Architect as Hero

David Cannadine

  • Lutyens: The Work of the English Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens
    Hayward Gallery, 200 pp, £15.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 7287 0304 1
  • Edwin Lutyens: Architect Laureate by Roderick Gradidge
    Allen and Unwin, 167 pp, £13.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 04 720023 5
  • Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker and Imperial Delhi by Robert Grant Irving
    Yale, 406 pp, £20.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 300 02422 3
  • Lutyens: Country Houses by Daniel O’Neill
    Lund Humphries, 167 pp, £8.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 85331 428 4
  • Lutyens and the Sea Captain by Margaret Richardson
    Scolar, 40 pp, £5.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 85967 646 3
  • Houses and Gardens by E.L. Lutyens by Lawrence Weaver
    Antique Collectors’ Club, 344 pp, £19.50, January 1982, ISBN 0 902028 98 7

Lutyens lives! After three decades in which his reputation has been in ashes, the most esteemed English architect of his time, whose death on New Year’s Day 1944 was mourned as if an emperor had passed, now returns in triumph to his phoenixed pedestal. That is the message of this torrent of books which have recently gushed from the architectural presses, pouring praise on Lutyens and his works. Written primarily by a younger generation of architects and architectural historians, they emphatically reinstate the interpretation eloquently enshrined in the great Lutyens Memorial published in 1950, where Christopher Hussey, in his 600-page biography, and A. S. G. Butler, in his three volumes of plans, plates and commentary, acclaimed our Ned as ‘the greatest artist in building whom Britain has produced’.

Lutyens’s star was already in eclipse when this multi-tomed tomb was being constructed. In 1931, he had criticised modern architecture for its ‘unfriendly and crude pretensions’ and its ‘haphazardness, lack of grammar and inconsequence’ – comments unlikely to endear him to the angry young men of the time. The Modernists, in the ascendant after his death, took their revenge. In no sense a Pioneer of Modern Design, Lutyens was pointedly ignored in Pevsner’s teleological tale, An Outline of European Architecture. ‘Our greatest architect since Wren’ was caricatured as ‘the greatest folly-builder England has ever seen’, a ‘20th-century architect of prodigious gifts, who contributed nothing whatsoever to the main streams of development in 20th-century architecture’. ‘Perhaps one day,’ Pevsner once observed, with a crushing lack of conviction, ‘Lutyens’s wisdom will be recognised as effortlessly as I recognise his folly.’ Now, as disillusionment with Modernism blossoms, that day of recognition has defiantly dawned.

It is, however, far from effortless. Taken together, these books cost well above £60, and run to over a thousand pages: not since the Lutyens memorial volumes has a British architect received such concentrated and weighty attention. Of necessity, such two-dimensional tributes convey only a limited impression of a supreme practitioner of this quintessentially three-dimensional art-form. To get a sense of Lutyens in the round, it is best to begin with the exhibition in his honour which is still running at the Hayward Gallery. The imaginative use of furniture and other Lutyensiana, set in an appropriately surprising succession of rooms and spaces, decorated with some of his best-known stylistic motifs, and finishing up with spectacular scale models of the Thiepval Memorial Arch and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, gives a vivid and enveloping sense of Lutyens and his world. Here is an accomplished display in the Grand Manner, a gourmet guide to Lutyens which proclaims, according to the catalogue, ‘the joy of architecture’. Like the exhibition, the catalogue explores Lutyens’s works chronologically and his styles thematically, from Vernacular to ‘Wrennaisance’ to Neo-Georgian to Elemental Classicism, as displayed in 200 country houses, monuments and memorials by the score, offices, castles, cathedrals and embassies in bubbling profusion, all topped off by one house for the Viceroy in India, and another for Queen Mary’s dolls in London. For fifty years, from the 1890s to the 1940s, Lutyens’s imagination teemed with plans and projects: the creative flair, sustained inventiveness and unfailing exuberance overwhelm, intimidate and demand admiration. Not surprisingly, the catalogue commentary requires the combined efforts of Colin Amery, Mary Lutyens, Jane Brown, John Cornforth, Gavin Stamp and John Summerson to do justice to an architect whose career, in its range, dimensions and achievements, outshines Wren, Vanbrugh and the Adam brothers. Cloud-capp’d towers, gorgeous palaces, solemn temples: Lutyens made them all.

