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 of the new free style, as he wrote of an extremely stylized Mackintosh tearoom in Glasgow: “The result is gorgeous! and a wee bit vulgar!…All just a little outré, a thing we must avoid, and shall too.”
With the demise of Art Nouveau during the new century’s first decade, Lutyens reimagined Queen Anne and early Georgian architecture in a series of designs inspired by his idol Christopher Wren. His first full-blown essay in Classicism was Heathcote of 1905–1907, an imposing stone villa for a Yorkshire businessman. This vigorous symmetrical composition channels the quirky early-eighteenth-century Mannerist Nicholas Hawksmoor and announces that Lutyens will not be playing Classicism by the cautious Adam Revival rulebook. For him Classicism was the summit of the building art. “In architecture Palladio is the game,” he wrote. “It is a big game, a high game.”
Astoundingly prolific, Lutyens completed some seven hundred commissions, and his range was comprehensive. He designed everything from the stage sets for his friend J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904) and the sumptuous Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House (1920–1924) to the Hampton Court Bridge (1928) spanning the Thames and the twin fountains in London’s Trafalgar Square (1937–1939). He erected three dramatically sited castles—Lindisfarne (1903) on Holy Island in Northumbria, Lambay (1905–1920) on an island near Dublin, and Drogo (1910–1930) on a Devon hilltop—as well as the thatch-roofed Drum Inn (1934), also in Devon.
This specialist in country houses (he built some three dozen) also executed several socially conscious schemes, and contrary to his reputation as a spendthrift worked effectively with modest materials and limited budgets. His Arts and Crafts–style building called Goddards of 1898–1899 in Surrey was conceived by its sponsor, a philanthropic tycoon, as a country vacation retreat for low-income women (though the architect later converted it into a private house for his patron’s son). The YWCA Central Club of 1928–1932, a redbrick neo-Georgian pile in London’s Bloomsbury, was commodious enough to be turned into a luxury hotel in 1998. (Lutyens’s palatial Midland Bank headquarters of 1924–1939 in the city’s financial district will soon reopen as a top-of-the-line hotel.)
His Page Street and Vincent Street Housing of 1928–1930 in London’s Pimlico, for the Westminster City Council, is an unexpected delight. The façades of these six-story flat-roofed residential blocks are emblazoned with a striking checkerboard pattern of alternating brown brick and white stucco panels. Set flush to the sidewalk, the apartment buildings surround handsomely landscaped courtyards and are interspersed with shops in Classical pavilions. Lutyens’s low-cost but high-style public dwellings contradict the cliché of soulless modern housing for the masses.
Like other architects with Arts and Crafts roots—especially his two-years-older American counterpart Frank Lloyd Wright—Lutyens preferred to design a building down to its smallest details. He abhorred Victorian clutter and Edwardian luxe, and instead emulated the rigorously austere interiors of the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch. The rooms Lutyens decorated were often short on comfort. He banished overstuffed slipcovered sofas in favor of straight-backed Jacobean oak seating, and instead of wall-to-wall broadloom preferred wooden or black-and-white stone floors scattered with Asian carpets.
Lutyens’s horizontally wood-slatted Thakeham garden seat (1902), with the outlines of a Chippendale camelback sofa, is the most ubiquitous of his many furniture and lighting designs. It and a number of his other furnishings are still produced by a company his granddaughter runs. The architect’s color palette could be startling, with his fondness for black-painted drawing room walls (a marvelous backdrop for pictures) and floors painted an intense shade of green obtained by mixing equal parts chrome yellow and cobalt blue.
His views on such matters betray his acute class consciousness and anticipate Nancy Mitford’s “The English Aristocracy” by several decades. As Jane Ridley relates in her insightful biography, The Architect and His Wife: A Life of Edwin Lutyens1:
Ned [as Lutyens was known to intimates] hated most things about modern middle-class life. His dislikes included: long-stemmed glasses, fish knives, cut flowers, silk lampshades, pile carpets, the seaside, the placing of furniture diagonally, painted nails.
He always had a mathematical bent, and his skillful application of the Golden Section—a ratio devised by the Greeks to guarantee pleasing proportions—came as second nature. Given Lutyens’s spotty education, his mastery of this essential design aid surely drew on innate abilities, for there is no other way to explain his amazing metamorphosis from a callow designer of overgrown country cottages into the most sophisticated manipulator of the Classical vocabulary since John Soane.
