Kate Macintosh for Southwark Council Architects Dept, 1972
Bredinghurst, Overhill Road, East Dulwich, SE22 0PL
Celebrating it's 50th year this year Dawson's Heights is split between 2 blocks consisting of 296 flats, all with private balconies. A fantastic example of beautifully designed social housing with uninterrupted views of the London skyline.
Forest Hill, Peckham Rye, East Dulwich
176, 185, 197, P13
There is on street parking and plenty of places to lock cycles.
There are lifts to all levels, but stair/step access within the flat.
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 ,also, 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’.
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.
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.
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.
To the scheme’s advocates – and perhaps 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’.
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.'
This text was taken from the blog Municipal Dreams by John Broughton after an Open House visit in 2014
The blog led to the publishing of the book 'Municipal Dreams
The Rise and Fall of Council Housing' in 2018
Back to top of page