Val Harding (1905-1940) is best known as the architect of Dulwich's most important listed twentieth century building, Six Pillars in Crescent Wood Road. The house was built between 1932-35 for the Rev J H Leakey, headmaster of the Dulwich College Preparatory School, but Harding's subsequent connection with Dulwich was much wider.
After prep and public schools he studied at the Architectural Association from 1927-31 and, in 1932, joined the Tecton Partnership led by influential Russian émigré' architect and socialist Berthold Lubetkin. It was one of the few English architectural practices of the time whose work was directly influenced by the new 'modern movement' architectural style emanating from Europe.
Before Six Pillars, Harding, who was regarded as the most talented of Lubetkin's partners, worked primarily on Highpoint 1, the well-known apartment block in Highgate built as staff housing for the Gestetner office equipment firm, the London Zoo and Vega, a vegetarian restaurant in Leicester Square. Although always regarded as a Tecton project, the commission for Six Pillars was secured by Harding himself and he was recognised as the lead designer.
It is not clear whether it was the Rev Leakey, or perhaps his wealthy wife, who was most keen on a modernist design and they had considerable difficulty in persuading the Dulwich Estate to give them permission to go ahead. Initial proposals on a site on the Estate were given cursory dismissal by C E Barry, the Estate Architect, but they finally obtained approval on the site in Crescent Wood Road next to the Dulwich Woodhouse, on the edge of the Estate. The incorporation of brick in the final design of the front elevation was apparently a concession to the Estate and the unusual plan, effectively two separate sleeping suites, was a direct response to the Leakey's particular marital arrangements.
Shortly after completing Six Pillars, Harding left Tecton to set up his own practice with Godfrey Samuel, one of the other partners. He had already designed his own house near Slough and the partnership built further houses in Sussex, Oxford, Poole and Hampstead.
In Dulwich, he clearly retained a good relationship with the Leakeys and obtained a further commission to build a nursery on the main DCPS site. It had a simple L shaped plan but its main architectural interest was in the classrooms' external walls which were glazed doors which could by fully opened during good weather to allow the children to interact directly with the outside - an idea that was quite common on the Continent but had not been seen in England at that time. Though long since demolished, photographs of the building are retained in the Royal Institute of British Architects' library, and are often used to illustrate how avant garde pre-war school design was a precursor of the more child centred education system that underpinned so much of post war school development.
Harding was to carry out one more project for the DCPS, one very familiar to those older Dulwich residents who were pupils at the school in 1939, and this was the design and construction of an evacuation and holiday camp at Cranbrook in Kent. Built during 1938 as a response to Government and LCC initiatives to move children out of London if war came, it was located in an orchard on Mrs Leakey's parents' home in Cranbrook. Built in 6 weeks using prefabricated timber components, it had electric heating and cost £2500. The idea was that, if necessary, DCPS boys could evacuate with their friends to this camp and the school could survive as a unit. A trial run, during a false alarm in 1938 resulted in improvements being made to the original design, and on 1st September 1939, when war seemed inevitable, 135 boys and their teachers were eventually transported from West Dulwich Station to the relative safety of Cranbrook by train.
Harding was killed in France in 1940 during the retreat to Dunkirk and his Times obituary, written by the well known landscape architect, Geoffrey Jellicoe, at that time the principle of the Architectural Association, said 'The death of Val Harding means the loss of one of the most promising younger members of the architectural profession....in 1936 Harding and Godfrey Samuel set off in partnership together, and continued their exploration into modern architectural design, the most attractive example of which is perhaps the Nursery School at Dulwich. Val Harding was an engineer, creative artist, and philosopher. He was both gentle and courageous in outlook. The house that he built at Burnham Beeches and enjoyed with his wife and children was at once adventurous and distinguished; and it was characteristic of him to put to one side all his ideals in architecture at the beginning of the war and give himself wholeheartedly to the Army and the country.'