Hidden gems: exploring the modernist architecture of Essex

Hidden gems: exploring the modernist architecture of Essex

It’s tempting to dismiss Essex as a hotbed of perma-tans, deep-V tees and boy racers. But the English county has more than most to offer to architecture aficionados.

Essex is peppered with pioneering and experimental architecture from the early and mid-20th century. These modernist gems are now being championed during Essex Architecture Weekend, part of the Radical Essex initiative, which seeks to reevaluate the region in relation to its rich cultural history (rather than the pervading image of TOWIE). Delights include Silver End, the village built by window industrialist Francis Henry Crittall to house his workers. Its village hall is the hub for the two-day event, and houses an exhibition.

Other sites of note include the Bata Estate in East Tilbury, founded in 1932 by eponymous shoe company pioneer Czech Tomáš Baťa; and the coastal resort of Frinton-on-Sea. Shuttle buses will carry visitors between these sites.

Spearheading Radical Essex is Joe Hill, director of the Southend-on-Sea gallery Focal Point. Two elements conspired to make the county so architecturally significant, he says: plenty of open land to build on thanks to the dearth of large historic estates; and its proximity to poverty-stricken east London. ’The permeable relationship with the capital promoted innovation and experimentation with diverse political ideologies and social makeups,’ Hill explains. ’These pioneers came to regard the region as a testing-ground for radical thought, alternative lifestyles and new architecture.’

As well as the three estates, there are individual buildings worth perusing: Joseph Emberton’s Royal Corinthian Yacht Club in Burnham-on-Crouch was Britain’s sole entry in MoMA’s ’Modern Architecture: International Exhibition’ in 1932. And a number of home-owners are giving tours, including those of 52 and 62 Clatterfield Gardens in Westcliff-on-Sea, by Swiss architect Douglas Niel Martin-Kaye, who was also responsible for the town’s tennis pavilion.

An enlightening trip through an unfairly maligned part of the country, Essex Architecture Weekend is a worthy survey of an underrated architectural hotspot.

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