Edwin Landseer Lutyens was born in London in 1869 to an eccentric ex-army officer of German descent turned sporting artist, who named him after his mentor, the animal painter Edwin Landseer. Lutyens’s Irish Catholic mother became a fervent Protestant Evangelical convert, and her religious preoccupation seems to have left Ned—tenth of her thirteen offspring—emotionally needy of women all his life. His childhood was divided between the family’s large house in the capital’s arty Onslow Square (Thackeray was a somewhat earlier resident of the square) and their tumbledown cottage in Surrey.
With the accelerated transformation of Surrey after the advent of railways into a residential region for nouveau riche Londoners, young Lutyens was among many antiquarian enthusiasts who scoured the countryside for quaint buildings to sketch before they vanished. Although he later regretted his not having gone to public school for the contacts it would have brought him, he also liked to boast that he was largely self-taught.
“I got the architectural idea about fifteen or so,” he recalled, and in 1885 entered London’s South Kensington School of Art to study that discipline. After two years he began an apprenticeship with the firm of Ernest George and Harold Peto, called the Eton of architecture for its distinguished alumni. Little more than a year later Lutyens decided he’d learned enough and at twenty set up independent practice in London.
In 1889, while working on his first house in Surrey, he encountered Gertrude Jekyll, whose four hundred garden designs, thousand articles, and dozen popular books helped revolutionize modern horticulture. Jekyll moved prevailing taste away from stiffly regimented Victorian flowerbeds with garishly colored exotics and toward spontaneous-looking (though carefully composed) drifts of native species deployed like brushwork in an Impressionist painting. Our image of the classic English garden derives almost entirely from her.
What Jekyll needed most was an educable architectural associate—someone to bring structural coherence to large landscape layouts and to build houses that needed her gardens. She found him in Lutyens, twenty-six years her junior. Together they championed the outdoor room, a geometric space enclosed by masonry walls or hedges of yew or box. Their grandest collaboration, the garden of 1906 at Hestercombe in Somerset, is an Anglicized adaptation of classical multilevel Italian gardens that completely upstages the adjacent Victorian residence.
Lutyens’s much-admired Surrey house for Jekyll, Munstead Wood of 1893–1897, was his first fully mature work, and though it was constructed using age-old techniques and indigenous forms he adjusted its functions to the needs of a modern working woman (specifying a darkroom, for instance). Through Jekyll he met his most important publicist, Edward Hudson, who founded Country Life in 1897. Apart from designing the paper’s London office building and three residences for Hudson (including Lindisfarne Castle), the architect’s work from 1900 onward was regularly published in this bible of the landed gentry and its urban aspirants. Alluringly photographed and uncritically described, Lutyens’s houses were presented as the quintessence of English domesticity, and the exposure brought him client after client.
At twenty-seven, Lutyens met and was instantly infatuated with the twenty-one-year-old Lady Emily Lytton, daughter of the first Earl of Lytton (ennobled after serving as viceroy of India under Disraeli) and granddaughter of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, author of The Last Days of Pompeii and other best-selling historical novels. The ambitious architect was likely dazzled by Emily’s high status, but despite his ardor and professional prospects, Lutyens’s lack of a fortune (even more than his comparatively lowly birth) precluded an immediate engagement.
After protracted negotiations he made Emily the beneficiary of a life insurance policy worth the current equivalent of $1.67 million, and they married in 1897. The high premiums drained the architect’s resources for years, but his bartered bride remained incorrigibly spoiled. She pulled rank constantly, and complained that it was impossible to run their London house with fewer than ten servants.
Despite their everlasting protestations of love, Lutyens and Lytton were disastrously mismatched. She worshiped his talent but craved an intimacy made impossible by the architect’s single-minded devotion to his work. At home he’d immerse himself in endless games of solitaire during which he’d unconsciously puzzle out pending designs. He’d hoped that her aristocratic connections would bring him prestigious jobs, but he received far more referrals from Jekyll. Worse yet, Emily found their sex life unbearable (as detailed in her letters to Ned and confidences to her daughters), and after she bore five children turned him out of the conjugal bed in 1914.
Emily had become a fanatical adept of Theosophy, the Eastern-inflected spiritual cult that held the teenaged Indian mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti to be a messiah. She made a separate, peripatetic life chasing after Krishnamurti with her husband’s money, a rejection particularly painful to Lutyens because it reiterated the emotional neglect of him by his religiously obsessed mother. He found some comfort in an amitié amoureuse with the likewise unhappily wed Victoria Sackville-West (mother of Vita), for whom he designed three houses, over which they quarreled to an apparently enjoyable degree. The Lutyenses remained married until his death from lung cancer in 1944.
