‘Essex is neither part of East Anglia, nor one of the Home Counties; it contains both radical and conservative elements, and is therefore open to all possibilities,’ writes architectural critic Ken Worpole in Radical Essex. Sitting on the edge of east London, a rural refuge for much of the cockney diaspora, it certainly gets its fair share of crude stereotyping, and mockery – think The Only Way is Essex, spray tans and excessive makeup, bling cars and tacky bars.
There is, however, another Essex, one of raw rural beauty and elements of radicalism – in parts utopianism even, and Radical Essex is set to alter our views. There are the 1960s student halls at the University of Essex in Colchester, the bungalows at Silver End at Braintree, built by Francis Crittall and fitted with his famous steel frames, London Underground stations designer Charles Holden’s cottages near Maldon built in the 1920s and 30s, and there is the brilliant white crop of International Style houses at Frinton-on-Sea.
The initiative Radical Essex began two years ago with a goal to re-examine the history of the county in relation to radicalism in thought, lifestyle, politics and architecture. ‘Essex is a complex county, judged solely by more misguided stereotypes than perhaps any other,’ explains Joe Hill, director of Focal Point Gallery one of the founders of the project. She wants to ‘celebrate the extremes of this innovative and experimental county. From early modernist architectural experiments to worker colonies and pacifist communities, the county has always demonstrated its ability to be self-guided in its desires – to seek, experiment and redefine.’
A book of the same name, edited by Hill and Hayley Dixon, charts the project taking the subject further to include new writings and the photography of Catherine Hyland – featured here. This is a fascinating read that sheds light on the region’s pioneering thinking, and it certainly reveals an exciting side to Essex worth exploring.
Radical Essex is available to purchase at Focal Point Gallery or online at Cornerhouse Publications
Images in order:
Clacton Pier, Clacton-on-Sea, 2016, Essex University, Spender House Ulting 2016, and
Lee Over Sands. All photographs © Catherine Hyland, Courtesy of Focal Point Gallery