Kate Macintosh in conversation with Rowan Moore - transcript

Transcript of the Carte Blanche talk about the housing schemes designed for the London Boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth in the 1960's and 70's


07:00pm, Wednesday, 22 June 2016


08:30pm, Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Karakusevic Carson Architects, Unit E03, The Biscuit Factory, 100 Clements Rd, London SE16 4DG


This is a past event


When I arrived in Southwark office in 1965 after working with Denys Lasduns office, as the most junior member of the National Theatre team and I was presented with this simply stupendous site, which is off Overhill Road, Dulwich. This is one of a number of hills which lie at a distance of about 4 miles South of the Thames; Tulse Hill, Streatham hill, Gypsy hill, Herne Hill. They all have fabulous views.

Architectural influences are Park hill Sheffield, Lillington gardens by Darbourne and Darke, Keeling house by Lasdun; all of these schemes endeavour to express the individual dwelling within a unified totality; this was one of my ambitions. The situation in Southwark in 1965 was that it was known for its preference for high-density low-rise which was then the preferred approach to the design of social housing. This was in part a reaction to the dominant solution common to most LCC schemes, of a combination of tower blocks and 4-5 storey walk-up blocks of flats, the former being smaller dwellings and latter for the larger – with site layouts being somewhat arbitrary. The generators for the Dawsons 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 stoeys. The tail of the 2 higher blocks flips around 90 degrees to enclose a central place on the scale of Bloomsbury Square.

One of the influences on housing architecture at that time was the social study, ‘Family and Kinship in East London’, which examines the strong social networks that existed within the 2 up, 2 down terraced housing of London’s East End which allowed the community’s cohesion to survive the horrendous experience of the blitz. The thesis was that in erasing the street patterns and putting people into, albeit, hygienic and more spacious flats, in tower blocks an awful lot of social capital was being lost in this process. So that was one of the reasons behind the development of streets of in the sky and expressing the individual dwelling.

The original design incorporated bridges which linked the 2 lowest parts to the 2 highest parts of their sister block, the idea was 2 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.

The Parker Morris Report, Homes for Today and Tomorrow”, was published in 1961 by the Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government. This report set new standards for public housing. It set new space standards, designated storage areas and freed up architects to plan dwellings in new ways, whereas in the LCC architects had been restricted to standard house-type plans. These standards (which were intended to be the new minimum), were voluntarily adopted by all the London boroughs in 1964, when the main responsibility for housing was moved from the LCC to the Boroughs. So it was under Parker Morris that Dawson Heights was designed.

One of my criticisms of the LCC’s standard mixed- development schemes was it created an arbitrary separation of people on the basis of dwelling size. I wanted to encourage the integration of families of different sizes. I therefore devised this interlocking pattern whereby 1, 2 and 3 bedroom dwellings share access routes, the idea being that this was the sort of mix that you would get in a community that had built up over many years. The 4 bed units are positioned to be entered from the lowest access deck, the idea being that families of varying sizes have different needs and hopefully they would establish neighbourly relations and help each other out as needs arose.


The central conundrum in bulk housing to my mind is how to strike the balance between privacy and conviviality. The spaces that architects try to provide where conviviality is encouraged (it cannot be forced) are what I call quasi-public spaces, these are the very spaces that Alice Coleman, Thatcher’s housing adviser, sought to eliminate and it was under that thinking that the bridges were removed after the scheme was sold by Southwark to the Southern Housing Association and various other modifications were made which I regard as unfortunate in the unsympathetic way they were executed.

One benefit of the change in ownership to the housing association, was that they designated the lower slope area (which land is economically unbuildable) as a nature reserve open to the public This is a big plus. Lots of people go there now, watching birds and butterflies. It is a favourite spot to view Nov. 5th fireworks.

In 1969 I moved from Southwark to Lambeth and there I was given a much smaller scheme. It was however a pilot scheme for metrication and for what was called ‘modular co-ordination’ – which was responding to an edict from central government. I think this was partly in response to the demise of the big panel systems, following the Ronan Point disaster. It was seen as an alternative way to improve the efficiency and speed of construction in house building and encourage the standardisation of building products. Basically what it amounted to was planning on a 300/300mm grid and if that module was too large you resorted to a 100mm module.

