New Delhi was inaugurated in 1931, just 16 years before the fall of the British Raj. Long dismissed as grandiose imperial pomp, it is only in recent years that Lutyens’ elegant fusion of Western classicism with Eastern features has been triumphed.
Gavin Stamp, Thursday, 1st December 2011
Acentury ago this month, on 12 December 1911, the King-Emperor George V announced that the capital of British India would be moved from the European port of Calcutta to the ancient city of Delhi. A new Delhi would be built outside the walls of the seventh Delhi, the Moghul city of Shahjahanabad. And, despite an intervening world war and rising nationalist feeling in India, New Delhi was completed only 20 years later. As India was the jewel of the British Empire, cancellation was unthinkable. Britain was also in a hurry; as Nikolaus Pevsner put it, this ambitious imperial project was completed ‘five minutes before closing time’. A mere 16 years later, in 1947, the British Raj was wound up.
Equally extraordinary is the fact that the parsimonious British government should have commiss-ioned architecture of the highest quality. New Delhi was planned by the greatest British architect of the last century, Edwin Lutyens, who was responsible for the great palace with its dominant dome that lies at the visual centre of the new city: Viceroy’s House (now known as Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the residence of the president of the Republic of India; Figs. 1 and 4). Lutyens’ appointment was far from inevitable, however, and the eventual form of New Delhi was the result of constructive disagreement with the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge of Penshurst. There was also a rather more rancorous quarrel with the other architect of New Delhi, Lutyens’ former friend Herbert Baker, who was responsible for the two large Secretariats and the circular Parliament building.
At first, Lutyens was dismissive of native Indian building traditions while the Viceroy, for good political reasons, wished for the new buildings in the city to be indigenous in style. In the event, Lutyens did attempt a compromise. Mughal features, notably the chajja or projecting cornice, cast an insistent horizontal shadow, and the rooftop pavilions or chattris, along with Hindu elements, were integrated into his highly original classical treatment. When the city was officially inaugurated in 1931, Robert Byron concluded in his panegyric in the Architectural Review: ‘Sir Edwin Lutyens had drunk of the European past, and now he drank of the Indian. He borrowed themes and inventions from both…In so doing he has accomplished a fusion between East and West, and created a novel work of art.’
Twenty years later, however, the perspective had changed and Pevsner could write that Lutyens was ‘without doubt the greatest folly builder England has ever seen,’ and ‘the Viceroy’s house at Delhi beats any other folly in the world.’ In fact, the critical reaction to the completion of New Delhi was surprisingly muted, while after independence Lutyens’ achievement seemed an irrelevance, if not an embarrassment in a climate of post-imperial guilt. His posthumous biographer, Christopher Hussey, thought that Lutyens’ dynamic, elemental development of the classical tradition would inform the architecture of the future, but such hopes were soon to be dashed by the dominance of Modernism.
Although New Delhi was intended to proclaim the fact of British rule, surprisingly little change was required to make it the capital of independent India. With that tolerance and acceptance typical of India at its best, imperial personages were merely exiled to Coronation Park, the retirement home for British statues; most conspicuously, the magnificent sculpture of George V by Jagger was removed from its domed canopy at the far end of Kingsway, now Rajpath. But many Indians still understandably resented what New Delhi symbolised. Mahatma Gandhi wanted Lutyens’ palace to be abandoned, and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had complained that, ‘Imperial Delhi stands, visible symbol of British power, with all of its pomp and circumstance, and vulgar ostentation and wasteful extravagance…The ruler of a state flaunts his palace and his luxury before his wretched and miserable subjects.’ Modernism seemed to represent something more acceptable, although, in commissioning Le Corbusier to design the new city of Chandigarh in the Punjab, Nehru was surely merely exchanging one imported Western manner of building for another.
The axial and triangulated plan of New Delhi has a clear debt to Paris and Washington (Fig. 3), while Viceroy’s House must be compared with Versailles. ‘Not since L’Enfant laid out Washington had a fiat city of such amplitude and grandeur been conceived, much less even partially executed,’ wrote the American Henry-Russell Hitchcock in 1958. It is perhaps significant that it was foreign, not British writers who began to revive Lutyens’ reputation and to appreciate his achievement in India. In 1972 another American historian, David Gebhard, could write that, ‘In the end the Residency stands as a formidable argument: an argument for classical humanism, for man’s ability to control and at the same time to accommodate himself to his physical and social environment – and against those planners and architects who, as aged period pieces, still cling to the tenets of the “Modern Movement” in architecture.’
New Delhi seems to work, perhaps because it is not entirely a new creation but complementary to Old Delhi. It does, nevertheless, have its problems. The most pertinent criticism of New Delhi was that, as a garden city, it was laid out at far too low a density, with far too great distances for the pedestrian – especially compared with compact, lively Shahjahanabad. It should also be noted that, as originally planned, it was zoned according to status and race. No wonder that the authorities have been anxious to increase the residential population of New Delhi and lessen that urban contrast. Delhi now has a population of 16 million and with car ownership increasing rapidly, redevelopment by building more, and higher, is now threatening the handsome classical bungalows designed by Lutyens’ devoted followers. Cheeringly, however, these now have many local defenders.
There now seems to be recognition in India that in the legacy of Lutyens and Baker the republic can boast perhaps the finest set of government buildings in the world. They are certainly well maintained and remain in use. Lutyens’ care and dedication, together with the financial commitment of long-past British governments, can now be seen to have paid off handsomely – to India’s long-term benefit. ‘Is it not better to acknowledge the past as yesterday’s gift for today?’ writes Aman Nath in his magnificent book on the former Viceroy’s House, Dome Over India. ‘If George V’s canopy of empire stands hollowed of its meaning, as does the dome of imperium, its emptiness holds the paradoxes and ironies of history. From this vacuousness, a new India has emerged, fulfilling its tryst with time.’ o
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