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Modernism for the Many

In the 1960s, Kate Macintosh designed modernist public housing for the elderly. Her buildings are monuments to what architecture can achieve when liberated from the constraints of the property market.

Macintosh’s 269 Leigham Court, Stream Hill.

There are two public housing schemes in South London designed by the architect Kate Macintosh, both of which are still much admired to this day. One, Dawson’s Heights, is gigantic and unmissable — an immense brick castle on a hill, inspired by Macintosh’s native Edinburgh. She designed it in 1965, at the age of twenty-eight, for the London Borough of Southwark. The other, at 269 Leigham Court Road, is a tiny, secluded estate of interconnected houses built specifically for older tenants. She designed it in 1968, after moving to the adjacent borough of Lambeth.

These are two of the most loved examples of 1960s architecture in Britain. But the programs that made them a reality are now extinct. Nobody builds enormous social housing ziggurats like Dawson’s Heights today, despite London’s acute housing crisis. But Leigham Court Road’s ideals are perhaps even more distant — the provision of excellent, publicly funded, communal housing intended for the elderly.

Leigham Court Road is one of several examples across Britain of public housing designed for the elderly and the vulnerable, also known as sheltered housing. In the ’60s, housing for older people was only just starting to escape the rigours of Victorian philanthropy. When designing it, Macintosh tells me, ‘the most important thing for me was for it not to look institutional.’ She doesn’t choose the word by accident — the other sheltered housing schemes she’d seen in Lambeth were, she remembers, ‘absolutely horrific — converted workhouses run in military fashion.’ Because of this, she was ‘determined not to have a corridor’ in the development.

And while it looks completely different from Dawson Heights, two shared principles are found in both designs: ‘the individual expression of each dwelling,’ so that people could always see which part of the building was theirs, and a ‘maximum respect for trees.’ So, at Leigham Court Road, each resident has their own front door, alongside communal facilities like a laundry, a guest suite for visiting family and friends, and a live-in warden, all wrapped around a garden. The site, in Streatham, was in a leafy area of big houses a couple miles from more bustling areas like Brixton, which made it ‘rather suburban,’ she remembers. But this had one major advantage. The development was built on the site of ‘a substantial Edwardian mansion,’ which Lambeth had bought. That house was soon demolished, but its gardens were retained, and with them several large, mature trees. ‘Not a single tree was taken down,’ Macintosh says proudly, having designed the facilities around them in an irregular arrangement.

At the time, Lambeth’s housing was under the direction of Ted Hollamby, a card-carrying Communist who aimed to produce such a large amount of public housing that there would be a surplus, meaning there would never be any means testing, and people could live their entire lives in public housing, moving and swapping between developments as their circumstances changed.

Not long after Leigham Court Road was completed, Macintosh moved out of London and began working for local authorities in South East England. Her last building before retiring was the Weston Adventure Playground, in the port city of Southampton, built in 2005. If she had designed housing for the elderly in her twenties, in her seventies, Macintosh was designing for children — ‘a lovely thing to do at the end of one’s career,’ she says now. The same principles of respect for both nature and the building’s users, without sentimentality or affectation, can be seen in that late work. Weston is dominated by a massive 1960s public housing estate very different from the ones Macintosh designed at the time, a series of gigantic towers overlooking the estuary. The playground was tucked in at the back of these and is secluded behind trees rather than exposed to water, but its main building is elevated to enjoy the “stupendous panoramic view” over the Solent strait.

After she retired, Macintosh’s work was rediscovered by a new generation. Both Dawson’s Heights and Leigham Court Road appear regularly on ‘I Heart Brutalism’ Instagram accounts for their drama and abstraction. Leigham Court was listed as a historic, protected building in 2015, partly due to lobbying by its residents, who also suggested renaming it Macintosh Court. Ironically, this began a struggle that Macintosh has immersed herself in since her retirement. Lambeth Council had been planning to sell 269 Leigham Court Road, which would then likely have been demolished. After it was listed as historic, a disastrous renovation in 2017 saw the houses beset with leaks and flooding. Lambeth Council was forced to apologise and provide a financial settlement to residents, but recent works redressing these issues have also been heavily criticised for distorting the architecture with a new network of pipes surrounding the cubic houses. Macintosh tells me some residents fear this saga is intended to alter the buildings so much that the historic status will be removed, meaning the buildings can be demolished and the land sold.

She attributes all this to the ways Thatcherism, outsourcing, and austerity have ground down local councils’ expertise, until there is nobody left with the competence and the budget to carry out anything like the ambitious schemes that councils like Lambeth embarked upon in the 1960s and ’70s. What public housing has been replaced with, she says, is ‘asset-based welfare,’ in which the elderly are encouraged to own property — ‘the only security a lot of older people have’ in places like Lambeth — and live off it in order to supplement their meagre state pension.

In the process, younger renters have been left at the mercy of private landlords, and a generationally divided housing system has emerged in place of the model Hollamby imagined, where council housing could provide for people from cradle to grave. But 269 Leigham Court Road still shows the power of an alternative in which, rather than being shunted into privately run care homes or empty houses, people could grow old communally.