The site was a suburban back land, with not a lot of interesting activity, but it had the big advantage of being a mature garden as it had belonged to a substantial Edwardian property. The brief called for 44 flats. These I accommodated in 5 more or less identical cluster blocks, each of of 8 flats + 2 non-standard blocks. The brief called for of 1 person and 2 person flats in the proportion of 3:1 which allowed me to produce setbacks at the first floor, giving all 1st floor flats a south-facing roof terrace. The ground floor flats all have semi-private outdoor space, formed by set-backs in the plan.

A typical cluster block comprises total of 8 flats, 4 at ground level and 4 at 1st floor. The common room is onto the street frontage, as is a shop, (which I persuaded the housing manager to include) for the convenience of residents and as a place of interchange between the residents and the local community. The location of these communal facilities, near the entrance, ensures that as residents enter and leave, chance encounters are likely to occur, encouraging friendly neighbourly relations. All these facilities are linked by a covered way, which is designed with an off-set as it intersects with each of the cluster blocks, increasing in width at these points, so that people can linger and chat without obstructing the passage of others.

Above the common room is a large flat for a residential warden and family, where they could be aware of comings and goings, but still retain privacy.

Ted Hollamby was already a known public figure in the profession when he became chief architect and planner for Lambeth in 1964. He had a good reputation in the LCC for housing and schools. He was a member of the MARS group Modern Architectural Research group where he had met Ove Arup, so in setting up the office he ensured they had their own landscape architects and graphics section and he approached Ove and asked him to second a member of his staff, a structural engineer, to the Lambeth office, which allowed a high standard of structural design to take place.

I set out all the buildings from the trees to ensure that not a single tree had to be taken down that ensured a mature setting from the outset.

All the flats are orientated East or West. Only kitchens are orientated North. This scheme was threatened with demolition. Many sites have been threatened that were developed under the Hollanby era and demolitions have taken place. To my enormous satisfaction a campaign of resistance to Lambeth’s plans was launched by the residents, their friends and relatives and to my huge astonishment, after the last election, it was grade II listed. This despite Lambeth having neglected it for 40 years.

Switching now to my late partner, George Finch, he trained at the AA. On graduation he went, as many AA graduates did at that time, to work for the LCC Architects. He was interviewed by Oliver Cox, who was head of housing and was put in a group still dominated by the old valuers/surveyers in order to ginger them up and George did indeed succeed in making a difference. George’s reputation is today is largely defined by his tower blocks in North Lambeth, but he designed the first 2 storey houses with gardens that came out of the LCC and this image shows just 1 of 5 such called Manor Grove – that’s just for the record.

George was recruited by Ted Hollamby when he was appointed Chief Architect and Planner for Lambeth in 1964 together with Rosemary  Stjernstedt.

In 1964, the worst housing was in the North of the borough where there was a land shortage. So the idea was to surgically insert tower blocks onto small sites, allowing the rehousing of some people in the worst slums, which would allow the clearance of the worst housing, to create larger sites. Another innovation was, to reduce the delays in transportation and damage from double-handling of panels, coming from a remote factory to set up a production unit on the Cotton Gardens site.

Cotton Gardens is 1 of 4 sites where 3 of these heavily modelled big panel blocks are located. There are a total of 8 of these blocks in North Lambeth. They were designed in collaboration with Ted Happold (Ted was on the Ove Arup staff then) and Neil Wates.

These are the only industrialised system buildings of which I am aware that achieved this measure of sculptural modelling and expression of the individual dwelling within the unified totality. All the blocks are identical above the ground floor, but at the base each of them has a variety of different uses. At Cotton Gardens there was a play centre and youth club. Also there is a cluster of courtyard and two storey dwellings. This area of low-rise, low density housing is threatened demolition in order that densification can take place in accordance to the edict of people like Lord Adonis. It is ironic to reflect that less than half a mile away as the crow flies at Vauxhall, stands the Broadway Malayan designed 50 storey tower block, 2 thirds owned by non-doms, bought through secret off shore companies and this accommodation stands almost empty most of the year, that’s regarded as ok, yet we must demolish this very popular hosing that provide public open space not just for residents of the 3 tower blocks, but for other local people.