The architect was painfully shy and nervously inarticulate, serious deficiencies in a field so dependent on personal interplay. He attempted to mask his verbal and social unease with a strenuously jocular demeanor marked by nonstop chatter and a torrent of puns. He averred that “India expects every man to do his dhoti,” and observed of a fish course, “This piece of cod passeth understanding.”
His notion of appropriateness could be faulty, as when he told the formidable Queen Mary that the tiny pillows monogrammed MG and GM in the dollhouse he designed for her signified “May George?” and “George May,” a pun on her family nickname. She reacted, he reported, like a “frightened mare.” Yet many found his irrepressible bonhomie and boundless sense of fun entrancing, and after Lutyens stopped going about with his downer of a wife he became one of London’s most sought-after dinner guests.
Lutyens’s expansion into international practice paralleled the British Empire’s global reach. He designed his nation’s pavilion at expositions in Paris (1900), Rome (1911), and Antwerp (1930), and after he was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 1924 the British government returned the compliment and asked him to design its new embassy in Washington. His only work in the US—save for the tombstone of the actor James K. Hackett at Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York (1927)—it is the subject of a glossy new monograph, The Architecture of Diplomacy: The British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington.
Rather than flaunting Britannic majesty, Lutyens’s Neo-Georgian embassy brings to mind both an English country house and the redbrick Wren Building of 1695–1700 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, attributed to the eponymous master. Because the hilly site near Washington Cathedral had to accommodate both the residence and the chancery, the architect separated the functions and joined the rectangular mansion and the squared-C-shaped office wing with a two-story pedimented bridge that contains the ambassador’s study above the main entry arch.
The arrival sequence is thrilling. One gets out of a car under the porte cochère and then ascends a grand stairway with deep treads that slow your pace and increase anticipation. On the piano nobile, a spacious ballroom (used for investitures and other ceremonies) faces three French doors that open onto a two-story stone-columned portico, which in turn leads to the terraced garden. This splendidly orchestrated spatial progression never fails to impress. Architectural jests abound. For example, column capitals are carved with swags and a scallop shell that mimic eyes, nose, and open mouth. Jane Ridley perfectly summarizes the overall effect as “light-heartedly subversive, like a Noël Coward lyric.”
When the newly crowned George V journeyed to India to receive the homage of maharajahs at the Delhi Durbar of 1911, he surprised the assembly by announcing that the capital of the Raj would be moved there from Calcutta. Lutyens’s newly minted city planning credentials—he had laid out the town center for Hampstead Garden Suburb in North London in 1908—won him the commission of a lifetime to design the new British administrative center of India.
He immediately comprehended that no one man could act as both urban design chief and project architect for New Delhi’s numerous government structures, and thus chose as his collaborator an old colleague from the George and Peto office, Herbert Baker. His Union Buildings of 1910–1912 in Pretoria, capital of the newly formed Union of South Africa, offered comparable experience no other architect could match. It was a decision Lutyens would come to regret bitterly.
Although Lutyens’s radial city plan followed French Baroque prototypes including Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s Washington, D.C., there was consensus that the official architecture of New Delhi should incorporate Indian references. But Lutyens was openly dismissive of historical construction on the subcontinent. “I do not believe there is any real Indian architecture at all, or any great tradition,” he declared. Even the universally beloved Taj Mahal he found wanting, and insisted that when viewed from any angle other than the front it was “untidy.”
His initial contemptuousness makes it all the more remarkable that in the end he turned New Delhi’s focal masterpiece—the Viceroy’s House of 1912–1930—into a brilliant fusion of Hindu, Buddhist, and Mughal motifs seamlessly subsumed and superimposed onto an unapologetically Classical plan. This multicultural landmark, somewhat larger than the Palace of Versailles, is crowned by Lutyens’s distinctive sandstone dome modeled after a bell-shaped Buddhist stupa, rather than his initial plan to reinterpret the cupola of St. Paul’s Cathedral by Wren. The architect’s synthesis allowed the Viceroy’s House to be renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan (President’s House) after independence with complete credibility.
Understandably, a two-decade undertaking of this magnitude was fraught with problems, a saga grippingly told in Robert Grant Irving’s definitive account, Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker, and Imperial Delhi.2 Financial strains twice threatened the project’s cancellation, during the Great War and the Great Depression. Lutyens and Baker were at loggerheads from the outset. Their rivalry came to a climax when Baker’s mirror-image secretariat buildings—each with an incongruous Italian Baroque dome and tower, flanking the grand avenue leading to the Viceroy’s House—were repositioned, which altered the upward gradient of the roadway.
