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The work of a public-sector architect: A talk by Kate Macintosh


8 Nov 2016 | Bernard Brennan

Kate Macintosh began her career as a public sector architect when she accepted a job with Southwark Council in 1965. This was an interesting period in the development of post-war housing in Britain when architects were becoming more critical of earlier Modern Movement attitudes. This tendency was exemplified in John Darbourne's 1961 design for the Lillington Gardens Estate in Westminster, which attempted to create an environment that was more humane and integrated into its urban context through the use of medium-rise, high density blocks surrounded by a series of landscaped gardens. 


By the late 1960s Macintosh was well placed to contribute to this developing architectural tradition, having gained experience since her studies in Edinburgh through travelling and working in Scandinavia. Like many ambitious graduates of her generation she had been attracted by the architectural culture in Scandinavia at that time and even made the trip to Aalto's office where she presented the great man with a letter of recommendation for employment. Upon returning to London in 1964, she spent a year working with the design team for the National Theatre in the office of Denys Lasdun, before resolving to work for the London Boroughs in the hope of improving her technical experience. 


Shortly after starting at Southwark, Macintosh was presented with the extraordinary site of Dawson's Hill, one of an arc of clay hills to the south of the Thames floodplain. The form of her staggered ziggurat design for the double blocks of Dawson's Heights (1966-74) was informed in part by optimising the expensive foundations required by this challenging ground condition. However when viewed from a distance, amongst the streets of brick houses which surround it, the balconies and bay-windows of the heavily modelled facades, the stepping profiles of the blocks and the use of mild stock brick contrive to give the development the appearance of being at once monumental and also dissolving into its context. Its remarkable character seems to sit obscurely between architecture and landscape, like an Italian hill town in South London. Indeed Macintosh cited a student visit to Assisi as an influence on the design. Contemporary architectural influences which she mentioned in her talk include Lasdun's Keeling House in East London and Moshe Safdie's Habitat '67 in Montreal as well as the Lillington Gardens Estate.


Within Dawson's Heights a highly efficient circulation system is permitted by the employment of complex, split-level apartment layouts which interlock in plan and section. The goal of this system being not only economy of space but also the facilitation of conviviality amongst the residents, through the creation of access routes with a large number of differently sized unit types opening off them. The principle being that different age and social demographic groups, with different (potentially complimentary) patterns of need, would be brought into contact with each other in a space which encourages interaction.


This concern for the social life of buildings would also find expression in Macintosh's design of 44 units of sheltered housing at Leigham Court Road for Lambeth Council in 1968-73 where the covered walkway which links the seven blocks of the development along the deep, narrow site is designed with a generosity which encourages its use as a public space by the residents. Although the continued successful use of Leigham Court Road refutes the claim later articulated by Alice Coleman and others that such spaces encourage anti-social behaviour or even criminality, it seems that the value placed on the quality of shared spaces in such developments by Local Authorities has diminished. This is made clear by the unsympathetic proposed alterations to the communal areas of Leigham Court Road which Lambeth are currently considering and which Kate described to the dismay of the audience.  


Macintosh used part of her talk to describe the Central Hill Estate in Lambeth designed by Rosemary Stjernstedt, the pioneering architect who worked on the Alton Estate in Roehampton during the same period that Dawson's Heights was developed. Following the rejection of a listing application submitted last year this estate sadly now faces demolition. Macintosh also described a number of projects designed by her late partner George Finch during his career at Lambeth. She gave an account of the very interesting collaboration facilitated by Ted Hollamby (the Director of Architecture, Planning and Development, at Lambeth) between Finch, Ted Happold of Arup's and the building contractor Wates on a series of towers over five sites in the borough which pushed the boundaries of flexibility and invention that industrialised building was capable of at the time. These projects included Lambeth Towers and Cotton Gardens, the latter of which also currently faces the prospect of partial demolition.


Macintosh's continued engagement with the social and political issues associated with housing policy was demonstrated by her informed reflections on the current UK housing crises. A fascinating statistic which she shared reflected the acute mal-distribution of the existing London housing stock with 200,000 homes lying empty  in the city as a result of 'buy-to-leave' investors. She demonstrated that the current housing crisis is closely linked to the suspension of public sector house building and the "right to buy" scheme introduced by Thatcher's government in the 1980s. 


It is probable that the work of Kate Macintosh, George Finch, Rosemary Stjernstedt and other public sector architects of this period has not received the attention that it might have were they working in private practice. However we can see from Macintosh's presentation that this was a rich and inventive period which produced some extraordinary buildings, and from the recent listing by Historic England of Leigham Court Road and George Finch's Brixton Recreation Centre we are encouraged that the important contribution of these works to British architecture is beginning to be recognised.


First published in Docomomo.UK Newsletter 32

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