Kate Macintosh designed Dawson’s Heights back in the Sixties when she was just 26 years old. If she weren’t very much alive and kicking – and still fighting the cause of high quality social housing – I’d call it a worthy memorial. It remains much more than that in any case. Beloved by architectural groupies and a striking presence on the local skyline, most importantly it has provided a decent home to many. Of course, it’s had its ups and downs.
The estate was conceived when Britain was building council housing on a massive scale, ambitious to clear once and for all the remaining slums (and many did remain) and house all its people decently and comfortably. The best local authority architects and Housing Departments wanted to bring design quality to this numbers game too. In Southwark, the Borough Architect and Planner, Frank Hayes, sought to achieve excellence through in-house competition. Kate Macintosh won the competition to design Dawson’s Heights.
She had studied the existing alternatives, for one the five-storey walk-up blocks ubiquitous in London and specifically Speke House in Camberwell (since demolished). Typical of its kind, she thought it ‘institutional’ – ‘all external expression of this is my home, this is where I live was forbidden’.
She was critical too of many of the point and slab blocks being built; they were ‘unrelated to the surrounding urban grain’ and she ‘found the anonymous grid expression of the exteriors of much LCC work repellent’. In her words, she ‘absorbed the lessons’ of the far more innovative scheme of Park Hill in Sheffield ‘but disliked the apparent flattening of the hill produced by the constant height of each meandering super-block’. (1)
Dawson’s Heights would be different, not least because of its extraordinary site – a 13.8 acre hilltop site in East Dulwich: crowned with a refuse tip and ringed by interwar houses now compulsorily purchased but many uninhabitable in any case due to the instability of hillside London clay. (2)
These circumstances dictated the basic layout of the new scheme – two large blocks (Ladlands to the north and Bredinghurst to the south) constructed on the more stable terrain and overlooking a central communal space, formerly the dump. The buildings still required 60-80 feet reinforced concrete cylinders foundations. The siren call of system building was resisted and a superstructure erected of load-bearing cross-walls, of brickwork in the four-storey blocks and of reinforced concrete for all but the top four floors of the higher buildings. (3)
Turning to the more creative aspects of the design, Macintosh devised a ziggurat-style scheme which ensured that two thirds of the flats had views in both directions and all had views to the north. The varied height of the blocks, rising to twelve storeys at their central peak, made sure that every flat received sunlight even in deepest midwinter. (4)
To the scheme’s advocates – and I think most would agree – ‘the warm brick texture’ humanised the façades and avoided a foreboding monolithic appearance while the staggering of the blocks created ‘ever changing silhouettes’ adding ‘the beauty of surprise to a relentless suburb’. (5)
English Heritage, whose recommendation for listing was rejected by the Secretary of State, was effusive in its praise:
The dramatic stepped hilltop profile is a landmark in SE London, and endows the project with a striking and original massing that possesses evocative associations with ancient cities and Italian hill towns…The generous balconies with remarkable views and natural light, the warm brick finish and thoughtful planning introduce a real sense of human scale to a monumental social housing scheme.
Still, not everybody loved it. The Pevsner volume describes the blocks with ‘their chunky bands of balconies and access galleries’ as ‘disappointing close up’. (6)
The Estate was constructed between 1968 and 1972 and cost in total a little over £1.6m to build. It was a mixed development including a range of accommodation intended to suit individuals and families in a range of life circumstances and stages. Macintosh felt that:
if large blocks were to be accepted and loved, as a new way of living, they must try to replicate the best characteristics of the terraced street; that families of different sizes and age groups should intermingle, as their needs and strengths would be diverse and complementary.
However, unlike earlier examples of this principle, all the dwellings were contained within a single complex. In Dawson’s Heights, there were 296 homes – 112 one-bed, 75 two-bed, 81 three-bed and 28 four-bed, all split-level dual aspect maisonettes: a ‘Chinese puzzle of differing types to be assembled in various combinations’ is how Macintosh described it.
Every flat has a private balcony, an amenity Macintosh fought for at a time when Housing Minister Richard Crossman was berating local authority architects for extravagance. She designed them to serve as fire escapes (via a removable glass panel to the neighbouring balcony) and thus justified their inclusion on safety grounds.
