April 18, 2021
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Lutyens' Delhi

He's a one-man brand for New Delhi's heritage but does he deserve all the credit? Setting the record straight

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Lutyens' Delhi
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Lutyens' Delhi

What Lutyens Built

  • Rashtrapati Bhavan
  • Four bungalows inside the President’s Estate
  • India Gate
  • Hyderabad and Baroda palaces at India Gate


Unsung Heroes

Robert Tor Russell built Connaught Place, the Eastern and Western Courts, Teen Murti House, Safdarjung Airport, National Stadium and over 4,000 government houses.

E. Montague Thomas designed and built the first secretariat building of New Delhi which set a style for the bungalows.

Herbert Baker made seven bungalows and the North and South Blocks.

The other bungalows of New Delhi are the work of architects like W.H. Nicholls, C.G. and F.B. Blomfield, Walter Sykes George, Arthur Gordon Shoosmith and Henry Medd.

Lord Hardinge insisted on roundabouts (Lutyens had initially designed the streets at right angles), hedges and trees (Lutyens said the trees wouldn’t survive) and demanded the Raisina Hill site for the Viceroy’s House (Lutyens preferred a more southern setting closer to Malcha). Hardinge also insisted on a Mughal-style garden for Viceroy’s House (Lutyens was keen on an English garden with ‘artless’ natural planting).

Using P.H. Clutterbuck’s list of Indian trees, W.R. Mustoe, director of horticulture, was actually responsible for the roadside planting work for New Delhi’s avenues. It was Mustoe and Walter Sykes George who landscaped and planted Lutyens’ Mughal Garden.

Swinton Jacob, advisor on Indian materials and ornaments, suggested raising the ground level of Rashtrapati Bhavan, on a carefully studied contour plan.


Lutyens’ Delhi" is used indiscriminately to include the work of all the other brilliant architects who worked to build New Delhi in the 1930s. The only four bungalow-residences designed by Edwin Lutyens, for the private secretary, surgeon general, military secretary, and comptroller, lie hidden within the security zone of the President’s Estate. So how can history bury all the bungalows and buildings which are the work of other architects? Robert Tor Russell built Connaught Place, the Eastern and Western Courts, the commander-in-chief’s house (now Teen Murti House), Delhi’s Safdarjung Airport, Irwin Amphitheatre (now the National Stadium), and over 4,000 government houses—and not many even know Russell’s name.

The other bungalows of New Delhi are the work of prominent architects like W.H. Nicholls, C.G. and F.B. Blomfield, Walter Sykes George, Arthur Gordon Shoosmith (from Lutyens’ office), and Henry Medd. Herbert Baker made seven bungalows or ‘bungle-ohs’—as Lutyens described them to make fun of him. Ironically, these same ‘bungle-ohs’ are now attributed and credited to Lutyens himself! Baker also designed the North and South Blocks.

Today, Delhi’s building activity has spilled beyond its boundaries to fashionable second homes called ‘farmhouses’. Indian architects and interior designers create sprawling dream homes amidst acres of landscaped abundance, imitating the loggia-encircled dwellings set in English gardens which the early-twentieth century had realised in New Delhi. To the layperson, any colonial bungalow in Delhi is a Lutyens house—the misperception is as inaccurate as the mispronunciation, ‘Lootens’ instead of ‘Lutchens’. But then Delhi’s nouveau riche choose to appropriate the ‘Lutyens style’ for their own snobbish purposes, with as fine a disregard for pronunciation as for architectural verity.

History and the connotations of Empire apart, a bungalow home—should one have the space—is ideally suited to the tropical climate of Delhi. Large, open verandahs, apart from their elegance, keep the inner room cooled away from the direct rays of the sun, while high ceilings carry the hot air up, to be let out from the ventilators. Even with air conditioning a bungalow adapts itself well and gives more than enough headroom to de-stress from urban claustrophobia and clockworks.

As there is a renewed interest in building colonial bungalows to suit Delhi’s farmhouses, it’s time to ask, "Who designed New Delhi’s stunning white bungalows?" And why does the credit always go to someone else? Both clients and architects need to educate themselves and get their facts right.


Building Lutyens

An architectural drawing of Lutyens’ iconic dome for the Viceroy’s House

Most writing by the English on the building of New Delhi was contemporaneous or just subsequent to the city’s founding and completion in 1931. But without history’s hindsight, it fell too easily into the trap of instant glorification or vilification—mostly the former. Edwin Lutyens, the architect of Viceroy’s House (Rashtrapati Bhavan) and the estate’s bungalows for staff and bodyguards, as well as of the two Hyderabad and Baroda palaces at India Gate, had evidently risen from relative anonymity in England to becoming a signature, the unparalleled heroic architect of his times—now once again because of Raj nostalgia. He strode as a colossus on his stage, hero-worshipped by his charmed circle who cast as villains and persecutors all those who opposed him. These villains included Herbert Baker, his associate architect on whose strength he had won the contract; the viceroy, Lord Hardinge, the city’s founder-patron; and a host of other collaborators-cum-antagonists. Among those who wrote of those times with a pro-Lutyens bias were Robert Byron, the official writer for Country Life and Architectural Review; A.S.G. Butler, who produced three commemorative volumes on Lutyens in 1950; Robert and Mary Lutyens, the architect’s son and daughter; and Christopher Hussey, who wrote a biography based on the papers which Lutyens had proposed to use for writing his autobiography. Jane Ridley, Lutyens’ great-granddaughter has now written another family eulogy. They have all built a cult other architects could not match.

