Published  19/10/2006

The Architecture of the Last Empire

The Architecture of the Last Empire

The past decade has seen a growing interest in the British Indian Empire and its inner social and economic mysteries. But the physical legacy, in architectural terms, still awaits re-assessment. Indeed, while many of the buildings which remain are carefully inhabited and preserved for the most part, others, less domestic in their role, and redolent of imperial power, remain at risk, open to the vagaries and whims of 21st century political and nationalist sentiment

The British Empire only turned to the physical celebration of imperial achievement late in its development. Through the 18th century, American Colonial architecture, beginning with the Governor's House at Williamsburg, Virginia (1706, rebuilt 1930) and the English country mansion proved durable as a model without great embellishment. Only after Independence did Jefferson's enlightened ideals bring about a less disposition where built form was concerned. Likewise in Australia, Georgian ideals offered a transferable and adaptable model for seats of power: this ran until the later 1850s. In 1856, Parliament House, Melbourne reached beyond that (Kerr & Knight, 1856) to a robust Victorian splendour, which persisted for the remainder of the century, as much an architecture of commercial success as of imperial prowess. The same conspicuous wealth was, in turn, expressed in such works as the Union Building, Pretoria (Herbert Baker), and other centres of Colonial power early in this century. But the whole question of how to officially constitute an 'Imperial' architecture came to a head in India, with the proclamation by the King, Emperor George V, of the transfer of India's capital from Calcutta to Delhi in December 1911.

India was, so to say, an empire within an empire. In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, the two crucial events - the last Mughal Emperor's death, and the closure of the East India Company - led to the assumption by the British Crown of absolute responsibility for the Indian subcontinent. George Nathaniel Curzon, Lord Curzon, as Viceroy of India, a grand master of ceremony, obsessive to every degree of status and dress, was the real architect of a wholesome transformation of imperial style from the black-coated austerity of the middle 19th century to something altogether more dramatic and spectacular. And the Delhi Coronation Durbar of January 1903, celebrating the New King Emperor King Edward VII's accession, was masterminded by Curzon with great zeal, establishing a new highpoint for the ritual and ceremonial display of power. Curzon, if anything, was more a man of the later 20th century with his theatrical awareness of the power of visual expression to convey to mass audiences the messages of government. Here at Delhi, Curzon was also perpetrating a myth that was barely a generation old, but a necessary one; that the British King-Emperor was both the natural and the legitimate successor of the last Mughal emperor. The Mughals had perpetrated an ornate and pompous ceremonial in their time, and the British wisely saw that something had to be inserted into the vacuum that would impress the Indian subject populations. The new ritual style that was evolved by Curzon was a reconstructed protocol of earlier Mughal court usage. The Indian Princes were now also to be involved in the ceremony. Curzon pulled it off brilliantly, but in the nature of things, by 1911 something more concrete was required. The creation of the new capital and the appointment by the colonial government of India of the Delhi Planning Commission charged with the siting and layout of the new capital, in January 1912, was the logical development of Curzon's dramatic performances. The young architect Edwin Lutyens was appointed to the commission. In due course, Lutyens received the plum architectural commission that for the design of the Viceroy's House, the centre of the government complex. Ironically, Curzon was wholly opposed to the plan to establish the new capital at Delhi. But it was Curzon who had whetted the appetite of power.

King George V had the opinion that 'the Moghul was the style for India, if it was not dreadfully expensive'. The architect Herbert Baker, a friend of Lutyens, had the idea of a monumental architecture 'expressive of Britain's imperial mission. It must not be Indian, nor English, nor Roman, but it must be an Imperial Lutyens tradition in Indian architecture', he wrote to Lutyens. Lutyens for his part, was unimpressed with Moghul buildings, but duly inspired by the Moghul use of water as a landscape and garden element. The question of cost was boldly scotched by Lutyens, who when the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, believed that the Viceroy's House would cost £200,000 or so, immediately said that £1 million was closer to the mark. But in due course later in 1912, the architect was summoned to Balmoral and impressed the King (Queen Mary even said that his preliminary sketches were 'beautiful'). Soon after, Lutyens was able to despatch these drawings to the Viceroy in India. To Hardinge, he wrote an accompanying letter:
The sketch designs will, I hope, show how natural and Indian a Western motif can look treated for the Indian sun with Indian methods applied without throwing away the English tradition and clinging too much to the curiosities of a less intellectual style. Except for the column I do not believe that public opinion in India would know that it was not Indian. You could employ every Indian artist, wood and stone carver in the country, to decorate and of course the fabric itself would be built by Indians, so it would only be Indian, and India must be as open to new methods as other countries.

