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Decoding Edwin Landseer Lutyens: The builder of the British ideal in India

On the birth anniversary of Edwin Lutyens, a tribute to the English architect who designed colonial New Delhi with historic buildings as the India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhawan.

by Amit KhannaPublished on : Mar 29, 2020

In her mighty tome, “The architect and his wife”, Jane Ridley describes Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens as being “prodigiously prolific”, with a habit of sketching, doodling and designing wherever he found himself with some time and a piece of paper. Menus and tablecloths were not safe from his pens and he even extended his hobby to bath time (using a child’s slate). Famously, he had a round blackboard top as a dining table in his home, and guests were given a piece of chalk to join in. Ridley, who is Lutyens’ great-granddaughter, paints an intimate picture of a man obsessed with making buildings from the beginning till the very end. With a vast portfolio of built works at all scales, Lutyens was an extraordinary architect, by any measure.

Sociologist, urban planner and architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens | Edwin Lutyens | STIRworld
Sociologist, urban planner and architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens Image Credit: Courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yet, his work stubbornly resists architectural comprehension. There is an element of whimsy in his oeuvre, a lack of intellectual rigour that plagues his adoring biographers and critics alike. Unlike his contemporary architects who that were reimagining the world around them with the tools of modernity, Lutyens was steadfast in his approach to “producing” buildings with meticulous efficiency, seeing himself more as Bernini and less as Borromini. His contemporaries, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Charles Holden (not to mention Voysey) were inventing a new typology of architectural language in England that would form the genesis of the arts and craft movement. Around the world, architects were rejecting the ‘florid confections of Victorianism’ (from William Dalrymple) and inventing a new language of contemporary architecture. Lutyens, for his part, detested the notion that buildings need to be about ideas and words, saying, "All this talk brings the ears so far forward that they make blinkers for the eyes”.

Front cover of ‘The Architect and his Wife’ by Jane Ridley | Edwin Lutyens | STIRworld
Cover of ‘The Architect and his Wife’ by Jane Ridley Image Credit: Amit Khanna

Seen through the lens of history, Lutyens was certainly the perfect man for the commission to design the new capital in Delhi. His residential buildings in England were remarkably well conceived and his marriage into the Edwardian plutocracy elevated him into the society that had the resources to allow his designs to manifest themselves. Yet, this was a singularly narrow avenue of architectural intent - the grand country home set in the picturesque garden, a specifically British ideal. And in Delhi, they needed a man who could amplify that intent into a full blown Sudjic-ian Edifice, an imperial capital of epic proportions. Like Albert Speer after him, Lutyens was an instrument of diabolical domination on a biblical scale.

India Gate in Delhi, India | Edwin Lutyens | STIRworld
India Gate in Delhi, India Image Credit: Doris Antony, Berlin, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It is common now to regard The Viceregal Lodge (Rashtrapati Bhawan) as the most important building designed by Lutyens. However, his true skill lay in the memorial - despite having built a reputation purely on grand residences, he as an architect was exceptionally good at designing cenotaphs and a vast array of these subtly detailed stone masterpieces can be found around the world. From the solemn Arch at Thiepval to the India Gate in Delhi and the Cenotaph at Saskatchewan, these architectural monuments speak to the strength of his classical knowledge and the ability to transform the mundane into the absolutely serene. In England, traditional revivalists in architectural circles have held up his work as the model for new development, citing beauty as necessity. A new hotel in London (set in a building designed by him) has even christened itself “The Ned”, as Edwin was fondly known.

  • The cenotaph in the centre of Victoria Park, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
| Edwin Lutyens | STIRworld
    The cenotaph in the centre of Victoria Park, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada Image Credit: Tintaggon, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • Bust of Edwin Landseer Lutyens | Edwin Lutyens | STIRworld
    Bust of Edwin Landseer Lutyens Image Credit: Amit Khanna

In India, as the central government plans to reimagine the Central Vista and surrounding buildings in a strength of ambition not seen since the hubris of the British, it is tempting to raise the work of Lutyens and put it on a pedestal for conservation. However, we need to collectively make the intellectual distinction between preserving the Central Vista for its ecology and urban public land (which we must), and retaining the buildings for posterity (which we need not). Without doubt, Edwin Landseer Lutyens would have been astonished at the concerted effort being made to preserve the buildings that have long outlived their purpose. He was, above all, an architect in search of his next job. If anything, he would have wanted the commission.

Till a few years ago, the corner of Shoe Lane & Fleet Street displayed a discreet sign - Lutyens Bar. They served a drink called the Comeback - a testament, perhaps, to his legendary wit. Having once slighted Lady Hardinge, he offered this irresistible apology:

‘I will wash your feet with my tears and dry them with my hair. True, I have very little hair but then you have very little feet.’

The corner of Shoe Lane & Fleet Street displayed a discreet sign, ‘Lutyens Bar’, until a few years ago | Edwin Lutyens | STIRworld
The corner of Shoe Lane & Fleet Street displayed a discreet sign, ‘Lutyens Bar’, until a few years ago Image Credit: Amit Khanna

(Note: English architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens (March 29, 1869 - January 1, 1944) has been credited with shaping the pre-independence British capital of New Delhi, with iconic buildings such as the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Viceroy's House, Lutyens' Bungalow Zone, Baroda House, Bikaner House, Hyderabad House, and Patiala House that are till date key to the Government of India. In his honour, Central Delhi has also come to be known as 'Lutyens' Delhi'.)

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