Last month the first Thornton Lecture was held at Evolutionary Arts in Dalston. Organised by Open City in partnership with The London Society, the Museum of Architecture and the Twentieth Century Society, hundreds turned up to hear acclaimed Scottish architect Kate Macintosh reflect on her work in creating some of the capital's finest social housing, and her thoughts on what can be done to build more and better homes. Krish Nathaniel was in the audience for The London Society, and reports on a fascinating lecture and conversation.
Kate Macintosh spent the bulk of her career in London councils, designing quality housing for ordinary people at a time when radical thinking and boundary-pushing design were hallmarks of the public sector. Her lecture to a packed auditorium at EartH Hackney, was both an indictment of Britain's built environment and a vision for how housing by the people for the people could rapidly and drastically improve life in Britain.
Macintosh begins her lecture by setting the scene of post-war reconstruction in Britain, touching on the ‘Five Giants’ of the 1942 Beveridge Report and the Attlee government’s drive for secure shelter and healthcare for all. With both now worn by the constant attrition of ever-reducing state provision, it was perhaps a surprise to many younger audience members to learn from Kate that at the time she left university, 50% of architects worked in the public sector.
Macintosh takes time to contrast this past with the present and a governing party who have pushed through unprecedented reductions in local authority funding while having received over £60m in campaign funding from private developers in the last decade alone (it’s no surprise, as Kate points out, that new build development attracts 0% VAT).
Kate spends the first half of the lecture discussing the work of her late partner, the public sector architect George Finch. George, the son of a bus conductor, studied at the AA alongside Neave Brown and after completing his studies moved to the London County Council. In his work for the LCC, George, as Kate explained, sought to define individual homes within the architecture of new council housing; pushing past the visual anonymity of point blocks in favour of more readable elevations. This attempt to individualise mass housing was driven in part by the 1957 'Family and Kinship in East London' study, with Macintosh noting one of the first schemes to achieve this: Denys Lasdun’s Keeling House. In 1964, the LCC was wound up to become the Greater London Council, with boroughs becoming directly responsible for housing provision, with George moving to Lambeth.
Slides of characterful sketch illustrations and monochrome photographs show the point blocks and low-rise housing schemes that George led, often with Ted Happold and Neil Wates. Together, they attempted to push the constraints of newly-industrialised building processes. For the Cotton Gardens Estate, Finch made use of a flying factory to fabricate cladding panels for the three tower blocks and thirty-three houses.
For the second portion of Macintosh's lecture, Kate focuses on her own work as a public sector architect. After a period working in Finland and for Denys Lasdun’s office, Kate joined Southwark Council in 1965 and was presented with Dawson's Hill, a grassy outcrop in the south of the borough, with spectacular views north to the river and south to Crystal Palace.
For Dawson's Hill, Macintosh’s most noted work, Kate sets out her rationale for a series of staggered ziggurats, with pedestrian bridges to link and 'fortify' the scheme. Showing a colourful diagram of Tetris-like blocks, Macintosh explains how the three types of dual-aspect maisonettes were arranged to "assist in the social mixing” and to reconcile the two aims of the home: ”seeking privacy and encouraging conviviality".
Some of Macintosh's measures, by her own admission, did not stand the test of time. The geographer Alice Coleman drove many of the changes to Dawson's Hill and similar estates, with aerial walkways removed from the scheme in the early 1980s. But not all of the recent changes to the estate have been, in Macintosh's view, negative. When Southern Housing Association took over estate management, the northern slope was designated a nature reserve, creating an unintentional but much-welcomed new space for residents.
Having moved to Lambeth Council in 1969, Macintosh explained how a vital aim for the design of Leigham Court Road, which consists of forty-four sheltered housing flats, was to avoid any sense of institution. One and two-bedroom flats were set back at first floor to create a series of terraces and balconies, with the communal corridor doing "a joggle" to allow for neighbourly conversation and dwell time.
But Kate’s commitment to her projects did not end after completion. In the 2000s, word arrived that Lambeth had plans to demolish 269 Leigham Court Road. As Kate regales, it soon became clear to her that the only viable option to halt this was to have the estate listed and with a successful e-petition led by her son, the estate did achieve Grade II status. But as Macintosh puts forward, lessons have not been learned by Lambeth Council and at present six estates are in line for demolition, with the celebrated Brixton Rec centre, George Finch's opus, only narrowly missing demolition in 2017 by becoming Grade II listed.
“Precarity prevails” is how Macintosh describes the pervasiveness of insecurity across all social spectrums wrought through the lack of affordability of our most basic need - housing. Whether through the scrappage of a 'betterment levy' to claw back uplifts in land value for the public purse, to the volume housebuilders and their "vested interest in scarcity", drip-feeding new homes into the market. Macintosh condenses the state of the profession and its inability to realise true creative and social benefits in a few choice words: "in Britain architecture is an adjunct to the development industry".
But this, as Kate is insistent to point out, is not the way it has to be. Whether referencing the progressive changes to rent controls and tenant rights in Scotland or the successful refurbishment and retrofit of social housing schemes in Glasgow and Bordeaux, Macintosh is keen to evidence that humane, environmentally sound futures are possible. In conversation at the end of the lecture, she summarises her current role as simply “advocacy for residents”. "George would be proud of what I'm doing", she says, and so are the residents of Leigham Court Road, who voted to rename their estate Macintosh Court, in recognition of Kate's efforts to save their homes. When asked, her parting advice for the audience was to "learn the language of developer-speak and…turn it against them".