The word “Basildon” does little to conjure thoughts of paradise. For those who know it as a town in Essex, England, this association could only seem ridiculous. Fifty years ago, however, Basildon—a state-built “new town”—was synonymous with the utopian dreams among planner and architects.
“Are we a product of our environment… or is it a product of us?” Christopher Ian Smith asks in a preview of his documentary film. Titled New Town Utopia, his exploration of Basildon’s fate—four years in the making—now needs $21,000 for post-production, marketing, and distribution requirements. The feature film aims to examine British social history through the lens of Basildon’s architecture, planning, and its creative residents. By way of some background, “New towns” were the product of the U.K. government, which aimed to fix a nationwide housing shortage after WWII. In 1946, the “New towns act” was passed to create ten new towns. Eighth in-line was Basildon, being officially designated as such on January 4th, 1949. “Here is a journey through populated ruins,” narrates Smith, who’s been filmmaking for some years. “It’s the story of the grand dreams of the new town… compared to harsh concrete realities.”
Smith spoke to The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) about his motivations for the film and his experiences while shooting Basildon. Now living in London, Smith said how growing up in the town was an inspiration. “It felt different,” he explained. “I enjoyed the art, architecture, sculpture, and especially the high street. I’ve succumbed to loving the aesthetic of midcentury brutalism and the ambitions behind it. The utopian ideals behind planning and architecture at the time were considered progressive. In the 1950s and 60s, risks were taken. The spirit of ’45, with nationalization and the National Health Service, lived on.”
However, Smith acknowledged that these radical ideas—when attempted on an architectural and planning scale in Basildon—have wilted significantly over time. “The place has a terrible reputation, both locally and nationally,” he said. Local civic pride, according to Smith, appears to be dwindling. With his film, Smith hopes to spark a “debate of the state of our towns” and “not just new towns.” When filming parts of the high street and Basil Spence’s Brooke House—both architecturally-prominent landmarks within Basildon—Smith recalled being asked: “Why are you filming that? Are you going to knock it down?” No one even goes to Basildon on holiday.
The modernist sculpture on show in Basildon failed to strike a chord with its new residents who predominantly came from the slums of east London. (Courtesy Modern Moving Image)
In the 1970s, Basildon was dubbed as “little Moscow-on-Thames,” Smith described. A decade later, the phrase “Basildon Man” had surfaced. That image was of the well-to-do working-class Conservative voter—a far cry of the leftist ideologies of the past and its architecture. This was cemented when Tory MP David Amess won the Basildon constituency seat in 1983 and was able to hold it for 14 years. In his conversation with AN, Smith concluded that in the end, “top-down planning” was endemic to its failure. In the process of collating more than 400 hours of footage of the town, Smith goes so far as to argue that few—if any—would ever visit Basildon for fun.
His Kickstarter campaign has until September 26 this year to have funding finalized. The film, if realized, will be complete by March 2017.