Dulwich Oasis 20th Century Society Tour

Even though I’m pretty familiar with Dulwich and its housing estates (having lived in Great Brownings since 2019 and house hunted rather obsessively in the area for a few years before that), I couldn’t resist joining a recent C20 tour entitled “Dulwich: Mid Century Oasis” run by C20 chair and local expert Ian McInnes.

The tour was a companion piece to McInnes’ excellent book, a deep dive into each of the mid century housing estates scattered throughout the area (still available to buy in Dulwich bookshops and online) and was no less comprehensive: over the course of five hours, we visited most of the estates in the area, including some interior visits into a number of types of property that I was previously unfamiliar with.

The mid-century modern housing estates of Dulwich were planned by the architects Austin Vernon and Partners and built by Wates after the Dulwich Estate knocked down most of the Victorian houses that populated an almost 20 acre area in 1950s after they suffered extensive bomb damage in WWII.

The tour started at the Dulwich Wood Park Estate, a cluster of apartment blocks that I became very familiar with during our property search. Supposedly Dulwich’s answer to La Villa Radieuse in Marseilles (I didn’t see much of a resemblance!), the apartments were designed in a way that isn’t often seen in new-builds: only four apartments per floor, generous proportions, dual aspect, separate kitchen. Priced at £3,000-4,000 at the time, these were relatively premium apartments.

Each of the apartment blocks were named after Elizabethan explorers and all shared similar communal areas with colourful tiling and terrazzo staircases though Knoll Court, the first to be built, had a few more elaborate details including a tiled mural and what might have been a water feature. The landings and corridors in all of the blocks were originally intended to completely open to the elements (like a lot of social housing blocks) but the architects decided against it.

We were invited to take a look around two stylish examples of apartments on the estate. Both had the standard layout with the large living area, two connected bedrooms and separate kitchen. Both apartments had the original screen dividing the hallway and living area removed – the correct design choice in my opinion. One of the apartments was on the 8th floor of one of the blocks and had almost floor to ceiling windows in the living room (albeit with bars across the bottom section of the window). We learned that these top floor apartments were something of an afterthought – the 7th floor apartments were originally going to be extra luxurious with a conservatory on the upper floor but it was decided that the 8th floor could be better monetised as a further four apartments. This explained why the lift only went up as far as the 7th floor with residents on the 8th floor needing to climb the final floor.

Next, we moved onto Rockwell Gardens, a terrace of three-storey townhouses with “caged” front gardens and tiled front facades. I recall viewing a house with this exact layout during our property search except that one was opposite the Horniman Museum on a very busy (and noisy) road. Like the one we saw, this house on Rockwell Gardens had four bedrooms (one of them up in the loft on the second floor), a separate kitchen and living area and a staircase that was closed off from the living area to allow residents to come in and out of the house without having to cross the living area (like you have to in a standard three-storey Wates townhouse with an open plan living area and staircase opening onto the living area). These houses were reportedly inhabited by a lot of diplomats when they were built (this was something to do with the ease of getting into Whitehall) and came with warm air central heating and a fireplace. These originally sold for £6,000.

The Whytefield Estate was a bus ride away. I was familiar with the townhouses on this estate, having viewed one during our property search, but not the intriguing one and two-storey courtyard houses.

We had a look inside one of the three-storey townhouses, this one with the zigzag windows on the first floor. These windows were installed, reportedly as an afterthought, in the townhouses on the estate that faced onto other townhouses so that the residents wouldn’t be able to see into one another’s houses (somewhat unnecessarily given that there gap running between the two facing rows of townhouses appeared to be about 20 metres wide).

This townhouse (like the one that I viewed during our property search) had its original ground floor layout intact – a utility room and a bedroom/study opening out onto a small courtyard garden, which in turn opened onto a communal courtyard. We were told that a lot of residents had converted this ground floor living area into an open plan kitchen living area with obligatory bifolding doors. Upstairs on the first floor was the living area and kitchen and three further bedrooms on the top floor.

Next, we were treated to a visit into one of the single storey courtyard houses. This intriguing bungalow had an unusually wide hall with the sleeping quarters straight (three bedrooms) ahead with a short flight of stairs on the left leading up into the living area with patio doors onto a courtyard garden. The courtyard garden also provided access to one of the bedrooms. These single-storey houses apparently sold better than the two-storey pyramid style houses (which we unfortunately didn’t get to see inside) due to the fact that the pyramid houses had upside down layouts (bedrooms on the ground floor and living area/kitchen upstairs).

I was also familiar with the next estate, Lings Coppice, having been inside a couple of the houses during our property search and also as part of the Dulwich Artists’ Open House event.

These two-storey terraced houses were designed by German designer Manfred Bresgen and had a distinctly European look. The original plan was to build more traditional-looking three storey townhouses in the Lings Coppice site but Waite was keen to minimise costs by building houses with two storeys rather than three. The estate was built on Radburn principles with the houses arranged around a central courtyard. These houses were to be designed to be deceptively spacious with deep floorplans and a skylight/double height atrium in the centre of the plan to allow light to reach all corners of the house.

The houses in Lings Coppice that we saw during our property search had been updated to varying degrees but this particular example had been radically transformed. The original galley kitchen had been completely removed and the living area/double height atrium area had been completely opened up to accommodate a kitchen area that was almost entirely comprised of a sleek kitchen island. The original garage had been replaced with a utility room though the original garage door on the front of the house remained intact to comply with estate rules. Upstairs, however, the floorplan had been left in its original configuration with four bedrooms, a bathroom and a strip landing overlooking the kitchen island below.

After passing through a number of other estates (Valiant Close, Loggets and Morkyns Walk), we ended up at the brutalist concrete part of Dulwich College, designed by WJ Mitchell in 1966 and completed in 1968. Originally intended to be a memorial hall, it is now used as a dining hall and occasionally as the venue for mid century modern furniture shows.

The final stop on the tour was Ferrings, part of the College Road Estate and arguably the most architecturally accomplished of the developments on the Dulwich Estate. While the original plan was for the College Road Estate to consist of four premium apartment blocks, there simply wasn’t the demand for flats at this higher price point in this area. As a result, only one of the four apartment blocks was built (Gainsborough Court on College Road) with interlocking single and two-storey houses (each of which cost around £15,000, a large sum in the 1960s) making up the rest of the development.

We were invited to see inside one of the single-storey ranch houses, which had a courtyard front garden at the front (onto which the front hall and dining room opened) and a walled garden (accessed via the 30ft long living area) at the rear. The house still had its original layout (many houses on the estate have been reconfigured) with a clear division of public and private living quarters and a number of original features as well, including the timber-clad double-height mono-pitch roof in the living room and an abundance of sky lights.

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