Sunday 16 December 2018


Edwin Lutyens, once mocked by modernists right up to the 1960s for his inexplicably cutesy-quaint, 'silly' olde-worlde retrograde projects, regained his stature and reputation with Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture published in 1966. This landmark publication explained Lutyens' work, its shrewd skill at referencing, its clever jokes and playful humour, qualities that the self-centred modernists completely ignored in their narrow, self-important vision of the world and their commitment to a ‘new,’ technological future.

With Venturi's little book,# (where are the similar publications today?), Lutyens became a new hero for those seeking a change, a more sensitive and responsive architecture, rather than the simplistic, strictly clean, slick logical rigours of modernism. Lutyens' work was re-appraised. His biography was written by his daughter Mary in 1980. Lutyens' life was analysed, along with his work. His acerbic wit, both in his sketches and words, was revealed in his ad hoc scribbles as well as in his work that was seen as a sensitive, subtle response to society and culture, enriched with stories and analogies. The chandeliers in the nursery bedrooms at the Viceroy's Palace are a good example. Here, in one fitting, the light bulbs are playfully envisioned as eggs, with the hens above laying them. Other chandeliers play with ponies and angels. His lighting for the Blagdon Hall nursery used fishermen. The designs display a happy indulgence in life, the simple enjoyment of 'seeing as' - of pretending.

Lutyens' civic work in India came to be seen likewise, as an extension of this approach to his crafted, culturally responsive work in Britain. In India, one is encouraged to see how the great man sensed the local issues and responded to them warmly with his masterful approach and sharp eye to give us the marvellous Viceroy Palace, sometimes referred to as the ‘House,’ now the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the official residence of the President of India. This project has been written about as one of the great buildings of the world that displays a social responsibility with subtlety and sensibility on every scale from its cultural context, to its city planning, right down to its fine detailing and landscaping.

So it is somewhat puzzling, indeed surprising, to discover that Lutyens had to be dragged kicking and screaming to get him to respect and reference Indian architecture in the way that he has. In Taj Mahal, Giles Tillotson* writes:

‘Lutyens . . . was hostile to any suggestion from politicians that he should make the architecture Indian, to appease local sentiment. In exasperation he argued "God did not make the Eastern rainbow pointed, to show his wide sympathies." ’

On Lutyens' arrival in India, Lord Hardinge, the viceroy of the time, advised that, 'for high considerations of state, (he) felt bound to have an Indian styled city.' He suggested that Lutyens take a tour to familiarise himself with Indian architecture. 'This was not at all what Lutyens wished to hear: one style alone was suitable for such work, namely Europe's own classical tradition.' . . .

'Hardinge was in earnest though, and sent Lutyens off on study tours of Agra, Jaipur and Mandu, so that he might learn the principles of Mughal, Rajput and sultanate architecture.'

On his return, Lutyens submitted a one-word report: "Piffle." Lutyens saw the brick structures faced with stone and render as 'fake' buildings, not architecture.

For the amusement of Herbert Baker, his collaborator on the project, he (Lutyens) wrote a sarcastic note on how to do Mughal architecture:

‘Build a vast mess of rough concrete, elephant-wise, on a very simple rectangular-cum-octagon plan, dome in 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 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.’
. . .
‘To Lutyens - taking a somewhat purist and parochial view of the matter - this means that Mughal buildings including the Taj do not qualify as architecture at all. 'Personally I do not believe there is any real Indian architecture,' he declared. What he had seen was mere 'veneered joinery in stone.' ’

Strangely, his was a more integral vision of expression, where materials revealed their qualities in their honest use and purposeful function. Who would have thought that the architectural humorist might have embraced Sullivan's "Form follows function"? Venturi had suggested to the world that Lutyens' work was everything but this rigour that defined the modernist's approach. Was it the lingering ‘Arts & Craft’ ethic that made Lutyens so disturbed with what he saw?

One might argue that, in spite of his opposition to things Indian, Lutyens did accommodate the ‘Indian’ strategy with his usual skill that still astonishes us. He even included a Mughal garden with his palace. Giles Tillotson writes:

‘The efforts of the Indo-Saracenic architects he thought ridiculous, and saw them a sufficient reason not to pursue the attempt (to develop an Indian architecture in his work); he also derided the work of Swinton Jacob who, at the outset was briefly appointed his unwanted advisor.

