Dawson’s Heights, a postwar housing estate in East Dulwich, London, stands as a testament to the innovative architectural vision of British architect Kate Macintosh. Constructed between 1964 and 1972, the estate has garnered attention for its distinctive undulating design that contours the hilltop location and offers remarkable views. Despite its architectural significance, Dawson’s Heights has faced a controversial listing denial by the Secretary of State.
Dawsons Heights Technical Information
- Architects: Kate Macintosh
- Location: Dulwich, United Kingdom
- Topics: Brick in Architecture
- Project Year: 1964 – 1972
- Photographs: © Trevor Patt
The generators for the Dawson’s Heights design were first and foremost the fabulous views. Looking North towards the city you can see the docks, Primrose Hill and, on a clear day, Parliament Hill. To the South the North Downs, Crystal Palace, etc. I wanted to exploit this. I designed it as a pair of interlocking ziggurats, staggered to minimise the blocking of sun and view, varying in heights from 12 to 3 storeys. The tail of the 2 higher blocks flips around 90 degrees to enclose a central place on the scale of Bloomsbury Square. (…) The original design incorporated bridges which linked the 2 lowest parts to the 2 highest parts of their sister block, the idea was to fold, to allow residents of the lower parts of the complex the maximum convenience of access to the nearest lift and also to increase sense of enclosure in the central space.– Kate Macintosh in conversation with Rowan Moore.
Dawsons Heights Photographs
The estate comprises nearly 300 flats, each with private balconies arranged in two spines overlooking a central communal area. The warm brick texture lends a human touch to the façades, preventing a monolithic appearance, while the bold stepped composition, ascending to 12 stories, creates a mega-structure presence on this South London hilltop. The design cleverly integrates the “streets in the sky” concept, which architects of the time used to promote efficient circulation and recreate traditional street patterns.
English Heritage’s Support
English Heritage has been a strong advocate for Dawson’s Heights’s architectural and design merits, praising its dramatic stepped hilltop profile as a landmark in Southeast London. They further commended the ample balconies, warm brick finish, and thoughtful planning, introducing a true sense of human scale to this monumental social housing scheme. The estate represents a successful implementation of the “streets in the sky” concept and fosters social interaction among diverse groups of residents while ensuring universal access to views.
The dramatic stepped hilltop profile serves as a landmark in SE London and imbues the project with an eye-catching and unique massing that evokes associations with ancient cities and Italian hill towns. The ample balconies with stunning views and natural light, the warm brick finish, and thoughtful planning introduce a true sense of human scale to this monumental social housing scheme.English Heritage Report
Kate Macintosh’s Vision
Kate Macintosh, the lead architect, was only 26 when she began drafting designs for Dawson’s Heights. After working on Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre team, she joined the London Borough of Southwark’s Architecture Department to gain more hands-on experience. Macintosh explained the multi-use balcony design in the 2010 film Utopia London, emphasizing how she aimed to circumvent ostentatious parsimony and achieve more than the bare minimum by ensuring desirable features served multiple purposes. As a result, all the balconies at Dawson’s Heights function as fire escape balconies as well as private balconies.
A highly detrimental speech by Richard Crossman, the Minister for Housing during the 1960s, accused public architects of extravagance and of squandering public funds on unnecessary luxuries like balconies. To circumvent this ostentatious parsimony and achieve more than the bare minimum, architects had to ensure that desirable features served multiple purposes, ideally three. Therefore, all the balconies at Dawson’s Heights function as fire escape balconies as well as private balconies. The escape door features a ‘break glass to enter’ type lock, allowing residents to securely use their balconies as they please while still maintaining an escape route.Kate Macintosh at Utopia London
Comparisons and Controversies
Due to their similar scale and composition, Dawson’s Heights has often been compared to Robin Hood Gardens in Tower Hamlets. Both estates consist of long spines of housing surrounding land with “streets in the sky” deck access and continue to function as social housing, successfully fulfilling their original purpose. English Heritage acknowledges these similarities but also highlights key differences, such as the more generous stairwells at Dawson’s Heights. Despite strong support from English Heritage, the Secretary of State denied the estate’s listing, sparking debate over its architectural and historical significance.
One characteristic of high-density urban housing is that the aggregate brief for numerous homes of varying sizes allows for flexibility in assembly and massing. At Dawson’s Heights, this characteristic is employed advantageously, with stepped ends that facilitate the transition in scale with the surroundings, reducing the perspective effect of blocks when viewed up close and, when combined with the staggering of the two blocks in plan, creating ever-changing silhouettes that add an element of surprise to an otherwise monotonous suburb.Philip Boyle in the Docomomo newsletter (No 19, Winter 2009, p 10)
Dawsons Heights Plans
Dawsons Heights Image Gallery
About Kate Macintosh
Kate Macintosh is a British architect known for contributing to the United Kingdom’s social housing and public architecture. Born in 1937 in Scotland, she studied at the Edinburgh College of Art and later worked on renowned architect Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre team. Macintosh is best recognized for her design of Dawson’s Heights, a postwar housing estate in East Dulwich, London. At age 26, she began drafting the plans for this innovative project, completed between 1964 and 1972. Throughout her career, Macintosh has been dedicated to creating functional, human-centered spaces that promote social interaction and serve the needs of diverse groups of residents.