Prospero’s words are appropriate. Lutyens’s preference for bricks and timber, stone and slate, rather than for steel and concrete, plate-glass and box girders, betokened a greater affinity with the world and values of Renaissance humanism than with the utilitarian impersonality of the Welfare State. ‘When Democracy builds’ was the title of an ardent and prophetic lecture by Frank Lloyd Wright, Ned’s near-contemporary. But, for Lutyens, democratic government could ‘only work through compromise, leaving its conscience in the hands of accountants’. Hospitals, schools, factories, cinemas and underground railway stations had no place in his eternal realm. To the extent that he thought about it at all, Lutyens took the established order as he found it, and built for those who could afford it. Unlike Sherlock Holmes’s, his clients were almost invariably illustrious: patricians and parvenus, politicians and plutocrats, prelates and proconsuls. Very few were as lowly as Captain Day, for whom Lutyens created a retirement house, the charming sketches for which are elegantly reproduced in Margaret Richardson’s delightful little book.

The singlemindedness with which Lutyens sought his élite commissions, and the certainty with which he told his clients what he would give them, explain much of his success in the first phase of his career, in the 1890s and 1900s. Marrying a daughter of Lord Lytton, Disraeli’s Viceroy, was a good start, putting Lutyens on that country-house circuit where he preferred fishing for work to fishing for trout. And one successful commission almost invariably led to another. Through a relative of Gertrude Jekyll’s, he met Reginald McKenna, a friendship which brought him two country-house projects and, in the inter-war years, extensive work and consultancy for the Midland Bank. Having designed Goddards for Sir Frederick Mirrieless, he followed that up with Overstrand Hall for Lord Hillingdon, his business associate. Such clients were unfailingly won over by Lutyens’s boyish charm and irresistible innocence. ‘He could not spend his money – until he met me,’ Lutyens boasted proudly of the Yorkshire businessman (implausibly named Ernest Hemmingway) for whom he designed Heathcote, complete with black marble stairs, when his client had requested oak. ‘His buildings,’ Christopher Hussey conceded, ‘were often very expensive, and sometimes not wholly convenient’ – one facet of his work which places Lutyens closer to the Modern movement than his detractors might allow.

But the most important contact, which again came through Gertrude Jekyll, was with Edward Hudson, who launched Country Life in 1897. Once more, there was a string of important commissions: Deanery Garden, Lindisfarne Castle, Plumpton Place, and the Country Life building in Covent Garden, Lutyens’s first big city venture. More important, it gave Lutyens access to a journal which, from the time of Gertrude Jekyll’s article on Munstead in 1900, became his foremost champion and publicist, as John Cornforth explains in his fascinating essay on the Country Life connection in the Lutyens exhibition catalogue. From 1907, many of the Country Life articles on Lutyens’s houses were written by Lawrence Weaver, and combined carefully-composed illustrations with a sympathetic, uncritical text that displayed Lutyens’s work before a wide and interested audience. These essays formed the basis of Weaver’s book on Lutyens houses and gardens, first published in 1913 and now imaginatively reprinted. ‘The influence of Mr Lutyens is good, strong and increasing,’ Weaver concluded, ‘his art gives me a large personal pleasure.’ The benefits to Lutyens of such generous publicity must have been immense.

The recent books by Gradidge and O’Neill are both heavily indebted to Weaver’s pioneering descriptions, and both lay appropriate stress on the early influences of Shaw, Webb and the Arts and Crafts Movement on Lutyens’s formative years. O’Neill’s book is a thorough, perceptive survey of the houses, with the illustrations well integrated into the text. Gradidge’s volume is less satisfactory. Despite its title, four of the five chapters are devoted exclusively to country houses, leaving the other half of Lutyens’s career to be compressed into one breathlessly superficial chapter. The text and pictures are separated, which does not make for easy reading, and the epilogue is placed at the front of the book, before the main text even begins. This may be a Lutyens-like joke: but such lack of concern for proportion and arrangement seems peculiarly out of place, given the subject of the book.

Most of the dwellings described here were not so much country houses as houses in the country: rustic retreats for the urban rich rather than sumptuous palaces for landowning magnates, a by-product of that concern for a cherished yet vanishing rural past which took less concrete form in such ventures as the National Trust, the Victoria County Histories and, of course, Country Life itself. Lutyens’s houses, with their muted texture and friendly asymmetry, mellow gables and homely chimneys, brilliantly caught this elegiac mood. Ingeniously adjusted to the contours of the site, and sensitively constructed in local, ‘traditional’ materials, they created a comforting picture of instant antiquity. The shapes were gentle but exciting, the designs were gratifyingly inventive yet reassuringly traditional, and the gardens of Gertrude Jekyll softened the outlines, so that the houses seemed to emerge naturally from the landscape, rather than to have been fitted on to it. Thus conceived, these beautiful, dreamy variations on traditional themes touched the same wistful, nostalgic chords as Elgar’s early compositions.