But having registered his protest, Lutyens conceded the point and searched for Indian forms that could be admitted without detracting from his sternly Roman imperial scheme. As a result, the design of the Vicroy's House includes some wonderfully transfigured Indian elements, notably the dome and its drum, derived from the Buddhist stupa at Sanchi. In the garden he was more playful. The fountains and the water channels, pergolas and flower beds, do not replicate the forms of any particular Mughal garden but teasingly allude to them in the fashioning of something new. The garden is spread out before the looming rear facade of the former palace, much like the garden of the Taj beneath an equally imposing dome. It is a strange tribute from a die-hard imperialist to the magic that he tried so staunchly to resist.’

This text reinforces everything that Venturi saw in Lutyens' work that somehow seems to exist in spite of Lutyens' personal beliefs and ambitions. Was it his humour that maintained the teasing delight, that overcame this schism between outlook and outcome? It seems that our era has again lost all humour in architecture: a quality with a unique ability to both assimilate and criticise. As the adage explains: Many a true word is said in jest. Are we again becoming like the modernists, self-absorbed in our own smart cleverness, engrossed in our ‘new’ certainty, wallowing in our indulgence with new technologies? Are we in a renewed period of modernism, perhaps Modernism 2.0, that is singularly enthusiastic about its new machines in the same way as the first modernists were with theirs? Consider Corb's writings on silos and ships; and the Futuristist texts on their visions, and then think of our brave new digital world that gets reinvented, 'better and better' every day, and how we have come to happily anticipate this rush ‘forward’ to the future, whatever it might be, with great earnestness.

We seem to have forgotten everything Venturi spoke about in his book, as though the idea of complexity and contradiction in architecture was merely a postmodern fad, a thing of the past, when it is, in fact, the core of things architectural: just look at history. The notions of compounded richness and puzzling irony hold meanings and sensitivities that can embody and embolden things cultural, and add communal depth to place rather than merely present grand, bespoke, personal displays for indulgent admiration and heroic acclamation, all made possible by our smart machines: see - It is this latter, technological exhibitionism that gives architects such a bad name; but it still continues, apparently oblivious to its insulting ignorance of things subtle and symbolic.

Might there ever be a Modernism 2.1 that can be enriched with referencing and humour, or are we committed to repeat history once more and fumble blindly into extremes until . . . ?

One really has to acknowledge the collaboration of his wife and professional partner, Denise Scott Brown (nee Lakofski) who played an important role in the practice, but never really gained the recognition due to her. She was a principal of the firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates in Philadelphia.

* P.S.

The Taj Mahal was read on a tablet. It was a first, something that had previously been consciously avoided. The experience was interesting, but one matter is a concern. When checking the details for the references, it became clear that, unlike a printed-on-paper book, the text on the tablet is fluid, with pages getting re-numbered willy-nilly as the text size is altered, either consciously or by an inadvertent slip of the finger, making any page reference meaningless, limiting anyone's ability to easily confirm the quoted texts. The rigour of the paper reference, its permanence, is missed. Is our digital world becoming a fuzzy zone of uncertainty that lets 'fake news' and loose opinions thrive unchecked in a textual haze?

This fluidity in information is a part of the news itself. Reading the news on a tablet may be simple and effective, but close the site and open it once again to follow up on an item, and frequently it is discovered that the article has disappeared, that the site has been re-formatted. It is as if nothing is important other than constant change, and the speed of these variations. One senses that stability is seen as a negative quality, a step backwards in time. The frenetic pace of variability seems to equate to some concept of progress, 'moving forward' as the jargon says it. The point is that this race has no destination, just momentum, participation in movement. Little wonder that mental health issues are on the increase when simple contentment no longer has any positive connotations, making a mockery of the Pauline advice: Whatever state you are in, be content. This calmness, this serenity of being is seen only as a dumb hiatus that needs stirring: is this the role of Instagram, etc.?

On those images that get published almost instantly, it is interesting to observe the reaction of those who find themselves in front of a camera. Once the camera generated stiff, formal poses of those placed before it, as individuals or as groups: “Hold still; say ‘Cheese;’ 1 – 2 – 3 – click: thanks.” Now one sees individuals and groups respond with skewed heads with artificially alarmed faces and exclamatory hands held in a freeze position ready for a snappy capturing and an instant publication, to declare how much fun it being had by all: "Look at me!" Groups are interesting too: these squeeze together, all leaning into a central axis, with each face distorted by 'joyful' gestures, with matching arms and hands askew, posed ready to fit the 'selfie' frame even when another person is taking the snap. There is a language for images, poses, that are all seen as having a potential for publication on social media, even though the photographer might only want some simple family images for the album.


It seems as though Lutyens never gave up on his desire for the Palace to be designed using the 'one style alone . . . suitable for such work, namely Europe's own classical tradition.'  The interiors reflect his ambitions that were modified on the exterior.

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