A distracted Lutyens had approved the change without realizing that his dome would now be obscured during part of the approach. This exacting perfectionist was thenceforth obsessed with correcting his oversight, but the regrading proved too costly. That the dome’s brief disappearance and return heighten the drama of his conception was immaterial to Lutyens because he had not intended it.
The work that made him a national hero was his Cenotaph of 1919–1920 in London. To give focus to peace celebrations in London, Prime Minister David Lloyd George commissioned Lutyens to design a temporary commemorative set piece on a traffic island in Whitehall, the thoroughfare that connects Trafalgar Square and the Palace of Westminster. This exquisitely proportioned but severely restrained plywood structure—in the implicit form of a sarcophagus raised thirty-five feet above street level atop a narrow plinth—immediately struck such a responsive chord with the public that Lutyens was asked to render it permanent in stone as Britain’s principal war memorial.
This deceptively simple scheme is in fact extraordinarily complex. What seem like straight lines are actually very subtle arcs in the Greek tradition of entasis, a slight narrowing of verticals to prevent an upright structure from appearing to bulge at the top. Even more than its classical references, the Cenotaph (the Greek word for an empty tomb) atavistically connects with prehistoric monoliths that remain unsurpassed as cynosures of collective memory. Moreover, the exceptional level of abstraction Lutyens achieves here allows viewers to project their own emotions onto a design unencumbered by intrusive representational elements, a condition that makes Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and Michael Arad’s National September 11th Memorial in New York City commensurately powerful.
Even before hostilities ended, Lutyens was asked to serve, along with Herbert Baker and Reginald Blomfield, as an architectural adviser to the newly organized Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) for planning military cemeteries in France and Belgium. The war’s horrendous death toll—about one million British Empire soldiers were killed—resulted in 967 cemeteries. Lutyens designed 140 of them, ranging in size from twenty-five to 10,773 graves.
His prodigious feat is documented in the Dutch architect Jeroen Geurst’s minutely analytical Cemeteries of the Great War by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Most informative are Geurst’s superb photographs of these hallowed grounds today, their impeccable maintenance a credit to contemporary custodians. However, to better understand the emotional sweep of the War Graves initiative, the general reader might be better served by Tim Skelton and Gerald Gliddon’s more accessible Lutyens and the Great War.3
Although more than a dozen other architects took part in this immense project, certain organizing principles were followed by all of them in order to confer visual unity and comradely equality on the entire effort. Yet the general outlines also allowed for individual responses to specific locales and differing historical circumstances. Lutyens’s first major contribution was to propose that each burial field contain a War Stone, a twelve-foot-long horizontal monolith reminiscent of both an altar and a sarcophagus but devoid of overt religious symbols. Rudyard Kipling, whose words THE GLORIOUS DEAD are inscribed on the Cenotaph, also composed the epitaph for the War Stones: THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE. His only son died in action.
Even a cursory overview of the program makes clear that Lutyens’s cemeteries are the commission’s finest. His experience with Gertrude Jekyll afforded him a firm grasp in siting and landscaping each graveyard. The small shelters he designed to give visitors a place to sit or take refuge from the elements are at once as dignified as Classical temples and as inviting as English garden gazebos. Planted with trees, shrubs, and flowers reminiscent of a Home County garden, the graveyards fulfill Rupert Brooke’s famous vision of “a foreign field/That is for ever England.”
But unquestionably Lutyens’s most affecting military monument is his Memorial to the Missing of the Somme of 1927–1932 at Thiepval, France. Rising the equivalent of fourteen stories over open countryside near the site of one of the Great War’s bloodiest massacres, this brick-and-stone structure is composed of a series of intersecting arches set at right angles to each other. They increase in height as they move inward from the periphery and culminate in the tallest, central arch, an arrangement that creates sufficient wall space for the engraved names of the 73,357 British Empire soldiers who went missing there in 1916.
As one moves around this enigmatic construct—part cathedral, part watchtower, part sphinx—its apparent massiveness is continually subverted by the many apertures cut straight through it. The age-old triumphal arch motif has never felt more hollow, the void left by death never more gaping. While paying all honor to the fallen, this masterpiece of funereal art does not console, and in its realistic address of the horrors that prompted it reveals the life-enhancing genius of Edwin Lutyens at its most urgent and timeless.