The tedious beauty of Basingstoke: what the southern “overspill” town can tell us about modern architecture

Places without history now have their own story to tell

May 04, 2018
A shot of Basing View. Photo: Chris Guy
A shot of Basing View. Photo: Chris Guy

Recently, Historic England listed a tranche of post-war office blocks. Most of them were in London, or in big cities like Leeds and Birmingham, but one of the largest—and the one that was usually used to illustrate the articles—was Gateway House (now Mountbatten House), built for the paper merchants Wiggins Teape and designed by Peter Foggo of Arup Associates in 1974. It is better known as the “hanging gardens of Basingstoke,” because of the way it integrates quite luxuriously crafted modern architecture—all black glass and travertine—with cascading gardens on its stepped roofs and balconies, creating an oddly post-apocalyptic sense of nature overtaking modernity. In the freak heatwave of mid-April, I set out to have a look at it, and got myself sunburnt in the process, which seemed apt. After all, this is the southern sunbelt, the town once called the “Dallas of Hampshire,” all sharp suits, big business, fast cars and smoked glass.

Basingstoke sits roughly equidistant between London, where I've lived all my adult life, and Southampton, where I grew up. On the frequent train journey between the two, Southampton would barely ever change, but Basingstoke constantly threw up new office complexes and blocks of luxury flats, seemingly enjoying a permanent boom while Southampton declined. I'd never get off the train to look at the town, having been alarmed by it on a visit as a teenager, by the way there seemed to be “no there there”—just an enclosed mall, ringed by motorways, with Barratt Homes suburbia around it and nothing much more. This, I melodramatically thought to myself, is what they want for all of us, lives lived around shopping, property and nothing else, in towns stripped of anything distinct.

But what if that lack of all the obvious signifiers of urban uniqueness—the historic buildings, the art galleries, museums and concert halls, the “vibrant street life”—is itself an identity? That's what the recent listings of modern buildings in places like Basingstoke—and similarly novel places in the south like Harlow, Basildon, Bracknell, Reading, Stevenage suggest: that these places without history now have their own story to tell.

Basingstoke has been around for a while, but the bulk of what is there now is the result of it being designated a “London Overspill” area in the 1960s. This is an ugly term, sharing with today's talk of “decanting” council estates of their residents the image of people as a fluid that can be sloshed around at will, but it was based on what is now an unusual idea—that London should shrink, and be redistributed elsewhere. Basingstoke's expansion was an exchange for the Greater London Council holding off from building an entire New Town in Brutalist style in nearby Hook, something that horrified Hampshire County Council; this was a compromise, one bolstered by the promise of abundant and cheap office space to large corporations.

To understand the results, turn left out of Basingstoke station into “Basing View,” a vast office district built mostly between the mid 70s and the early 80s. Mirror-glass office buildings stand over green roundabouts, and some of them are much more interesting than others: “Churchill Plaza” (what a name—patriotism and Americanism all together) is a very Dallas tower, and opposite is Matrix House, of 1983, a dramatic building used as offices by,  inter alia, Handelsbanken and Sun Life Canada. It's in the then-nascent High-Tech style, with a high glass atrium and exposed services, the sort of ambitious, sculptural building you'd usually have found at the time in much sexier cities like Chicago or Hong Kong.

Every block of the business park sprawls across its site, from the red brick Postmodernism of Snamprogetti House to View Point, a block of craggy Brutalist offices that would be a cult object by now were it in London or Manchester, to Farnum House, the 1973 complex that houses the AA, surmounted by a slightly sinister, slit-windowed tall tower. The only new part of it is a John Lewis Furniture store, in a sort of cut-price Zaha style. The place has a tedious beauty all of its own, revealing how much modern architecture relies for its effect on contrast: an entire town of this stuff conspicuously lacks tension or friction. Everything runs smoothly, or at least it does if you're driving—and if you're not, what's wrong with you?

Just behind Mountbatten House's tumbling foliage, through a densely planted green, is a footbridge over a motorway, bringing you to residential Basingstoke, and Eastrop Park, with a large lake and clusters of little weatherboarded houses climbing up the hills. It works well, for what it is, if you don't mind all the things missing from it. It's even quite multicultural, by Hampshire standards. But this was the sort of “Overspill” that was always going to work, a moving of big money out of the capital into the shires. The only thing it didn't consider was boredom, and that's why the first thing so many children of those who moved here in the '70s and '80s did when they grew up was move to London.