HomeNewsletters ArchiveWinter 2003Sixties Architecture in Dulwich

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A review by Ian Mcinnes

Between the Wars the Dulwich Estate had had difficulty in attracting home buyers into the area and the problem was exacerbated after 1945 by the high level of war damage that had been incurred. The leases of many of the houses built around 1900 had less than 45 years to run and they had effectively become unmortgagable. As a consequence they were often converted into flats for rental. Many houses had also been requisitioned by Camberwell Borough Council who were keen to expand council house development in the area through compulsory purchase. The Bessemer and Kingswood estates were typical examples.

The Foundation schools were also suffering. Educational standards had fallen in the Thirties and there was a serious lack of children living in the area after 1945. The Dulwich Experiment introduced by Christopher Gilkes, Master of Dulwich College, was a way of keeping the schools going by bringing in children from outside the area. It was a great success but only a short-term solution dependent very much on government policy. The Estates Governors became very aware that their existing policies were not working and that a more imaginative approach was needed to attract younger families into the area to support the Foundation schools. They also needed more income from ground rents.

Early in 1954, just prior to the removal of wartime Building License controls, the Estate requested Russell Vernon of Austin Vernon & Partners, the Estate Architect and Surveyor, to prepare an estate wide development plan. This was approved by the LCC later in 1955 and, shortly afterwards, the Estate entered into a development agreement with Wates, the national house builder.

The first scheme was completed in 1956 in Farquhar Road. It was a great success and for twenty years from 1957 onwards the Estates Governors and Wates carried out a series of developments resulting in the construction of three thousand houses. The houses were often quite small but were generally built to a high specification for the time, including central heating and, later on, two bathrooms. The other feature was the quality of the landscaping. The houses sold for a relatively high price but, nevertheless, large numbers of young families did move into the area, sending their sons and daughters to the schools, and the Estate did increase its revenues through the additional ground rents.

The most interesting developments are the low rise/high rise estates in South Dulwich (winner of a Civic Trust award in 1964), the Radburn layout town houses in Croxted Road, the developments on the steep sloping sites in Dulwich Woods, the courtyard houses and the large house estates in College Road

Typical examples of the Radburn layouts (the name came from the town in the USA where this type of layout was first used) are, Pymers Mead, Walkerscroft Mead and Lings Coppice. Routes for cars and pedestrians are separated and the houses are arranged in U shaped terraces with their small gardens opening on to common landscaped amenity areas. Pymers Mead and Walkerscroft Mead are relatively standard three storey town houses but the houses in Lings Coppice are more adventurous. They have two storeys with internal atrium style dining areas acting as the main circulation space. The designer was Manfred Bresgens, a German architect working for Austin Vernon & Partners.

A series of naturalistic and organic schemes designed to integrate with the steep sloping sites in Dulwich Woods include Peckarmans Wood and Great Brownings. The latter's houses were all timber framed because the steep slope prevented easy access for normal heavy building materials. The architect was Malcolm Pringle, a partner in Austin Vernon & Partners.

Giles Coppice shows a different approach. It was influenced by Seiglen Hallen, a widely published contemporary Swiss housing scheme planned in straight terraces overlooking each other as they stepped down the hill. Wates had employed Atelier 5, the Swiss architects, to design a project in Croydon and many of the ideas transferred themselves to Dulwich albeit in an anglicised 'arts and crafts' form.

Courtyard themes included Perifield, Cokers Lane and Coney Acre on Croxted Road and the less well-known Courtmead Close at the western end of Burbage Road. It is one of Dulwich's hidden jewels and won a Good Housing design award in 1976. Victor Knight , another of Austen Vernon partner was the designer. Other similar developments included Loggetts and Morkyns Walk, both in Alleyn Park

The Estate still wanted some large houses and the best schemes were Woodhall (another winner of a Good Design Award). Ferrings and Tollgate Drive. Woodhall saw a series of Californian ranch style houses cleverly laid out so to avoid overlooking yet maximising views. Front gardens were left without fences. These houses were very expensive (up to £20,000 in 1966) and reputedly took some time to sell.

Ferrings and Tollgate Drive are more interesting architecturally and are considered to be the classic Dulwich modern house partly because of their high visibility from the nearby railway line. A series of linked bungalows and two storey pavilion style houses are generous in plan area and well landscaped. They were allegedly not particularly well built and original owners still living in Dulwich tell stories of the problems they had with them. The original roofs were copper-covered felt and few now remain.

By the late 1960's the local amenity societies were becoming vocal in their objections to further developments in the Dulwich Woods. There were also very few other development sites left and the pace of building started to slow. The Leasehold Reform Act passed in 1967, had allowed existing leaseholders to buy their freeholds and this had a very interesting side effect in that it enhanced the value of older houses. Their shorter leases could now be converted to freeholds which were then mortgagable. One Dulwich Society member recalls that he bought his house in Walkerscroft Mead in 1966 for the same price as the Edwardian house at the corner of Burbage Road and Half Moon Lane. The latter is now worth more than five times as much.

The extent of sixties housing in Dulwich is little known outside the area. Even locals do not always appreciate the number of estates hidden up in the woods. The increasing respect for the quality of these houses is reflected in the number of people turning up for the 'sixties architectural walks'. Recently the Twentieth Century Society undertook a walk to look specifically at the courtyard houses - it was twice oversubscribed!

Last Updated on Wednesday, 21 March 2012 02:28

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