I was briefly in Harlow earlier this week, and took the opportunity to track down a couple of sculptures on residential estates, which I didn’t manage to get to on my previous visit to Harlow.
One of the sculptures I was most excited about seeing was Willi Soukop’s bronze donkey, which sits in a quiet residential estate called Pittman’s Fields.
One of the reasons I was so keen to see the donkey was that I have seen a photo of a cast of the sculpture that was exhibited at the 1949 Pictures for Schools exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery. Soukop was involved in Pictures for Schools for many years, and was a member of the committees that selected sculptures for display at the exhibitions.
The Donkey sculpture was originally commissioned for Dartington Hall; Soukop taught sculpture at the independent Dartington Hall School, as well as other private schools and art colleges. I believe it was installed as a play sculpture in Harlow 1955.
The sculpture was smaller than I expected, but rather sweet, and I was encouraged that local people were well aware of its existence (it was quite hidden; after walking around in circles for some time, I was directed to it by three different people).
For some time, I followed with interest on Twitter the development of New Town Utopia, a new documentary about the new town of Basildon in Essex.
Although I’ve visited Harlow, another Essex new town, I’m not familiar with Basildon. I found the documentary, which I watched this week, to provide a remarkably even-handed portrayal of the town. Rather than merely dwelling on or aestheticising the town’s architecture, or condemning its social failures, it matched the aspirations for the town’s development up to the experiences of those who had moved there from the East End of London, and those who were born and grew up there.
The words of Lewis Silkin, the then Minister of Town and Country Planning, run through the film, setting out the context from which new towns such as Basildon emerged in the post-war period. Silkin explains that they aimed not just to alleviate the ‘grossly congested and overcrowded’ living conditions of the inner-city, but to ‘produce a new type of citizen, a healthy, self-respecting, dignified type of person, with a healthy sense of beauty, culture and civic pride’. By being well-designed and filled with artworks and cultural centres, he hoped that new towns would play their part in fostering an ‘appreciation of beauty’. The film questioned the extent to which new towns such as Basildon lived up to this. Whilst their new residents were delighted with new homes with conveniences such as indoor bathrooms, the improvement in living conditions did not always correspond to the changes in citizens which politicians and planners such as Silkin envisaged; Basildon, like the areas of East London from which many of its residents came, retained a reputation for toughness, and its interviewees categorised the town’s pubs according to the violence of the welcome one was likely to receive.
Whilst the shopping areas and public spaces of Basildon, like other post-war new towns, were populated with artworks such as large-scale sculptures and mosaics, what was most striking in New Town Utopia was the culture that emerged outside of the mainstream culture of the town, and these municipal gestures (or perhaps as an escape from it) – from the electronic bands of the 1980s (most famously Depeche Mode and Alison Moyet) to later generations of rock and indie promoters, to poets, painters, pupeteers and street artists.
To find out more about New Town Utopia visit www.newtownutopia.com.
I’ve written a shortish reflection on my pilgrimage to the ‘sculpture town’ of Harlow, a mid-twentieth century new town in Essex, earlier this year, focusing on the redeveloped Water Gardens in the town centre and the architectural sculptor William Mitchell‘s gargoyle fountains, as a chapter for the new Modern Futures book.
Modern Futures, which is published by Uniformbooks, is edited by Hannah Neate (my Director of Studies) and Ruth Craggs and is an outcome of the Modern Futures research network, which brought together academics, writers, artists, photographers and practitioners for a series of events and workshops around the country exploring questions around changing perceptions of the experience, appreciation and preservation of modern architecture. The book brings together contributions prompted, explored and developed through these events, as well as reflections from a few familiar projects from Manchester such as Angela Connelly and Matthew Steele’s Sacred Suburbs survey and Manchester Modernist Society.
The book can be purchased online for £12 at www.colinsackett.co.uk/modernfutures.php.
The work of Pictures for Schools contributing artists Gerda Rubinstein, Betty Rea and Elisabeth Frink in situ, outside the civic centre, in Harlow Old Town, and in the extensive Gibberd Garden, created by Frederick Gibberd, designer of the New Town, on the outskirts of Harlow.
I recently went on a long-awaited trip to Peterlee, County Durham, a new town built in 1948 to house the area’s mining communities (photos by Steve Hanson), enabled by the government’s 1946 New Towns Act. I had long wanted to visit Peterlee as an example of the way in which architecture and art were brought closer together in the post-war period, and due to the involvement of the artist Victor Pasmore in the development of the town. Pasmore’s involvement encompassed landscaping as well as, most famously, the sculptural concrete Apollo Pavilion which was named in honour of the 1969 moon landing and provides a focal point for the Sunny Blunts area of the town.
I was really struck by the contrast between Peterlee and other nearby villages such as Blackhall Colliery, as well as the large town of Hartlepool, where the predominantly terraced and Victorian housing was extremely dense and packed together. In contrast, Peterlee had a real feeling of spaciousness and greenery about it. Whilst remaining part of an overall coherence of design (despite the near-universal replacement of the original flat roofs and several instances of infill new-build development), a mix of housing styles – from flats and maisonettes to semi-detached and larger detached houses – were distributed in a way that seemed to complement and interact with the gently undulating landscape and give an overall impression of openness. Although many of the original post-war schools seemed to have been replaced, I was also struck by the number of modernist churches distributed throughout the estate, in wildly differing architectural styles, and noticed that some of the original pubs and facilities had been retained.
Despite the hope and optimism it was meant to symbolise, Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion soon became neglected, vandalised and unloved; there is a great clip of Pasmore returning to Peterlee in the 1980s in this documentary about British abstract artists, and remaining defiant in the face of angry residents who wish to see it pulled down (from around 17 minutes in). Thankfully, the Pavilion has undergone a restoration in recent years, with its murals repainted and lighting reinstated. In common with an increasing number of post-war public artworks, it is now listed. On the day I visited I was pleased to see groups of local young people using it and for a variety of purposes, from a space for meeting, gathering and chatting and interacting with it in different ways including climbing on it and even doing press-ups.
More information about Peterlee and the Apollo Pavilion can be found at www.apollopavilion.info/Pages/default.aspx.