Radical Essex presents a complex county of modernist design and utopian thinking

‘Essex is a complex county,’ begins Joe Hill, ‘judged solely by more misguided stereotypes than perhaps any other,’ says the director of Focal Point Gallery. Sitting on the edge of east London, it is home to much of the cockney diaspora, fleeing these then often poor communities for a more idyllic rural life. And it certainly gets its fair share of stereotyping, not always positive – think spray tans and excessive makeup, blinging cars and bars.

Clacton Pier, Clacton-on-Sea, 2016 © Catherine Hyland

Yet there is an entirely other side to Essex. There is natural rural beauty mixed with elements of radicalism, even utopianism. The county is home to some modernist gems. The 1960s student halls at the University of Essex in Colchester is a great example, as are the bungalows at Silver End at Braintree, built by Francis Crittall and fitted with his famous steel frames. London Underground stations designer Charles Holden built cottages at Mayland, near Maldon in the 1920s and 30s, and there is the brilliant white crop of International Style houses at Frinton-on-Sea.

Spender House, Ulting 2016 © Catherine Hyland

Radical Essex presents this other, more exotic, side of the county. The initiative began two years ago with a simple goal to re-examine the history of the county in relation to radicalism in thought, lifestyle, politics and architecture. Hill says the idea is 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.’

Essex University © Catherine Hyland

A book of the same name charts the project, including findings from Essex Architecture Weekend held in September 2017. Edited by Joe Hill and Hayley Dixon, and published by Focal Point and Cornerhouse Publications, Radical Essex takes the subject further to include new writings and photography from Catherine Hyland – featured here. This is a dynamic and inspirational read that sheds light on the region’s pioneering thinking throughout the twentieth-century. It certainly reveals an exciting side to Essex.

Nargess Banks

Images in order: Clacton Pier Clacton-on-Sea, Spender House Ulting, Essex University,
Lee Over Sands. All photographs © Catherine Hyland, Courtesy of Focal Point Gallery

Lee Over Sands © Catherine Hyland
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