the 20th century.

Visitors can experience these notable buildings, travelling from one to the other on buses set up for the event. Silver End village takes on the centre stage of the festival. Back in 1925, it was merely a hamlet with few houses, but with the vision of building a whole new community for workers in the Crittall Window factory, the English philanthropist Francis Henry Crittall came to the area in the 1920s and transformed the space into what the Victorians called a “model village.” The unique style of the settlement serves as the earliest example of Modernism in the UK.

The Bata shoe factory is yet another important planned landscape in Essex. Built in the entitled Estate by Tomáš Baťa, it was the backbone of the local economy for decades and bears an unmistakable mark of Modernism in Britain today. Designed as a Conservation Area, it contains heavy restrictions on its alterations and developments. Similarly, the largest group of individually designed Modernist houses in Frinton-on-Sea seek to illustrate another chapter of the colourful history.

Making a notable journey through the 20th century, the weekend explores the contentious post-war New Town developments of Basildon and Harlow. These “concretopias” are highlighted, including the University of Essex’s radical Colchester Campus, with guided tours of the significant Brutalist buildings.

As the leader of the project, Joe Hill notes: “Through this project we are excited to have the opportunity to share and celebrate the important role Essex has played in the development of contemporary architecture in the UK. This is apparent not only in the design styles, but in the varied and radical approaches to social structures. It is utterly unique in this regard, and yet so underrepresented. We hope that this programme will help to encourage people to reflect on the innovative past of the county, in order to promote experimental and pioneering building for the future.”

Plenty of events are available beside visiting different sites across the county. Talks and events are conducted by leading experts and artists in the field, such as Elizabeth Darling, Owen Hatherley and Alan Powers. In addition, the weekend features artist commissions, including The Radical National Trust by artist Alan Kane. Coinciding with Essex Architecture Weekend’s Heritage Open Days 2016, audiences have the opportunity to learn more about Essex’s legacy on the British architecture scene, as well as their influence in a wider social context.

The Modernist County opens at multiple locations across Essex 10 – 11 September. For more information:

1. Radical Essex: Bata Rubber Factory, East Tilbury. Photo by Catherine-Hyland. Courtesy Focal Point Gallery.