Each of these 19 storey towers has, eight two bedroom maisonettes every two floors, but at the top there is a definite termination because there you have 8 one bed maisonettes with a double height living space giving a definite termination to the block, this one one of George’s themes.  They are single aspect and orientated East, West or South. The arrangement of the towers on the site is not orthogonal but slightly twisted to minimise overlooking and this gives a somewhat playful effect.


Lambeth Towers, which was George’s next scheme, stands opposite the Imperial War Museum It appeared at the cover RIBAJ July 1965, which was when I first became aware of this talented architect in the Lambeth Architects Dept.

This is a complex design of 23 dual-aspect, 2 bed maisonettes, in a cluster of 4 towers, of varying heights, with a one bed flat at the top of each tower. They are dual aspect with views onto the park and the museum to the North and with balconies on the South side.

Ted Happold was the structural engineer and I think you can appreciate the degree of finesse that he brought to the scheme


(referring to the slide) This is one of George’s sketches, we see once again a variety of different uses around the base. This drum with the split saucer roof was originally designed as an old folks luncheon club and there are historic photos of people have a tea dance here. It is  now a restaurant, There was also a doctors’ group practice. There is still an administrative medical facility on the site. And there was a registrar’s office.

Those leasing this accommodation show a lack of respect, understanding or appreciation for the quality of the buildings. For example the elegant fire-escape spiral staircase on the northern flank is now enclosed in an absolutely gross white plastic box. At ground level, the Kings Maths School has now sploshed grey paint over the bush hammered concrete and have applied their coarse logo in mustard and black.

Comparing the cross sections of Dawson heights, the Wates blocks and Lambeth towers, DH is a split level scheme, with access every third floor. The name of the game in bulk housing is to concentrate use of the communal circulation, both so you can spend more money on the dwellings, but also to reduce the number of lifts stops, making it more efficient. In terms of the different dwelling sizes, all living rooms face south (except the flipped 3 & 4 storey tails of the tall blocks, which face East or West) and are half a level up or down from an access deck. They all have a balcony.

In the Wates blocks, the communal access is every second floor with a narrower fire-escape corridor above that serving the front doors, allowing escape from the sleeping risk.

In the case of Lambeth Towers, the communal access is also every second floor. The section is somewhat inspired by Le Corbusier’s scissor section as l’Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles.

Looking at the picture of what has happened to housing supply nationally, I show this graph from James Meek’s paper ‘Where Will We Live, the Housing Disaster’. This shows the production of, public housing by local authorities and the cut off when Thatcher turned off the tap. She, perhaps, thought, naively that the market would pick up the slack. The market knows very well that with scarcity you get price inflation and that is in their interest. The dotted lines here show house prices and you can see clearly that the laws of supply and demand have worked perfectly in favour of the volume house builder. Through scarcity you get inflation.

It is pertinent to reflect that in Scotland where they have scrubbed right to buy and there was never any stigma attached to renting, a survey found that the average Scot has more disposable income than the average across the rest of UK for the sole reason that cost of accommodation is lower.

(Rowan Moore RM, Kate Macintosh KM, Audience)

RM – I would like to ask Kate a few questions and the first is simply about your background and how you came to be an architect and came to be in public service as I think this is a very important part of the story, before you reached the magic age of 27 and won the competition.

KM- I must go back a bit. My Father and my Mother also, were socialists. My Father was an engineer and he got the job of head of the direct labour organisation for Scottish Social housing. SSH was a unique organisation, set up after the first world war to deal with 3 problems :-

  1. Chronic unemployment,
  2. Shortage of skilled labour.
  3. Appalling housing conditions particular in Glasgow.

My father took up the role only after agreement he would have authority over who he hired and fired. He tendered competitively against outside contractors and won and finished jobs on time and within budget. My father was an inspiration to me. He was an unusual man for his generation. It was he who suggested to me that architecture might fit the bill. I was always interested in something between the arts and the sciences that had some sort of social purpose. He took me on site visits. This had a huge impact.