It should be remembered that even before Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens set foot in India, E. Montague Thomas had designed and built the first secretariat building of New Delhi which set a style for the bungalows. Later, when the North and South Blocks (then called the secretariats) were designed by Baker, and Rashtrapati Bhavan designed by Lutyens, the bungalows of the new imperial capital were evolved from the existing style by a host of architects. What conservationists today call the LBZ (Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone) has not a single bungalow designed by Lutyens except within the President’s Estate. So what are the other contributions he is credited with and what actually is the true credit he deserves?


City Plan

Even Lutyens’ layout plan cannot be considered original. He had initially designed a city with all the streets crossing at right angles, much like New York. But Hardinge told him of the dust storms that sweep the landscape in these parts, insisting on roundabouts, hedges and trees to break their force, giving him the plans of Paris and Washington to study and apply to Delhi. The final plan borrows from many other town plans and from earlier plans for New Delhi. Roderick Gradidge writes, "Although the plan was a group effort, it has often been attributed to Lutyens, and there is no doubt that he was a powerful influence in its creation."


Choice of Site

Lord Hardinge had suggested that the Imperial Delhi Committee consider Raisina, a dramatic rocky outcrop abutting the Ridge, as a site for Government House. John Brodie favoured this site as well. Lutyens, however, proclaimed that if the committee’s tentative proposal for a site between Malcha and Raisina was abandoned, he would side with Swinton Jacob in favour of Malcha. On 4 November, 1912, the viceroy, accompanied by three engineers, T.R.J. Ward, W.B. Gordon and C.E.V. Goument, visited all the proposed sites and concluded that "Raisina was the best for Government House". The engineers agreed unanimously with this view. So the site was not chosen by Lutyens who had preferred a more southern setting towards Malcha.


A Commanding Stature

It was Swinton Jacob, advisor on Indian materials and ornaments, who suggested raising the ground level of Government House (or Viceroy’s House), on a carefully studied contour plan—not Lutyens. Placed on the ground, it would have been less grandiose. The plinth was raised by over three metres (10 feet), and this was to enshrine forever the stunning eastern view along the axis, right up to Purana Qila (Old Fort). But unfortunately, a later decision by the viceroy to build Irwin Stadium to perpetuate his name (now called National Stadium) at the end of the vista has blocked this dramatically symbolic axis forever. However, after giving both shape and stature to Lutyens’ building (which was never acknowledged), Swinton Jacob realised Lutyens’ stubbornness in taking advice and resigned saying he had ‘no courage to withstand’ public criticism for what might eventually happen. At that point an all-Roman building was feared. But Hardinge pursued Jacob’s concern and saw to the Indianising of the structure.



The use of the superb rhubarb-red and beige-pink sandstones for Rashtrapati Bhavan is also credited to Lutyens. But, he had actually opposed it in favour of white marble as used in the Taj Mahal. He could hardly have been aware that in white he too would have built a mausoleum. In fact, sandstone was suggested by the geological department, which got no credit but only received brickbats for the sandstone’s heat-retentive qualities!



It was P.H. Clutterbuck who compiled a list of 72 species of trees that would green the area successfully and reported on 18 August, 1912 that the afforestation of the Ridge was "decidedly possible". T.R.J. Ward, though an engineer, also supported this proposal. Lutyens, however, did not agree. He wrote ‘privately’ to the viceroy: "Will trees really grow on the Ridge? I could imagine them doing well for 10 or 15 years, but after that they may die off." Ward had said the reverse, that there would be a fine growth in 10 or 15 years. Lutyens went on to insist, "The Ridge would prove an exception if the planting proved permanent. I refer to forest trees, not to scrubs, shrubs and small trees; the risk is a very great one, and I do not think Mr Clutterbuck’s report is very emphatic on this point; ...but would it be permanent for the life of a tree, and would it allow for any designed scheme of planting to be carried out?" Lutyens was not embarrassed to denounce the professional competence of Clutterbuck, whom Hardinge referred to as "the most able Forest Officer in India". Using Clutterbuck’s list of Indian trees, W.R. Mustoe, director of horticulture, was actually responsible for the roadside planting work for New Delhi’s avenues. Today, Lutyens is credited for the greening of the Ridge where the trees have lasted almost a century, not just 10 or 15 years as he had warned.



