What does utopia look like a half century later, and how does it change those who call it home? Filmmaker Christopher Smith has been asking himself variations of that question for the last three years while filming New Town Utopia, a documentary about Basildon, a planned English community built in 1948. One of a series of 22 such towns built from scratch in the aftermath of WWII, the town, located 60 miles east of London and home to more than 100,000, was an object of fascination for Smith, who grew up in nearby Benfleet and always felt the city looked a little different than its neighbors. After digging into its origins and history, he discovered a much more nuanced backstory, and how a place meant to be an arts and culture hub is now considered by some to be a concrete jungle with a struggling economy.
Basildon was one of the communities created by the government's New Town Act of 1946, a noble post-war experiment meant to not only alleviate a housing crisis, but also build an elevated, almost utopian version of urban life. Inspired by the Garden City movement championed by Englishman Sir Ebenezer Howard at the end of the 19th century, these towns, created by local community development companies, included numerous parks and green space, and were built to provide creative and artistic inspiration for citizens.
"I found the original bill and discussion in Parliament," says Smith, " and it's really a beautiful, poetic document. There was all this talk about creating a whole new type of citizen."
Meant to be organized, semi-rural satellites of larger cities, these planned communities also gave young architects an opportunity to take creative leaps (within a set budget). Basildon, designed by Basil Spence, exuded an optimistic strain of Brutalist design. Built as a cluster low-rise housing centered around the 14-story, Corbu-esque Brooke House Tower by Anthony B. Davies, the community was filled with subtle variations in design. Small shifts in layout and exterior facades made two buildings, built with the same budget, stand apart. Expanded across a whole town, the small differences gave Basildon and similar towns their own visual languages.
"They really took a risk sponsoring a young architect," says Smith. "From Le Corbusier-like designs to Scandinavian style, these were things here that hadn't been seen before."
Smith's feature-length documentary, which will soon launch a Kickstarter to fund post-production, as well as extensive photography and potential book, focus on the history of the town by examining the lives of local residents. By showcasing the personal stories of those who live in Basildon, Smith wants to show both the inspiring origins of such a development, as well as the way the town's economic realities have have challenged its founding principles.
"They face a lot of struggles," he says, "but there was so much optimism that went into their creation."
∙ Brutal Utopias: Fall Tour to Explore Brutalism's UK Legacy [Curbed]
∙ The Life and Death of Britain's Most Beloved Brutalist Building, Robin Hood Gardens [Curbed]
∙ British Library Completes Circle From Eyesore to Treasure [Curbed]