Among the leading architects of interwar British Modernism, like Charles Holden, Joseph Emberton, Connell, Ward and Lucas and others, a pair of names is often forgotten, that of William Thomas Curtis and Howard William Burchett. W.T. Curtis was the Chief Architect for Middlesex County Council from 1930-46, and H.W. Burchett was the Assistant Architect for Educational buildings. Between them they designed and built a swathe of modernist public buildings throughout Middlesex, from Twickenham in the west to Enfield in the east. The majority of the buildings they created were educational, such as primary and secondary schools and technical colleges. But they also designed and built libraries, health centres and hospitals. The majority of the buildings they created are still intact and operating in the capacity they were built for. A number of them have been granted listed status.
The Middlesex County Council Architects department was created at the turn of the 20th century, mainly to design and built schools. The buildings they created up to the outbreak of the First World War were generally Edwardian Baroque, with a move to a more subdued classicism after 1918. The Wall Street crash and world financial crisis of 1931, one year into W.T. Curtis’ reign, forced a change in the departments’ designs in order to cut costs. Aiming to reduce spending by 30%, Curtis and Burchett adopted a more modernist utilitarian approach to school building. Their first innovations were using steel framing at Uxendon Manor School, Wembley (1934), and then concrete slab floors supported by pillars at Pinner Park School (1934). These techniques allowed flexibility in internal planning, whilst also keeping the traditional Victorian school courtyard layout.
These technical advances produced buildings with long, flat roofs and wide window spaces, giving the schools a “strong horizontal emphasis” as Pevsner noted. Curtis and Burchett often countered this horizontal effect with a central stair tower that became their signature. This tower motif was clearly influenced by the work of Dutch architect W.M Dudok and his school at Hilversum. This design tended to work better on their larger Secondary schools, such as Greenford County (1939, now demolished) and Heathfield School, Pinner (1937), and Technical colleges in Enfield and Twickenham.
A few of the schools Curtis and Burchett designed are now listed. De Bohun primary school in Oakwood, built in 1936, was Grade II listed in 1994, and features a square red diaper brick central tower. It still operates as a school, and the adjacent library, also designed by Curtis and Burchett, is now a nursery. Lady Banks Junior School in Ruislip was also built in 1936 and Grade II listed in 1989. The central tower is rounded, unlike at De Bohun, and this was echoed in their later school designs at Kenmore Park, Queensbury (1938) and Stanburn, Stanmore (1939). Lady Bankes is also notable for the use of two colours of bricks, pale orange and beige. Other decorative additions used by Curtis and Burchett included stone window fins at Belmont, Harrow (1935) and bands of tiles at Evelyn’s, Yiewsley (1936).
Two other listed sites show Curtis and Burchett’s range of public buildings. Kenton Library (1938) was listed in 1999, and is one of the best surviving examples of inter-war library design in London. Unlike their school buildings, many of Curtis and Burchett’s libraries have been demolished. Kenton is an L-shaped building around a brick and glass central tower, and features a simple, open internal layout. The Bowes Road Complex in Arnos Grove, completed in 1940, is their most ambitious work. It features a Library, Swimming Pool and Health Clinic in a similar fashion to contemporary health centres like Peckham (Williams, 1935) and Finsbury (Lubetkin & Tecton, 1938). The three separate buildings display all of Curtis and Burchett’s motifs, the Library with its central tower, the swimming pool with its long streamline horizontal and the health clinic’s L-shaped plan.
Despite not being feted as some of their illustrious contemporaries, the work of Curtis and Burchett had a far-reaching influence. Curtis’ predecessor as County Architect, C.G. Stillman, also felt their progressive influence. Stillman was hugely influential in the design of post war school building, using industrialized methods of school construction and design.But perhaps their most lasting legacy is the fact that the majority of their buildings are still intact and being used for the purpose they were designed for, which is more than can be said for many modernist architects.