Of course, the best-laid plans…
There were early problems with damp and condensation in the flats. By 1976 the Council was embarking on a second programme of repairs to rectify the issue at a cost of around £0.5m. Two overhead walkways which had originally connected the blocks were removed in the eighties in line with the ‘designing out crime’ ideas of Alice Coleman.
By 1989 some residents were highly critical of Southwark Council’s failure to repair and maintain the Estate and they sought an alternative landlord. (7) No doubt the issue was real but the timing was fortuitous, coming a year after the introduction of so-called ‘Tenants’ Choice’ powers in the Conservatives’ 1988 Housing Act. The latter were intended, in the government’s words, ‘to open up the closed world of the local authority housing estates to competition and to the influence of the best housing management practices of other landlords’. (8)
Such ‘competition’ was helped here by a Housing Corporation grant of £200,000 to the Samuel Lewis Housing Trust to do the groundwork for a possible transfer but all these efforts came to naught when the Trust withdrew in 1994 having failed to receive the funding it reckoned it needed to update the Estate.
And then things moved again. A tenant vote in favour of transfer to the Trust in September 1997 was followed in 1998 – presumably not coincidentally – by an award of £3.354m from the government’s Estates Renewal Challenge Fund, with the Trust finding by some means an additional £3.3m from ‘the private sector’. The new Labour Housing Minister Hilary Armstrong called it ‘a real opportunity to tackle the problems and get the estate back on its feet’ – ‘for many years the people living on the Dawson’s Heights estate have had inadequate housing’. (9) Quite a comedown for a showpiece development.
Money was spent on rectifying some subsidence problems around the periphery of the Estate and on installing double glazing, replacing roofs and upgrading security. But this wasn’t to be quite the Promised Land – ‘according to residents, that is when it all started to go wrong’. One stated that the ‘windows and roofs started leaking almost straight away…the security doors are always smashed… the estate is never cleaned and lifts are broken.’ All this and they were paying higher rents. (10)
This takes us some way away from the usual accounts of Dawson’s Heights which focus on the architectural excitement of the Estate. To me, however, it’s a useful reminder of the ‘real world’ issues – structural problems which need repair, day-to-day management and upkeep, safety – that determine the actual experience of council tenants, however prestigious the development. And, despite the anathematising of council-run estates and the murky process which has effectively forced transfer of homes from council ownership, it reminds us that good management and tenants’ interests are not necessarily best served by loss of council control.
In fairness, the Southern Housing Group (the new incarnation of the Samuel Lewis Trust) has upped its game considerably since those earlier complaints and residents – many, probably around one in three, of them owner-occupiers now – seem generally satisfied with the management of the Estate. Certainly it looks good and what Pevsner called the ‘drab stretch of green’ at its centre is now an attractively landscaped play area and open space.
It is still the architecture which compels attention, of course. Close-up, it’s powerful without being overpowering, retaining that intimacy and sense of individuality which Macintosh sought. From afar it’s a commanding presence on the south London skyline. It remains a benign monument to an era when high-quality housing for the people was a proud priority.
For plans and interiors and some additional views of Dawson’s Heights, do take a look at Modernist Estates posts on the estate.
(1) Quoted in Utopia London, Dawson’s Heights
(2) James Dallaway, ‘Dawson’s Hill before Dawson’s Heights’, The Dulwich Society Newsletter, Spring 2006
(3) AJ Information Library, ‘Dawson’s Heights’, Architects’ Journal, 25 April 1973
(4) Single Aspect, ‘Dawson Heights Estate – Twentieth Century Society walk, July 2010’
(5) Twentieth Century Society, ‘Dawson’s Heights: the “Italian” hill town in Dulwich’, May 2012. The comment on the ‘changing silhouettes’ is quoted from Philip Boyle in the Docomomo newsletter, no.19, Winter 2009. The English Heritage statement which follows is also taken from this source.
(6) Bridget Cherry, Nikolaus Pevsner, London: South (2002)
(7) Carol Munday, secretary of DH Tenants’ and Residents’ Association quoted in Housing Corporation, Tenants’ First, no.2, Spring 1993
(8) Quoted in Policy Studies Institute, Changing Role of Local Housing Authorities: An interim assessment (1990)
(9) ‘Over £4m Funding To Benefit Southwark and Newham LBC Estates’, Local Government Chronicle, 27 February 1998
(10) Nick Triggle and Lucy Gooding, ‘We have been left up Dawson Creek’, South London Press, September 14, 2001