Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Essex Moderne

Silver End is a small village in Essex about ten miles from where I was brought up. I'd never heard of it though until I moved to London and started studying architecture. Sitting in the university library improving myself through modernism I came across a picture of Silver End, a starkly lit black and white photograph of a row of white rendered villas. The conflation of modern architecture with the highly familiar landscape of Essex came as a shock to me, like discovering a staid relative with a remarkable and glamorous past. Architecture like this didn't belong in the muddy, flatlands of Essex with its wattle and daub farm houses and suburban cul-de-sacs.

Last week on a trip home to see my parents I took a detour to have a proper look. The houses I went to see make up only a small part of the village, a single avenue of small semi-detached pairs with one or two larger villas dotted around. Silver End was built in the mid 1920's by the Crittall window company as a model village, an example of philanthropic garden-city planning. It was based around the Crittall factory along with a village hall, church, department store and a number of architecturally less adventurous houses.

The homes designed by Scottish architect Thomas Tait are an odd, hybrid form of early modernism. White stuccoed walls, flat roofs and, naturally, metal framed Crittall windows are combined with art deco elements, making them appear like small, domesticated versions of industrial buildings like the Hoover factory. The two houses designed for the factory managers are the most ornate and sit slightly apart from the terraces for the workers. While one of these is still beautifully kept, standing back elegantly behind its perfectly manicured lawn, the other appears in an advanced state of decrepitude, mostly hidden behind a large, overgrown hedge. A tatty St George's Cross hung behind an open window.

In the Easter sunshine the houses looked surprisingly ordinary, not nearly as alien or exotic as they did in that old black and white photo. The slightly crumbling render, abundant planting and domestic garden paraphernalia have domesticated them, blending them into the landscape.

They're interesting though not just as an isolated example of early modernism, but as an important piece of social history. Gillian Darley describes Silver End in her book Villages of Vision as "...a notable monument to well-employed capital and social vision". In this they are clearly a close relation to the Bata housing in East Tilbury, another example of "social vision" and philanthropic capitalist planning in Essex. There are other enclaves of modernism in the county too including Oliver Hill's Frinton Park Estate, although being by the sea this last development is somehow less unexpected. Its expansive views and air of chi-chi upward-mobility are part of a different tradition of seaside modernism.

Ultimately what appeals about Silver End is precisely its ordinariness, not just in the sense that it occupies a familiar part of the world for me personally but also in the sense of what it has become. Its neat hedges and re-painted facades, its garden knick-knacks and ad-hoc modifications suggest an alternative history of British domestic architecture. I can't locate that first photograph I saw of Silver End now. I have no idea what book it was in or when it was taken. If I could it would be interesting to contrast it with the houses today. Like the well documented resident modifications of Le Corbusier's houses at Pessac, it would show modernism and domesticity - or radicalism and conservatism  - coming to some strange sort of accommodation with each other. 

1 comment:

AM said...

Nobody is into (modern or post-modern) "ordinariness" these days.
No wonder no one comments...
Next time tried something more impressive and "heroic".
Maybe Zaha dress in some late parametric outfit...