RM – Obviously institutions don’t exist in the same way

KM – oh no, it was one of Thatcher’s first acts was to completely destroy Scottish Special Housing. The organisation was a one stop shop. They purchased the land and employed their own the architects and engineers in-house. They managed and maintained their own housing stock. My father was always on the road. Their estates stretched from the Highlands and Islands down to the Borders.

RM –Do you see that spirit of public social-purpose around now? In any form?

KM- it is much more alive in Scotland. In spite of having a 12% proportion of the total UK population, it has built as many social houses in the last 10 years as the whole of the rest of the UK.

RM – I didn’t know that. Referring to the period you covered in your talk, the work you and George were doing was quite unusual. There were other versions of public housing including Southwark’s Aylesbury estate was being designed at the same time, that’s a very large, repetitive, industrialised estate. Was there any difficulty in making the case for what you were trying to do? Were there any internal tensions arguments?

KM – Central Government was seeking to impose their preference for system building, granting extra subsidies for using those methods. You had to present the case for why a design was not using IB. In the case of Dawsons Heights, we argued the case that the site situation was so unique, so unusual, and so extraordinary and so IB was inappropriate. When the Ronan Point collapse occurred, Dawson was in construction, but we didn’t have to make any alterations/modifications, which did happen in the case of projects elsewhere.

RM – So what made Dawson heights unusual was the ground conditions? It was built on poor ground.

KM - Ah yes, I ought to have said that earlier. The ground was so unstable that the structural advice was even a single storey structure was on that site would require piles to a depth of 30 metre. This was another driver towards a portion of high/medium rise, as the foundations were so costly. There were some houses at the foot of the slope which were being pushed into the road by this constantly moving landscape. And that of course, was the reason the site was largely vacant and any remaining structures on it were close to collapse.

RM – after it was built did you get any favourable feedback about how well the mixes of units worked?

KM – I am afraid I was rather pre-occupied with other things afterwards. When I went back for the filming of ‘Utopia London’ (2008)-- as an architect there’s always a fear that you might be crucified on returning to an old job and that they may hate you, but I was lionised. It was wonderful. People came up to me and threw their arms around me. Kids were jumping around, doing breakdancing. It was a rather jolly thing.

RM – in the intervening years we went through a phase when all public housing of that period was deemed a failure and hated almost universally Gradually people realised it is more complicated than that and there are good and bad from the period. Did you always keep the faith yourself? Were you always sure?

KM – there was a period when I was almost afraid to acknowledge that I designed social housing, because you immediately got these scowls. There was a huge relief – renaissance almost - when Tom Cordell came to us to make the film (Utopia London) and took me round. He did actually interview Alice Coleman who lives not far from Dawsons Heights. She was still singing the same old tune, that goes ‘the only form for decent housing, where people behave properly is a detached or semidetached property with nice picket fences in the front and hedges to stop people peering in through the net curtains.’

RM – Would you do anything differently? Were you obliged in some ways/any way do anything in the way you didn’t quite like due to the pressures you were under at the time.

KM – One of the things was security at the points of entry. We were unrealistically optimistic in those days, headed we thought for the classless society, before the drug culture came in; it was a different world. I understand Dawson Heights did go through a bad period and these things were an issue. But I don’t agree with the Alice Coleman doctrine, that says architecture produces crime. Inequality and exclusion from opportunity produce crime. One of the benefits of the current housing association regime, is that they have caretakers on site. Of course Thatcher thought it best to starve local authorities of funds – central government took 80% of rents and left 20% for authorities – so they were deliberately creating a situation where as landlords they could not carry out the most basic maintenance and so the tenants would opt for housing associations. Housing associations should have resisted right-to-buy in my view. They were set up specifically to provide housing for the needy and they are now in contravention of their founding fathers ethos. The smaller their portfolios the less they will be able to raise money to continue their operation I think in fact that it was legalised larceny by government, to which they have bowed.

RM – talk about the present – do you have views about the most important way to tackle our own crisis at this time?

KM – I do have quite a long list. Equalise VAT between renovation and new build. New build is VAT exempt so it is cheaper to knockdown and rebuild. I would introduce Land Value Taxation to stop land banking. The volume house builders have planning consent on a vast amount of land which they are not developing, they don’t need to. The value of land goes up without them doing a single thing. Likewise the supermarkets. They could be forced to build or sell up. The whole question of housing comes down to land and ownership. I would also pass legislation as they have in Norway and Australia to prevent non domiciles from purchasing a single acre of UK land. Where public land does come up for sale it should be offered first locally, as they do in Germany.