Not long after, Hardinge was subjected to an assassination attempt in the main street of Delhi. The Viceroy recovered, but there came a new sense of reality to awaken the architectural dream-makers. Lutyens had still not received the commission, in early 1913, and spent the time in India visiting other cities. He reached the conclusion that Indian architecture was not itself at a sufficiently advanced stage to provide alone the ingredients that might form the basis of a new architecture of the Indian Empire. Typically perhaps the Taj Mahal he considered to be one of a number of 'occasional flukes of great charm, but as architecture, nil'. Surprisingly, too, he could find no intellectual integrity in Indian architecture comparable to that inherent in Western classicism. To Herbert Baker he wrote his own précis of the two Indian architectures, Hindu and Moghul:
'Hindu: set square stones and build child wise, but before you erect, carve every stone differently and independently, with lace patterns and terrifying shapes. On top over trabeated pendentives - set - an onion.
'Moghul: built a vast mass of rough concrete, elephant-wise, on a very simple rectangular-cum-octagon plan, dome anyhow, cutting off square. Overlay with a veneer of stone patterns, like laying a vertical tile floor, and get Italians to help you. Inlay jewels and cornelians if you can afford it and rob someone if you can't. Then on the top of the mass put three turnips in concrete and overlay with stone or marble as before. Be very careful not to bond anything in, and don't care a damn if it does all come to pieces'.

It was Lutyens' somewhat cavalier sense of humour that was to see him out of an otherwise interminable sense of obligation to honour and reflect architecturally Indian or Moghul building and decoration, as ordained from the King down. Likewise, Lutyens' integrity forbad him to be persuaded by any associational concepts to play anew with a picturesque plundering of local motifs. Something different had to emerge from the architectural synthesis of form. And in the first week of January, 1913, the Viceroy, now recovered, telegraphed to London for confirmation that he should appoint Lutyens to the commission, in co-operation with Herbert Baker and Sir Swinton Jacob, a contemporary and leading authority on Indian architecture. Hardinge added that he had pointed out to Lutyens:
The necessity of adapting the designs to meet official requirements, climate, conditions and Indian sentiment and Lutyens realises the situation and recognises that an adaptation of a Western style in above sense is feasible.

Lutyens now knew that he faced the greatest yet challenge in his career, but he was confident that he could achieve a synthesis of meaning. The Viceroy's House was a massive area exceeding that of Versailles. He decided to resolve his complex axial plan by using a predominant horizontality (as Indian) together with vertical elements of Western origin. He wove together the Indian verandahs and compounds, with Mogul detailing in the form of the chattri (small roof pavilions) and the chujja (a form of sharp, sweeping cornice; in this way he minimised, as they had, the refractive effect of light bouncing off the ground, and enhanced the predominant Indian sense of horizontality. In the elevations he employed a two-colour scheme of horizontal bands. Lutyens had in mind marble facing, abandoned on cost grounds. This would have further enhanced the combined elevation together with the Indian Dohlpur stone in two shades.

Vertical emphasis, notwithstanding the arcading of the basements, was essentially Western and Classical, a symphony of colonnades and arches, establishing a fine balance in this way between solid and void. Thus the fusion of architectural precepts from two global cultures atomised the dramatic force and power of this extraordinary building in an unprecedented, unique 20th century synthesis. A pyramidal movement where individual parts are tapered is contrasted with the primary form of the circular dome of the central Dunbar Hall itself.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 delayed proceedings at Delhi, but the mould was now set, despite continual opposition from Curzon to the high cost of the enterprise. Curzon may have engendered the imperial self-consciousness of the British Government over India, but he was continually opposed to its architectural consolidation. And incidentally Curzon was to cross paths with Lutyens once again, and crucially again in the remembrance and ritual of Empire. Soon after the Armistice, early in 1919, Curzon was appointed chairman of the Cabinet Committee responsible for arrangements to celebrate the successful outcome of the Versailles Peace Conference, which would conclude agreements during the summer. Later, it was decided to create a temporary 'catafalque' for the commemoration of the Imperial War Dead at a service in Whitehall. Lloyd George was enthusiastic about the idea, despite Curzon's scepticism: but in due course Lutyens was sent for with a request to design such a catafalque by the end of the same month. Lutyens suggested the name Cenotaph (meaning 'empty tomb'). Curzon's papers record the apparent surprise of Curzon, at the quite unexpected appeal of the Cenotaph itself, to the general public. Within eleven days of its unveiling the Cabinet had agreed in response to public pressure, to replace the temporary shrine with a fully permanent, and absolutely identical version in stone. In January 1920 work began on Lutyens revised design, again under the eye of Curzon and on 11 November 1920, Armistice Day, it was duly unveiled.

