Dawson’s Heights, East Dulwich SE22
Example of 1960s modernist-style social housing with uninterrupted views of the London skyline
Architect: Kate Macintosh for Southwark Council Architects Department
Year Built: 1966-1972
Split between two blocks consisting of nearly 300 flats, Dawson’s Heights was built on an extraordinary 13.8 acre hilltop site in East Dulwich in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Its striking stepped design, which features blocks of varying heights rising to 12 storeys at its central peak, takes advantage of its hilltop location by following the contours of the landscape.
The architect Kate Macintosh, who was unbelievably only in her mid-twenties at the time, insisted on a number of design features to benefit the council tenants of the day: each flat was to have at least one balcony and views in both directions and to the north, towards central London. Outside walkways were to resemble “streets in the sky”, allowing for efficient circulation and recreating traditional street patterns. The external facade was to have a warm brick texture to reduce the building’s monolithic appearance (you can only imagine what it would look like if it was all made out of sludge-coloured concrete).
Visiting it today, it is clear that these thoughtful planning and design decisions have paid off in part: the estate, with its chunky bands of balconies and access galleries and multiple layers, is a striking piece of architecture, the external walkways are generously wide and have unexpectedly spectacular panoramic views and there’s also a feeling of brightness and openness, rather than oppressiveness which is unfortunately common for an estate of this scale.
Unfortunately, the interiors of the development are not quite as striking as the exterior. The communal lobbies are a bit characterless and the flats, although generous in size, aren’t as radical as the exteriors. The most noteworthy feature is the sheer number of mini staircases in each flat leading from one room to the next: whilst the building is twelve storeys high at its peak, there are only four accessible floors from the lift lobby because each flat (including the one-beds) is split over at least three floors.
The flat that was open to view had a living room on the top level, kitchen, bathroom and a bedroom on the middle level and two further bedrooms on the bottom level. The rooms weren’t massive in size but the flat did feel bright and airy thanks to its placement and multiple balconies.
Although Dawson’s Heights is not grade listed, it is not currently under serious threat of “regeneration” as it is seen as a well-maintained, successful social housing estate thanks in large part to the architecture.