The Charms of Edwin Lutyens

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Bettmann/Corbis
The Viceroy’s House in New Delhi, designed by Edwin Lutyens

1.

Forty years ago it would have seemed preposterous to assert that the two greatest architects of the twentieth century were Le Corbusier and Edwin Lutyens. Although each was considered supreme in his respective sphere—Le Corbusier among modernists, Lutyens among traditionalists—their comparative influence differed tremendously. Whereas Le Corbusier’s precepts became the predominant lingua franca of world architecture, Lutyens embodied the final effulgence of Classicism, which the Modern Movement had supposedly rendered irrelevant.

Unequal as these antithetical figures may still seem to some, their complementary preeminence was acknowledged as early as the 1920s. The concurrence during that decade of Lutyens’s British imperial capital of New Delhi and Le Corbusier’s visionary proposals for drastically rebuilding Paris prompted Indian urbanists to ask both men to devise plans for a new subcontinental city. Lutyens demurred: “With Corbusier I think your friends would be far happier and his flow of language would carry them all.” Le Corbusier finally got to build such a city with his regional capital at Chandigarh of 1951–1964. Lutyens was respectful if skeptical of the Swiss-French radical, and in a 1928 review of his Towards a New Architecture rightly faulted Le Corbusier’s illogical transposition of Mediterranean materials and forms to northern climates.

Today’s more inclusive view of the building art makes it easier to contend that although Lutyens was by no means a Modernist, he was most definitely a modern architect, and a very great one at that. While he largely disdained innovative construction methods, he responded to the new needs of the twentieth century with restless imagination, as demonstrated by his up-to-date corporate headquarters, admirable workers’ housing, and incomparable memorials to Britain’s victims of unprecedented industrialized combat, as the centennial of World War I reminds us.

Lutyens worked in four successive but frequently overlapping (and sometimes recurrent) stylistic modes: Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Neo-Georgian, and High Classical. To all of them he brought the antic vivacity that was his most characteristic quality. His vernacular version of Arts and Crafts, familiarly known as the Surrey Style, featured traditional regional motifs including prominent redbrick chimneys, large multiple gables, overhanging red tile roofs, small-paned casement windows, and elevations clad in varying combinations of brick, stucco, tile, clapboard, half-timbering, or sandstone. Asymmetrical massing suggested additions accreted over time, typical of old country houses.

Always attuned to shifts in taste and eager to give clients what they wanted, Lutyens was more accommodating than his hugely talented contemporaries C.F.A. Voysey and C.R. Ashbee, whose careers foundered as they clung to Arts and Crafts principles long after they’d gone out of fashion. Lutyens next had a brief Art Nouveau phase, seen in houses such as Le Bois des Moutiers of 1898 in Normandy, with its exaggeratedly steep roofs and elongated oriel windows in the manner of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. But Lutyens was intrinsically wary…


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