Architecture

The View from the Hill

Considering the city from one of London’s few successful housing estates

The best view in London belongs to the benches next to the bandstand in the Horniman Museum Gardens, where the concrete folds into the sloping grass. Look northwest and you will see the usual sights – the ice-blue steeple of the Shard rending the clouds; the Walkie Talkie, with its wheezing, asthmatic stoop; the phallic helter-skelter of the Gherkin, all Motorola Razr and hair gel and New Labour. They speak to a kind of noughties excess; a vision of London’s overwhelming desire for power and commerce. Owned by autocratic governments and property conglomerates, occupied by bankers, law firms and luxury restaurants, they are strange and foreboding, boasting of their domination to the skies of the City.

It’s easy to feel angry when you see those skyscrapers. They make you think of other towers that burned black into the dawn; of people lying on beds of damp cardboard outside the champagne bars and hotels; of the people scraping and slaving to afford rat-infested flats. There has been a 50 per cent increase in homelessness in London since 2010, but there is no regular accommodation available in the Shard or the Walkie Talkie or the Gherkin, and their lights shine throughout the night regardless.

The reason the Horniman Gardens offers the best view in London is not due to its panorama of the City and its glass sarcophagi of skyscrapers, but instead the sight that dominates the horizon to the west: Dawson’s Heights. The postwar housing block sits, tumbling, jagged as a loose tooth, on a hill, its sandy exterior a constant against the seasonal affectations of the trees that surround it – blending with the orange-brown foliage of autumn, standing stark against the black ribbons of winter, a backdrop to the lush greens of spring and summer. Dawson’s Heights looks modern, space age – more so than any glass and chrome building, blinking wanly in the sun – and yet it is unknowably, incredibly old. Unmistakably human – there is a clear seam of inspiration running from the smooth, ancient rocks of Göreme, through the pitted tuff of medieval Sorano, to the clay of SE22 – it is also oddly organic, as if formed by the snow and water of a distant ice age.

Unlike the skyscrapers to the northwest, Dawson’s Heights is entirely residential, built solely to house people: “those in most urgent need of homes”, its architect, Kate Macintosh, told the Guardian. It was designed when she was 27, fresh from working on the National Theatre with its architect Denys Lasdun. The National’s influence is clear – the lines of concrete that should be harsh, discordant, instead arranged into something harmonious. There’s a humanity in the touches that give the National Theatre its warmth – the feathered grain in the walls that comes from the wooden beams used to hold the concrete, the sunlight that reflects off the Thames and spreads through the atrium; never self-conscious, but constantly aware of the reasons for its use, of why and how people need to interact with the space – Dawson’s Heights shares this spirit of generosity towards its inhabitants. It embodies a holistic attitude to architecture; by placing the requirements of its users above other demands, structure and aesthetics are not placed at odds, but as inextricable: flowing and melding, transforming each other. The split levels, growing stalagmite-like out of the trees and the grass and the rock, not only allow it to settle into the hill it’s built on, but ensure its acoustics are well balanced; that sound disperses rather than accumulates in one area. It also means that light enters all apartments equally, meaning that even in December the strange grey-yellow glow of the winter sun seeps through the rooms. No one is overshadowed, no one overlooked. Everybody has an outside space, a balcony for plants or bikes or deck chairs. There is a playground, where people from across the local community bring their children.

The decline of Britain’s social housing in the wake of Right to Buy is well documented: Estates that once represented a gleaming future, that offered low rents and spacious flats, were suddenly left without funding, pockets sold off as councils scrabbled for money. Even now, with the reappraisal of brutalist buildings and the fight to save social housing, modernist estates are being torn down.

The Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, its gargantuan facade the slate grey of London skies, was sold to developers, with existing residents forcibly evicted from their homes. Their compensation was 40 per cent of the market value. All of the new flats built on the site have been sold to foreign investors before they even went on sale to the UK market. Even the ‘success stories’ of social housing have downsides; an average flat in the Barbican estate – vertebrae that reach into the sky, flowers dripping from balconies – now sells for around £1 million.

Rejected for listed status, Dawson’s Heights balances precariously in the middle, threatened by, both developers, circling, hungry, and by gentrification that displaces the very people it was built to house. And yet it continues to thrive, still a vision of a better city, a city built for its people. The London we want to look out on.

Photography Sadie Catt

This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here