Audience – So participation, has changed hugely back when you were designing projects did you have any contact with future residents? And if so how did that relationship go?

KM It may sound like I am eulogising about that time, but actually there were defects. Within local authorities many chief officers guarded their silos of power. In Southwark the housing manager was a such a character. I and colleagues carried out research into life in a slab block of flats in Camberwell. We went inside and it was utterly institutional. No expression of individuality. We knocked on doors and talked to people about how they liked living there. As tenants they felt very restricted. They were not allowed to have pets or put anything on their escape balconies. It was much better at Lambeth. Ralph Erskine and his team at the Byker estate showed how to carry out genuine consultation Unlike most authorities today which go through a formulaic pretence, which is a complete sham in my experience.

Likewise the successful scheme in London for the Coin Street Housing Co-opertaive. The coops achieve a balance between the communal and the individual. Cooperatives are the thriving 3rd arm in housing provision in Scandinavia.

Audience – We are working with LB Camden – what do you think the role of the local authority should be in social housing provision, moving forward.

KM – I lament greatly not just the loss of a large body of expertise, represented not just by in-house architects but also but also client bodies such as in education, social services and housing departments and so on. So many fragmented clients commissioning buildings have to reinvent the wheel, there is no corporate store of experience and wisdom, it has been dissipated. I hope this can be retrieved. I know that Camden, Islington and Croydon are beginning to do this. I know with the ingenuity of the profession, given the political will, this could be retrieved.

RM – Did you feel – you were in architects’ dept. for most of you career, and they don’t exist anymore – did you feel that this was a good structure, a good organisational structure for public bodies to create public works?

KM – It very much depended on the quality of the leadership. Lambeth under Ted Hollonby was a great place to be. When I went to the counties and finished my public sector days in Hampshire the department and colleagues there were of a very high calibre.

Audience – Referendum tomorrow, weighing heavily on my mind, in particular this question of what are British – specifically English people like? My question is about Thatcher. To what extent can we blame Thatcher or ourselves for the massive shift in values that’s taken place in England in the past few decades? I am struck that this exhibition at KCA is hugely optimistic about the future in London and beyond, you’re being quite pessimistic and so this is a question about Britishness and are we really like?

KM – if you want to know move to Scotland. The referendum vote Scotland is just 35% leave. The Scots have got their heads screwed on. If by dint of some national failure in analytical thought, Brexit triumphs on Thursday, I will be off over that border!

Audience – You reference land value taxation which I completely agree with you on. I wondered as architects within the construction industry – what you feel we can do to assist with the advance of that as no politician is interested or will stick their neck out, but it’s a key issue in our society and our industry.

KM – The Lib Dems did champion land value taxation. Karl Marx said failing all else if spontaneous revolution doesn’t occur, land value taxation will be capitalism’s last chance to redeem itself. It offers a solution.

RM – It is an often forgotten fact that the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 nationalised development rights, which means the development rights belong to the people –individuals might own land – but the development right belongs to the government and so when you apply for planning you are seeking  right to develop. This is the last bit of the nationalised industry and it gives the public immense power over how land can be used, but it’s often abused and forgotten about.

Audience – Could you talk about the life of the everyday life Lambeth council architects dept. Did you design and draw everything by yourself or was there a team of ten technicians? What was the scene and how did it all come to happen?

KM – the office structure within the London boroughs was that, we had groups, each group was a sort of small atelier. In both Southwark and Lambeth the borough architect had a dual qualification -  he was both chief architect and chief planner. There was a deputy chief planner as a subordinate figure. It all seemed to work very well. George was immensely popular as group leader. He had a great talent for dramatics and music and always organised the Christmas office party and wrote pantomimes every year. At our house people would come for rehearsals. When he left, his group brought together in a booklet, all the various cartoon jokes created during his years, commenting on life in the Lambeth office. It was as a wonderful testimony to the huge amount of fun and conviviality in the ethos of the office at that time.

