Workers’ Playground: Essex’s Czech Functionalist Utopia


This week, Alex Casper Cline explores how a Czech shoe company transformed a small town in Essex from a sleepy hamlet into a showpiece of functionalist architecture.

This week, Alex Casper Cline explores how a Czech shoe company transformed a small town in Essex from a sleepy hamlet into a showpiece of functionalist architecture.

East Tilbury, down the Thames from London, is an oddity.  It is modelled on a small Czech city, known since medieval times for its shoemakers, pushed into an industrial future by an ambitious, cosmopolitan entrepreneur, Thomas Bata. When the Bata company, founded at the turn of the 20th century in what was then the Austro Hungarian Empire, expanded into new markets, a factory was set up in East Tilbury. Workers were given cheap, modern houses, training as a semi-skilled labourer, and the chance of progression; several of East Tilbury’s line workers ended up managing new projects in Sri Lanka and Jamaica. The company town promised not only a job, but a cosmopolitan community and a future.

Factory and estate in 1960. © Bata Heritage Centre 2015. Reproduced by permission of the Bata Heritage Centre.

The town’s metamorphosis came as the advanced stage of industrialisation and urbanisation – known as Fordism – kicked off in Europe. Thurrock Council had attempted to woo the Ford Motor Company, which was searching for a sea-facing port to replace its Trafford Park near Manchester. Ford chose Dagenham instead, but East Tilbury played host to Bata, the Czech shoe company that paradoxically ended up being far more Fordist than any of Ford’s projects in the United Kingdom. As the great depression reached its height, the new factory – opened in 1933 – provided a refuge for young people fleeing economic devastation in the East of England.

Queen Elizabeth Avenue in 1971. © Bata Heritage Centre 2015. Reproduced by permission of the Bata Heritage Centre.

While company towns were nothing new, and England had adopted the concept of worker’s housing as a necessity to accommodate newly urbanised labour following the industrial revolution, the East Tilbury project is clearly part of a second act. Instead of the basic, paternalistic welfare of the 19th century – ensuring workers would have a place to sleep and food to eat (preventing itinerancy and producing a healthy profit from monopoly outlets) – in East Tilbury we have a project that seems to actively attempt to provide for the economic and social well-being of its workers. That does not preclude this being a control mechanism, however; one thinks of Michel Foucault’s biopolitics, where the sovereign prerogative changes from simply preventing death to controlling every aspect of life. Taylorism, which scientifically records and analyses gestures and behaviours in order to improve them, is applied on the factory line, but also off of it.

Statue of Thomas Bata. Photo: Nina Pope (via Flickr)

As East Tilbury develops, we see the establishment of a range of civic institutions, social clubs and team sports engaged to produce community spirit amongst workers and their families. Artefacts and testimonials have been carefully preserved by the Bata Heritage Centre, an excellent volunteer-run archive occupying a quarter of the local library. We find out that Bata ran fire engines, ambulances, community watch schemes. Testimonials recall dances and excursions, clubs covering photography, gardening and football. Larger projects, including pantomimes and theatrical productions, would draw upon multiple collectives, and engage with the wider British culture: first division team West Ham trains between seasons on Bata’s sports field, while the BBC records numerous episodes of its popular radio show, ‘Workers’ Playground’, in the town’s cinema.

Swimming pool. © Bata Heritage Centre 2015. Reproduced by permission of the Bata Heritage Centre.

Residents recall an atmosphere similar to a holiday camp, with a rural riverfront setting and leisure amenities. Workers from other parts of the Bata ‘empire’ would come to train workers or be trained themselves. A marketing executive recalls staying in the Bata hotel, being woken up every morning by large knocks from a broom. Others recall hostels with multiple young employees to a room. For the most part, however, workers were rehoused – often after marriage – in modern, semi detached homes, according to Thomas Bata’s maxim of ‘work collectively, live individually’.

The corporate town of Zlin. Image: Tomas Bata Foundation (Wikimedia Commons)
The corporate town of Zlin. Image: Thomas Bata Foundation (Wikimedia Commons)

The Czech antecedent to East Tilbury, the town of Zlin, acted as a basis not only for factory-centered settlements in more than a dozen countries, but also for an entire architectural movement. Functionalism drew heavily from the work of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and while modernist architects would later have the chance to design entire towns, as with Auguste Perret’s Le Havre (1944-1964), Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh (1951-1965) and Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia (1957-1960), the functionalist project in Zlin precedes these. In the decade leading up to 1932, the population of the town had increased fivefold, and schools, hospitals, community and sports centers were built alongside factories and housing developments. František Lydie Gahura, one of Le Corbusier’s students, was responsible for most of this development, although Le Corbusier himself visited and provided input.