For Elgar, the shift from the Severnside sylvan of Enigma to the expansive, ‘nobilmente’ themes of Pomp and Circumstance and the First Symphony was a relatively ordered and organic progression. But for Lutyens, the transition from the Home Counties vernacular of Munstead to the Imperial splendour of New Delhi was less easily accomplished. Classicism may have been the ‘High Game’, but the altitude took some getting used to, and he needed time to learn the rules. Some of the early designs, such as the abortive plan for London County Hall in 1907, borrowed from Wren and Inigo Jones, without paying any interest. Others, like the Rand Regiments’ Memorial in Johannesburg of 1911, dished up Edwardian Baroque at its most pompous and flatulent. Moreover, in this premier league, the referee could be stern and the spectators unbending. Unlike Herbert Baker, who was at his best on committees, Lutyens dismissed them as ‘horrible, ignorant and unsympathetic’, and was too intent on being a great man to learn the arts of compromise and conciliation. But while charm and insistence worked wonders with rich and indulgent clients, they cut no ice with economy-minded administrators, as shown in a small way by the failure of the Dublin Art Gallery and the Edward VII Memorial, and on an appropriately epic scale at New Delhi.

Fortunately for Lutyens, this ‘big work’, the most glittering commission given to any English architect since Wren, came along at exactly the moment when he had fully mastered the ‘High Game’. But, as Robert Grant Irving’s fascinating study in the architecture of politics and the politics of architecture makes abundantly clear, there was far more to the making of New Delhi than the design of the buildings. His narrative is dominated by political events rather than artistic endeavour: the initial decision to transfer the capital was greeted with disapproval by the India lobby in England and with dismay by the European community in Calcutta, who feared that their town was to be reduced, Titipu-like, to the rank of a village; the assassination attempt on the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, held up planning and decision-making at a vital stage; the First World War brought building almost to a standstill; and the subsequent commissions of inquiry imposed further and drastic economies. As a result, the city took 19 years to build, and was occupied by the British for only another 16: by the time it was completed, the Raj to whose power and permanence it was supposed to be a monument was about to join the previous Delhi dynasties in the dust.

Under these circumstances, the most remarkable fact about New Delhi is that it was built at all. The political background was less than propitious; there were interminable wrangles over the choice of site, style and architect; and the cost soared to three times the original estimate. Especially during the years 1916-22, Imperial administrators like Crewe, Hardinge, Chelmsford and Montagu were preoccupied with waging war against Germany and peace against Gandhi, and were trying to steer India, with what initiative they could still command, towards dominion status. In this grown-up world of men and affairs, Lutyens was out of his depth, a bird of paradise in a chicken run, an irritating prima donna whose petulant complaints offended and exasperated those in power, and profited him nothing. ‘Absorption in my profession,’ he explained rather coyly to one Viceroy, ‘has prevented me realising the rules that control bureaucratic methods.’ For Baker, architecture was the art of the possible: for Lutyens, it was the art of perfection. Lutyens got his buildings: but Baker got his gradient.

Not surprisingly, this committee city did not give entire satisfaction. It set bureaucrats in surroundings which deceived by their grandeur and endangered by their isolation. Baker’s two Secretariats were overblown, windy, ponderous Edwardian Baroque, salted and spiced with Indian motifs which were decorative but not integrated. Nor was Lutyens’s record unsullied: he was not at his best as a town-planner; the Viceroy’s House (especially the dome) suffered from being twice replanned to conform to new and reduced estimates; and he was inexcusably negligent in not spotting that Baker’s adjusted gradient would spoil his splendid vista along King’s Way. But there were many redeeming features: the authentic and unrivalled synthesis of East and West; the brilliant fusion of public grandeur and private domesticity; and the astonishing vision of the massive, horizontal house floating effortlessly on the garden like a magic carpet. ‘Poor old Christopher Wren,’ Edward Hudson exclaimed, ‘could never have done this.’ When Lutyens left Viceroy’s House for the last time as its supervising architect, he kissed its walls.

Irving’s superbly illustrated study is a model essay in architectural history rather than in the history of architecture, and as such it gives a far more revealing picture of Lutyens at work than any number of annotated albums of country-house photographs. The later phases of his career, when the Delhi commission, combined with his war-memorial work, turned him into a public figure, would also benefit from such treatment. As Irving’s book shows, Lutyens handled his masters in India with little finesse: but he seems to have fared rather better with the Imperial War Graves Commission.