In fact, Lutyens had completed the design for the original between dawn and dusk on a single summer's day, that 19th of July 1919. This corresponded almost exactly to the Cenotaph as finally erected in 1920. There is a deliberate entasis of every surface. The calculations based upon these lines filled thirty-three pages of one notebook, afterwards. But it worked brilliantly, as it does to this day: the magic stone caught the mood and imagination of a whole Empire, at mourning. The simple yet inexplicably sublime and serenely beautiful stone still encapsulates a nation's feelings for its lost great-grandparents, grandparents, and their children. The sculptural form of the cenotaph is compatible with silence, with bugle calls, with slowly marching feet, with tears, and dreams. Curzon too could not but respond to this beauty, lobbying protectively now for the non-denominational context, for the symbolism of the Unknown Warrior, for the simple message of the poppies. The Cenotaph remains an architecture of Empire, as was always intended. Eventually the Cenotaph project linked Lutyens to further designs, for the Imperial War Graves Commission. One has only to visit, say the British War Cemetery say at Cassino in Italy to realise the extent to which this is an Imperial affair. The very large number of Indian graves is significant.

In New Delhi, during 1923, the Viceroy's House received the go-ahead. This final triumph of the architecture of the British Empire could at last rise above basement level. The mason's yard at New Delhi, as it was now nicknamed, was the largest in the world. Through the decade, work progressed towards a scheduled completion date at the end of 1929. The outer dome of the Durbar Hall was started as late as 1928. The splendour of the main floor, with lavishly finished State Rooms, epitomised all that imperial splendour demanded. Superb Kashmir carpets were now laid, the ballroom resplendent with the finest chandeliers was prepared for the grand events that were to proceed, in the temple of imperial power, as the Viceroy's House was described in the British press. The contemporary English journalist Robert Byron described it as possessing 'an individual and peculiarly English splendour expressing perhaps for the last time, the spirit of humanist aristocracy in the language of a swelling'. In the panic before the opening, as Lutyens complained, 'Three thousand panes of glass have been broken and 500 keys stolen, besides doorknobs and window-fastenings. I keep on exploding and stopping to blow my nose'.

The situation was saved by imported English foremen, who worked day and night to ensure that the date was met. On Monday 23 December, dawned a morning of white mist, to add to the surrealism. However, ironically, the salute guns that announced the Viceroy's arrival concealed a less welcome explosion, a terrorist attempted to bomb the train conveying him. But the programme went on remorselessly. Lutyens was knighted 'on the field', in the New Years Honours List, a Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire. In the margin 'Ned' Lutyens duly caricatured himself, the architect, replete with ribbon and star. In going, Lutyens left unannounced, kissing a wall as he passed into history.

In due course, this great palace of Empire inevitably lost its role. Lutyens had last visited it in 1938, in his 70th year. He found at last a beautiful and matured garden, as intended. He left finally with some gratification. After Indian independence, there has been no equivalent democratic use, and the ultimate symbol of British Imperial architecture now called Rashtrapati Bhavan became redundant, outmoded as no doubt will Le Corbusier's Chandigarh. The Viceroy's House, New Delhi, however, will undoubtedly make the greatest archaeological ruin, meanwhile given a new lease of life while appointed to be the Indian prime ministerial residency.

The architecture of this late Empire was on the whole undemonstrative, rising from genteel aspirations to what is best described as a commercial-classical imperial idiom. However, it was through the genius of Edwin Lutyens that, even at the moment of decline, there came in the 1920s the two great masterworks which both represent the pinnacle of its achievement with consummate skill and appropriateness. The Viceroy's House at New Delhi is a supreme synthesis of western Classicism and Indian imagery, deserving of a status equal to any of the great temples of sovereign power erected in the previous 500 years. At the same time in London, lately the Imperial Capital, the Cenotaph commemorates the sacrifice of millions in defence of those same imperial ideals, in an architectural symbolism of unsurpassed beauty and pathos. While neither would actually have happened without the eminence gris of Curzon, neither was literally possible without the genius of Edwin Lutyens, the supreme architect of Empire. Ignorant or unwitting of the great developments of the masters of modern architecture, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto all of whom advanced during his own career, his place remains assured in posterity by the very uniqueness of his two extraordinary commissions described above. His English great houses are found to owe debt to the earlier provenance of the English Free Style, and his modified Classicism, as epitomised at New Delhi, ranks well with that of Asplund. Lutyens alone of these was obliged to serve the self-esteem of an Empire and he served it supremely well.

Michael Spens

Further reading
Hussey C. The Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens. London: Antique Collectors' Club, Special Edition, 1953. First published by Country Life Ltd., an imprint of Newnes Books, a division of Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd. ISBN O907462596

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