Pleasuredomes and Monorails: Early designs for Eastgate International Shopping Centre
Bio: Holly Firmin is a historian writing about Basildon, Essex and New Towns, and has recently competed a MPhil in Modern British History at Cambridge University, with her dissertation titled: ‘Thinking Like a Development Corporation in Basildon c 1965-1986’
You can follow Holly in twitter here @hollyfirmin_
All views expressed are the writer’s own.
Holly Firmin writes about the grand ambitions of the Basildon Development Corporation during the retail boom:
In 1967, General Manager of Basildon Development Corporation (BDC), Charles Boniface, claimed that there were shopping centres in Basildon where ‘one still expects to see cowboys cantering down the street.’ Though not quite the wild west, in the late 1970s the town centre was in a ‘deplorable state’. Trodden in fish and chips and animal droppings could be found strewn across the floors, and certain areas were being used as make-shift urinals.Despite (some) successful attempts to attract large retailers like Marks and Spencers to the town (1971), Basildon had not become the regional shopping attraction its planners had marketed it as from the 1960s.
In 1977, the Corporation embarked on a public-private partnership with insurance company Norwich Union to build the ‘Eastgate International Shopping Centre’, the second and final phase of which opened its doors in 1985. The 1980s was the decade of the shopping centre boom. Across the globe a standardised, securitised, and perfectly air-conditioned typology emerged. For the most part, these were financed and built by private investors as they became safe-havens for surplus capital. The shopping centre, however, has a longer social democratic history. Many of the earliest shopping centres in Britain were financed and built by local authorities and New Town Development Corporations in the post-war years. Whilst, aesthetically and functionally, BDC embraced the global typology of private, out-of-town shopping centres, Eastgate was to be put to broadly social democratic ends. The Development Corporation, using its powers of compulsory purchase and planning authority, deployed the model of the globalshopping centre as a tool of local economic development. Located directly in the centre of town, Eastgate would – it was imagined – finally bring about the re-structuring of the local economy the Corporation had been trying to achieve for decades. In the plans and promotional materials produced for the Eastgate Centre in the 1980s, an optimistic vision of a future in which the town would finally generate the service and office jobs it desperately needed could be glimpsed.
Eastgate International, the Corporation claimed, was not only the biggest shopping centre in Europe (a title adopted by numerous contemporaneous shopping centres), but the most innovative in terms of shopping ‘experience’. The ‘galleries’ in the top levels of the shopping centre would provide a ‘unique retail environment’, in which small retailers could insert their shops into ready-made units. The Food Court would seat over 200 families, providing fast and cheap food for families from all over the world, offering them a chance to sample ‘oriental’ cuisines they otherwise would not encounter. For the wealthier consumer, a ‘restaurant on the world’ would offer a fine dining experience, with views looking down the entire shopping centre at the ‘drama’ of the movement of the shoppers below. In the eyes of the Corporation, the shopping centre was not just the site of commodity fetishization and exchange, but a spectacle in itself.
Eastgate was to be a ‘family friendly’ shopping centre, with a variety of ‘distractions’ for ‘children of all ages’. As well as the spectacle of shopping itself, families could enjoy live jazz bands and mobile entertainment. These ‘families’, however, were imagined as belonging exclusively to a white, heterosexual nuclear family unit, indicative of the conservative, mid-century economy of ideas about gender and race that had underpinned Basildon’s design since its very beginnings. In the 1950s, the male head of household was expected to move his (generally) white family to Basildon in search of a better life - in the 1980s, he took his family to Eastgate International Shopping Centre in search of a stimulating (‘exotic’ and ‘oriental’) experience for all ages.
After Eastgate opened its doors in 1985, the Corporation welcomed proposals for an accompanying Towngate ‘leisure complex’. The leisure complex would feature a solarium, disco floor and ‘pleasure dome’, and would be connected to the adjacent shopping centre by a monorail. This monorail would shuttle consumers back and forth so that they might spend a whole day - and their money - in Basildon town centre. These proposals, however, were never realised. On the site of the ‘Towngate leisure complex’ - instead of these futuristic leisure facilities– sits the ‘Westgate’ shopping centre, opened in 1999 by Commercial Union Life Insurance after it purchased the site when the Commission for New Towns disposed of the town’s assets to the highest bidder. The unit at the very top of the Eastgate Centre – where the luxury ‘Restaurant on the World’ was to be located - remains empty and boarded up, having (as far as I can ascertain) never found an occupier.
In 1993, Harry Bacon, an ex-employee of the Corporation’s Planning Office, reflected on the fate of the Eastgate Centre. The central government’s economic strategy, he argued, had actively undermined the Corporation’s attempts to develop the town centre as a tool for the Basildon’s economic recovery in the 1980s. Thatcher had been ‘especially dedicated to maximising competition between retailers’, an approach that was ultimately at odds with Basildon Development Corporation’s vision of a state-managed consumer-capitalism .The Corporation social democracy (lite?) could not survive in a political climate in which ‘competition’ was being encouraged by a central government using its power to facilitate unregulated private development across the country. BDC could build its shopping centre, but it couldn’t stop rival, privately financed centers closing in on it in the emerging landscape of neoliberalism.
Essex Records Office, A9238, Box 32, 1967 Master Plan Inquiry Minutes.
Essex Records Office, A11942, Box 16, The Upgrading of Basildon Town Centre.
Essex Records Office, T1379, Harry Bacon, ‘Basildon New Town’, (1993).