Audience – Question about process, building big privately even the best ideas have to go through the planning process. That sabotages a well thought out project in terms of material, façade, articulation  Lots of your precedents/examples are amazing buildings in sensitive environments, what was the process of getting those through? Even if it was internal – who were you answering to? What do we do today about not being able to work ambitiously aesthetically and not getting things through?

KM – I must admit I never had any problems with planners, other than a small private job. When I was operating in London a very high proportion of planners had a dual qualification, whereas the next generation of planners had a first qualification as geographers, surveyors etc. and they didn’t seem to get much architectural training. My impression is that the dumbing down is not due to planners, it’s down to design-and-build, PfI and PPP where the architect loses control. Once planning is granted you hand over to the developer. Your power as architect is truncated. Gone are the days when you could go onto site and say “that’s not up to standard take it down”. It would drive me crazy.

Audience – I was struck to, not having been in practice for a long time I was under the impression that planners were not so much the problem as the clients, builders and the procurement in general?

Audience – I worked on a big building with lots of brick and we talked with planning about colour and of certain flashings extensively. I don’t think it’s an issue individual opinion but bigger issues about demand which lead to delay.

RM – it seems bizarre you get permission for a 50 storey tower yet get held up for small issues.

Audience – yes, it’s about parity and a standard system.

Audience – I am in temporary accommodation on the Kingsmill estate which is Lend-lease, Elephant and Castle. I have been at meetings and no one took any notice of us. I was at Heygate and there was nothing wrong with it – I think the whole thing is a scam and wondered what you thought about it?

KM – The Southwark housing manager was heard to say I am not interested in any site that is not big enough to accommodate at least 2,000 dwellings, so he was into economies of scale. Apart from the architecture, which was not all that bad, what I think went wrong at Heygate and Aylesbury Road was that if you clear a large enough area the social destruction is so huge, you can promise people they will be rehoused in the same area, but those with skills will go and they did to Milton Keynes and so on, the people left to be rehoused are the vulnerable and the needy. It’s like in a forest, if you clear too large an area it cannot self reseed. It’s a tragedy that 40 years on, when the community has just got itself together, we go through it again, caused by pressure coming from central government and councils being strapped for cash. The same thing is happening in Lambeth. They want to pull down Central Hill, an absolutely brilliant scheme designed by Rosemary Stjernstedt, under Ted Hollamby, She was someone I looked up to and was admired by Robert Matthew, a pioneering women architect. And so I sympathise with borough predicament, but what an irony that many of these boroughs are Labour controlled and they are conducting a sort of patricide, they are devouring the product of their own best tradition.

Audience – I wondered if you could say something about your own training as an architect and training today, you were so young when you designed your schemes. To do that not only you had to have a lot of skill and confidence but that was matched by trust in wider world that you would be able to do something like that – whereas now I feel young architects are not trusted to do anything and not necessarily trained to do anything, perhaps illustration and but there is little trust in architects to see through their work. It is handed to contractors and accountants to realise the end product.

KM – Well, I am almost embarrassed by that praise. I trained in architecture within the Art School in Edinburgh. I did my year out with Robert Matthew’s Edinburgh office which was a great environment, I did some holiday work with LCC, where there were relatively a high number of women architects, then, after graduating I won a British Council scholarship to Poland – quite interesting, can’t say I did much architecture. I worked for 2 years in Scandinavia where I went partly because I knew that to be a woman architect was not an oddity and I wanted to get past the stage of raised eyebrows and people would saying ‘Oh really, Oh hmmm, how did you come to do that. . ?’ So I came back bursting with self-confidence, but very little hands-on experience. I suppose the Edinburgh school was quite practical and hands-on, I remember after a crit one of the tutors saying to me  ‘Miss Macintosh, we find that women tend to be good at colour and things like that but they are not terribly practical, how about thinking about something like interior design.’ Luckily for me I was a stubborn individual and I thought, ‘I’ll bloody show them!’ and from then on I was careful to really look into constructional details and meticulously draw them. So that’s my background.

Rowan Moore– we live in a time when we are told those with expertise are told they are effectively Nazis or Nazi sympathisers, but we have seen the value of true expertise tonight and we can only hope that the wind changes at some point and there are signs of that.

Thank you.