This work also enabled him to develop his elemental Classicism to new levels of abstraction, which made it a superb vehicle for expressing the tragedy of war. Baker, who preferred homely, vernacular, sentimental crosses, found Lutyens’s war memorials too tight-lipped, lacking in patriotic or Christian feeling. But therein lay their mysteriously vital force: gaunt, bleak and desolate, searingly and poignantly proportioned, stripped of consoling frippery and sculptural pomp, such masterpieces as the Thiepval Arch and the Cenotaph caught the prevailing mood of baffled and bewildered bereavement as appositely as Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

Unlike Elgar, however, Lutyens kept going, driven on by the need to earn as much as by the compulsion to create. The flow of country houses dwindled in the later years, but never dried up completely, and included the fairytale Castle Drogo, the farewell vernacular of Plumpton, and the final Classical flourish of Middleton Park. His consultancy work for the Midland Bank and for the Westminster Estate resulted in some audacious flights of fancy in the Poultry Head Office and in the new Grosvenor House. And his wartime Presidency of the Royal Academy enabled him to plan a new, post-war London, Wren-like in its grandeur and its abortivertess. But the consuming passion of his final years was the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, whose astonishing scale and complexity is fully revealed in John Summerson’s outstanding contribution to the Lutyens exhibition catalogue. Had it been completed, it would have surpassed St Paul’s in style, size and subtlety. But the patrons chickened out: Si monumentum requiris, non circumspice.

Perhaps because their authors are architects and historians rather than psychoanalysts, none of these books gives an entirely satisfactory picture of Lutyens as a man. Nor do they relate his personality to his architecture with complete conviction. Inadequately educated, temperamentally insecure, financially anxious and sexually maladroit, his ‘Olympian attitude, careless of mankind’ signified an unshakable belief in his own powers. Conversationally inarticulate, given to excruciating puns or ill-judged bawdiness, he could be the most zestful and life-enhancing companion. ‘Duff and I,’ Lady Diana Cooper recalls, ‘would give up anything if Ned Lutyens was free for lunch – he was such fun.’ Flippant, irreverent and facetious in his public manner, he was driven all his life to create, to succeed and to greatness. Now a king, now a jester, part Puck, part Palladio, sometimes Peter Pan, sometimes Napoleon, the public and private Lutyens were uneasily juxtaposed: the architect who could synthesise discrepant styles and harmonise spatial dissonances with such unfailing assurance and panache never really got his act together as an individual.

For it was in his buildings, rather than in his life, that he resolved these contradictions in a creative synthesis of unique force and originality. The last of the great romantic architects, who was also beguiled by the geometrical allure of the Classical mode, he devised with the intellect means to reach ends that were conceived in passion. In an endless succession of buildings, mass and sprightliness, repose and power, solidity and wit, order and playfulness, protean silhouettes and adamantine strength, anchored movement and balanced rhythms are brought together, so as to give his work what he once described as ‘the power within itself.’ At one level, it was all a huge joke, with disappearing pilasters, staircases which vanished into arches, straight lines that were really curved, flags which were made of stone: nothing was quite what it seemed to be. But at another, the Olympian deities of style and space, line and logic, meant that everything was too serious for speech. ‘Architecture,’ he once observed, ‘should begin where words leave off.’ In one guise, it was the ‘High Game’, to be played with zest and gusto; in another, it was an omnipotent, demanding, jealous god, who had to be served and appeased. ‘There is that in art,’ he noted, ‘which transcends all rules – it is divine.’

That, for Lutyens, was ultimately what mattered. For, pace Roderick Gradidge’s title, he was no ‘architect laureate’. ‘Talking of sentiment and politics frightens me,’ he once remarked. Wit, jauntiness, insouciance – characteristics in Lutyens which so dismayed and baffled Baker – were not the attributes of a tame Imperial architect. Temporal power, regal splendour and imperial pomp held no allure for him, making him at once an infuriatingly inflexible colleague and a transcendent artist. Baker’s architecture was politically serious but stylistically suspect: with Lutyens, it was the other way round. Baker’s heroes were Rhodes and Milner, and his heart was given to the Kindergarten and the Round Table. But Lutyens’s masters were Newton and Wren, and his deities were more abstract and absolute: geometry and proportion, the ruthless pursuit of divinity in his art and of immortality for himself. ‘The architect,’ he proclaimed, in a statement of towering and intimidating certainty, ‘should work according to his aesthetic ideals, not cater to the sentiments and prejudices of the populace.’

If the interpretation embodied in these new books establishes itself once more as the prevailing Lutyensian orthodoxy, then the architect will have been justified in his belief that his creations would outlast the world which commissioned them and the critics who misunderstood them. Even as he worked on New Delhi, he read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. ‘The Viceroy,’ he noted, ‘thinks only of what the place will look like in three years’ time. Three hundred is what I think of.’ Like Prospero’s insubstantial pageant, the life to which Lutyens’s buildings gave shelter and substance has largely melted into thin air. The Viceroys have vanished and their Raj is rubble; his country houses are increasingly being converted into hotels and schools; even Remembrance Day is hardly a day to remember. But because Lutyens’s loyalty was to eternal verities and transcendent truths rather than to transient empires and ephemeral politics, his work is as playful and powerful today as it was when first conceived. Unlike that of the Modernists who succeeded and reviled him, Lutyens’s vision was no baseless fabric. The cloud-capp’d skyscrapers, the gorgeous car parks and the solemn supermarkets may all dissolve. But Lutyens lives!