The Bata hotel. © Bata Heritage Centre 2015. Reproduced by permission of the Bata Heritage Centre.

Thomas Bata’s operational design matched the functionalist architecture – he was one of the first executives to incorporate using private planes, leading to his death in a 1932 crash. Perhaps even more strangely, he pioneered the concept of a moving office, with one of these being installed in the Zlin Bata skyscraper from 1936. Using an elevator mechanism, the entire executive office could move between floors, allowing the corporate leadership to be accessible to all administrative staff. Although the postwar Communist government changed the name of both company and town, the industrial focus and the architectural legacy of the town was preserved, influencing urban design in the rest of Czechoslovakia and its Warsaw Pact allies.

Former factory building. Photo: Alex Casper Cline

Postsocialism is one framework possible for understanding the architectonic development in Central Europe, but this downplays continuities across periods and national boundaries. Bata’s functionalism is neither socialist nor unique to the East; if anything, nostalgia for its architecture and culture is symptomatic of a globalised nostalgia for a responsible industrial capitalism, a kind of post-social democratism. The Cecoslovacchia pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennial played host to Martin Hejl’s 2 X 100 Mil. M2 – The Collective Dream exhibition, which explored the progression of Czech housing and workplaces. The Bata design philosophy – focused around the prefabricated home – was the logical starting point for a display looking at collective and singular habitations. Zlin was also the terminus of another project, a group excursion led by artists Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie.

Scene from ‘Bata-ville’. Photo: John Podpadec

In 2004, using funding from the local council, they collected veterans of the East Tilbury factory, along with veterans from a smaller factory in Maryport, Cumbria, and artists from London, and rented a tourist coach. Wearing custom outfits that evoked Bata’s Golden Age, they played the role of hostesses, organising the excursion but also ritual events marking the departure and arrival. Scenes are shot outside of and in their hotel rooms, perhaps evoking the surveilled nature of Bata hotel and hostel accommodation, which had mandatory wake up calls, restrictions on appliances and other paternalistic regulations. On the coach itself, participants were given a slot and asked to entertain others, evoking the movement towards participation in Contemporary Art, but also the busy community-focused environment once facilitated by the Bata corporation. Former workers shared curious hobbies – pigeon keeping, dueling with painted eggs, bingo – that broke down barriers between Cumbria Northerners and Essex Southerners and – perhaps less successfully – between retirees and artists.

We are not afraid of the future. Photo: John Podpadec

A particularly emotional segment saw the group stop for a tour of a modern, automated factory in Best, Netherlands. Though careful not to disparage progress, the workers are hardly oblivious that such automation has made many of their jobs obsolete, while also reducing the workforce to a size such that running community organisations is no longer practical. The artificial community created inside the bus, as in Hejl’s exhibition, contrasts with the increasingly atomised and fearful relationships outside. Pope and Guthrie’s guiding question – ‘Are you afraid of the future?’ – drew on a fragment from one of the older Thomas Bata’s optimistic speeches. Its referent changes, meaning the prompt becomes alternatively about death, politics, urbanism or industrial decline.

Bata worker’s house today. Photo: Nina Pope (via Flickr)

My own visits to East Tilbury involved work as trainee on an archaeological excavation, right below the Bata factory. The site is being excavated by a commercial unit engaging in rescue archaeology in advance of a large new housing development. The 149 homes, priced from £200,000, are presumably attractive to London commuters as well as workers in the new Thames Gateway Port; there is no prospect of a shared workplace. Pope and Guthrie’s more recent work, Prospection, deals with the archaeological work accompanying a similar housing development project, albeit in Cambridge. A primary stage of their project involved making models of the future development out of cob, an antiquated building material. A secondary stage involved documenting both archaeological excavations and ongoing construction at the site. Rather ambitiously, they have framed their project as an annual survey over the 25 years of projected development, in an attempt to produce a phenomenological stratigraphy, an archaeology of archaeology (and construction) itself.

The former Bata Hotel, now a supermarket. Photo: Alex Casper Cline

While the project in East Tilbury will be completed long before then, it will be interesting to see if new housing, created for a very different type of economy, will substantially change the quality or character of the town. Already, despite the efforts of the Heritage Center, the Bata factory, industrial employment and a cohesive community seem like a distant memory. For the first time this May, East Tilbury elected a local councillor from the UK Independence Party. Archaeology in Britain invariably shows that migration is constantly occurring, both internally and across national borders. This migration facilitates both cultural and economic development. In East Tilbury, however, one hardly needs to scratch the surface to find an intriguing history of past intercultural cooperation.

Bata Heritage Centre
Bata-ville: We are not afraid of the future
Essex’s Industrial Archaeology: Housing the Workers (Blog of the Essex Record Office)

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