Our Towns Transforms and Reaffirms the History of the Brutalist City of Basildon, UK
Having spent the last few months in the UK, as an American journalist but also someone observing the evolving, if not slow moving, reopening of London and the surrounding cities, a few trips out to Basildon is probably not the expected tour stop. It's a city about an hour east of London, and on a Saturday afternoon the density of London is quickly merged with countryside and little suburban oasis' of Essex that feel like an entirely different universe. And Basildon, a working class city that was situationally created in 1948 to stop urban sprawl and move families out of East London, to a more spacious "experiment" of suburbia, there is a history of arts in its inception. The brutalist architecture is evident right off the train, and the city center seems ripe for art interventions. But we have seen this sort of city regeneration in the past, and we often wonder how art can help revive or even reimagine the way we look at the places we live.
A little background on the city itself: In 1949, Basildon was officially declared one of the 'New Towns' built by the British government to rehouse Londoners whose homes were destroyed in the Blitz, their most identifiable common feature was Brutalism. Basildon became a place in which everything is different and yet simultaneously the same — the original concrete jungle. This architectural style famously dominated Britain's post-war landscape, at the time architects and planners were genuinely attempting to confront the devastation of WWII with new solutions. This sentiment forms the heart of the Our Towns programme, engaging culture to consider new solutions to old problems in addressing our relationship with public space, and each other.
As we saw with Banksy’s latest interventions in the UK, there is a sense of a country looking inward, that a staycation of Brexit and COVID has made the citizens here accidentally cognizant of its own history. That often creates a bit of tricky conundrum, but I went to Basildon over the course of two trips to see the inaugural Our Towns street art initiative, a project that introduced “a number of large-scale murals and educational programmes” to the city. As an author’s note, the project was curated by two friends and contributors at Juxtapoz, Doug Gillan and Charlotte Pyatt, collaborating as Re:FRAMED. The fact that I had barely seen art in person over the course of 18 months and now found myself in the midst of the rush and energy of a unique and interactive street art festival was not lost on me; there is a palpable energy seeing the likes of INSA, Franco Fasoli, Erin Holly, Helen Bur, Marina Capdevila and others come to this city for the first time and paint both big and small.
What Gillen and Pyatt did, though, and this is important to note in terms of what a street art project should be, is make the project solely about Basildon. Each artist collaborated and interacted with the city’s people and history. Nothing came from an abstract concept of what the city is; it was the present tense of a city in a conversation of where it came from and where it will go into the future. We are at a moment in time where travel, movement, interactions with people in our communities, is at a fragile place. What art can do is create powerful bridges to each other and our histories, to solidify creative expression but most importantly (and I feel like a broken record going back to this mantra, and yet it is vital) is build self-esteem and meaning in the town we call home. —Evan Pricco