Just five miles south of Trafalgar Square lies a landscaped estate of 3,000 innovative homes. Consisting of ranch bungalows, terraced townhouses, high-rise apartments and mid-century mansions, the Dulwich Estate is a hillside haven little known to those outside the area. Between 1957 and 1964 Architects Austin Vernon and Partners, landscape designers Derek Lovejoy Partnership and builders Wates created a successful development of dense housing in wooded parkland, all within easy reach of central London.
By Ian McInnes and Tom Rigden
The Dulwich Estate: Post-war planning
As in many urban areas post-1945, the Dulwich Estate, owners of a large swathe of land in the borough of Southwark, were having difficulty attracting families to fill the depleted schools. The Victorian mansions in the area did not make affordable family homes and their short leases made mortgages difficult to secure. A radical re-development was needed, and in 1954 Austin Vernon & Partners were asked to produce an Estate-wide development plan. Once approved, Wates were commissioned to deliver the project.
With the aim of creating housing in harmony with its surroundings, the latest ideas on design and landscaping were utilised to provide the winning combination of community and privacy, dotted with artistic touches like commissioned sculptures, abstract mosaics, bespoke ceramic tiling and some rather stylish Formica panelling. It is these details that give the estate the distinct character it retains to this day.
The Dulwich Estate: Breaking the mould
The first foundations were laid in 1957 in Sydenham Rise, a row of townhouses that broke the mould of the traditional terrace, moving the living spaces to the first floor and creating light open-plan rooms with un-obscured views front to back. Although they did not appear particularly radical externally, bright coloured panelling added visual interest.
The next phase of building (1957-61) was more ambitious. The Dulwich Wood Park development was a mix of 120 terraced houses and six nine-storey blocks of flats. Rows of garages were built away from the walkways, allowing the space around the houses and blocks to remain traffic-free and therefore more family friendly.
The flats in the blocks had price tags equal to the surrounding houses. Literally the height of luxury at the time, each block was topped with four penthouse apartments, some with roof terraces capturing stunning views over the city skyline. The imposing lobbies were fitted with Terrazzo floors, silk-screen glazed wall tiles and the lifts cladded with patterned Formica. Inside, the flats were well proportioned with large steel-framed ‘up and over’ windows running the length of each room. Tropical hardwoods were used for the flooring and built-in fixtures, while fashionable bathroom suites came in an array of aubergines, limes and oranges (a few still survive today!). This project was given a Civic Trust Award in 1964 and people travelled to see it.
The Dulwich Estate: Design Principles
As development continued across the estate, the architects became more confident in dealing with the constraints of the woodland setting, employing three design approaches. The principles of the Radburn layout (named after a US town created in 1929) were used on the flatter land. Here, three-storey townhouses such as Pymers Mead were arranged in U-shape ‘super-blocks’, in which cars and a service road were banished to the rear of the building. The more adventurous two-storey houses on Lings Coppice contained sunken living-areas beneath top-lit atriums.
On the steep slopes in Dulwich Woods the architects developed more organic schemes in response to topography and existing trees. Split-level ranch houses in Peckarmans Wood had living rooms on the first floor to maximise views towards the city, while houses in the dense woodland of Great Brownings were timber-framed, as access for heavy materials was limited – apparently making them the first new timber-framed houses in London since the Great Fire of 1666. The Giles Coppice development, in which straight-stepped terraces ran parallel to the contours of the hill, was an anglicised interpretation of renowned Swiss housing scheme Siedlung Halen.
‘Courtyard’ housing was perhaps the most innovative of the schemes. The frontages looked out onto shared landscaped courtyards, providing a space where children could play safely within sight of the houses. Courtmead Close was the most successful of these developments winning a Good Housing Design Award in 1976.
The Dulwich Estate also wanted large detached houses to attract wealthier residents and these were provided by the Woodhall development, winner of a Good Design Award in 1967. Premium four-bedroom houses were built on a rolling plot, planned so that they weren’t overlooked and had uninterrupted views to the city. These houses were sold for £20,000, a considerable sum in 1964.
In terms of design, the most interesting properties were those in Ferrings and Tollgate Drive. A series of large unconventional-looking bungalows with mono-pitch roofs were built between square pavilion houses with striking copper roofs. They were laid out with careful consideration given to how families function, with separate domains placed in wings off a centrally located living space. These ideas were inspired by the influential book Community and Privacy by Serge Chermayeff, published in 1965.
The Dulwich Estate: A Modest Legacy
So how popular was the Dulwich Estate’s take on modern living? There are stories in the newspapers of residents queuing through the night for the more popular plots when they went on sale. The combination of new technologies like warm-air heating and built-in storage, small manageable gardens and a choice of internal colours and finishes proved very desirable. It’s easy to forget now but these innovative homes were quite unlike anything else in the area.
Development of the Dulwich Estate ended in the late 1960s as lobbying groups became more vocal in their concerns over the demolition of Dulwich’s older housing stock and building in the woods. But today the Estate remains a thriving testament to successful mid-century planning. Its idyllic setting, London location and variety of family-friendly homes all feed an increasing renewed appreciation.
This article (with more photographs!) featured in MidCentury issue 03
For more on local architectural history in Dulwich, click here