The late Satish Grover, a former head of the Department of Architecture at the Delhi School of Planning and Architecture writes: "In the Bungalow Zone the population density is 12 to 15 people per acre; in the old walled city of Delhi it is 1,500 people per acre." Today the bungalow zone serves as the lungs of New Delhi, and the density is lower perhaps than any other planned city. This has less to do with the planners’ farsightedness, as is imagined, and more to do with practical constraints. Let it not be forgotten that these disproportionately large gardens were a design compromise to overcome a diminished budget and yet cover the maximum land area with about half the number of houses.


The Mughal Garden

The Mughal Garden being laid

Lutyens was keen on doing an English garden with ‘artless’ natural planting and in this view his friend and mentor Gertrude Jekyll had supported him. Hardinge forced him to travel and see the Mughal gardens of Agra, Lahore, and Srinagar. Constance Villiers-Stuart’s pioneering research on Indian water-gardens was also introduced to Lutyens by Hardinge. But almost as if not to acknowledge his influences, Lutyens called it not the Mughal, but the ‘formal Indian garden’. It was Mustoe and Walter Sykes George who landscaped and planted Lutyens’ Mughal Garden where there were 17 miles of hedges to maintain!


Lutyens’ Loathing For Things Indian

If not a single bungalow in what is now called Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone was designed by Edwin Lutyens, why do we continue to perpetuate this misnomer? Is it to honour an imperialist architect who took every occasion to denounce all that was India—its architecture, its people, their food and their mindset. In fact, after he had built all there was to be built, Lutyens was even ungrateful enough to say that Indian craftsmen had broken thumbs.

Lutyens’ talent is hugely overrated for his times. He was flaunting classical styles to evoke the decadent and last phase of empire. Lutyens had been unperceptive enough to pass a sweeping judgement on all of India’s standing architectural heritage when he wrote: "They are just spurts by various mushroom dynasties with as much intellect in them as any other art nouveau." If Lutyens’ own work is put to scrutiny under his patronising view, it was also just a spurt. He may have immodestly imagined that the Delhi Order which he created for the capitals of his pillars would match and last with the five classical orders—the Doric, Corinthian, Ionic, Tuscan and Composite. His clapper-less bells were to hang out of the capitals to hauntingly sound the death-knell of the British empire. Design apart, where had Lutyens made provision for the new inventions of the age which had come with industrialisation? Corbusier was only 18 years younger than Lutyens. His Chandigarh was built 30 years after Viceroy’s House, but his modernism, perhaps equally irrelevant and inappropriate for India, makes the town look a century ahead of New Delhi. Today, almost all the English commentators on Lutyens have to explain with embarrassment the architect’s remarks on India. According to Gavin Stamp, Lutyens is "guilty by association", Elizabeth Wilhide writes that "Lutyens’ impressions of India do not always make sympathetic reading", and Roderick Gradidge suggests that they were "vulgar...[and he] may have brought these expressions with him from England." William Dalrymple has recorded his impression of Lutyens upon reading the architect’s correspondence: "Perhaps the overwhelming surprise of the letters is Lutyens’ extraordinary intolerance and dislike of all things Indian. Even by the standards of the time, the letters reveal him to be a bigot, though the impression is one of bumbling insularity rather than jack-booted malevolence. Indians are invariably referred to as ‘black’, ‘blackamoors’, ‘natives’, or even ‘niggers’. They are ‘dark and ill-smelling’, their food is ‘very strange and frightening’ and they ‘do not improve with acquaintance’. The helpers in his architect’s office he describes as ‘odd people with odd names who do those things that bore the white man’. On another occasion he writes of the ‘sly slime of the Eastern mind’ and ‘the very low intelligence of the natives’." Lutyens came to the conclusion that it was not possible for Indians and whites to mix freely as "They are very, very different and I cannot admit them on the same plane as myself."


Lutyens Bows To Hardinge—At Last

Eleven years before Sir Edwin Lutyens died, it seems that in a final moment of honest self-appraisal and a reckoning, he finally acknowledged the viceroy’s contribution with a pricking conscience: "This new city owes its being to Lord Hardinge...His patience and courage in times of great stress, personal and political, his even temper in the midst of diverse discussion remain in my memory as being parallel only with the greatness of his conception."

Herbert Baker had been a forerunner to Lutyens in designing Pretoria’s Union Buildings. The resemblance to New Delhi’s Great Place (Vijay Chowk) is staggering. But poor Baker was consciously sidelined and trampled by Lutyens who had so cunningly used him to win the New Delhi commission jointly. History forgets this, as also the fact that Lutyens’ war memorials in Europe are a copy of those that Baker designed. That Baker finally returned to England heartbroken and died after a nervous breakdown is something Lutyens’ conscience would never quite be able to wash off.

It is a great pity that the statue of Lord Hardinge, New Delhi’s founder, was removed from beneath the Jaipur Column—for this city would not have seen the light of day without him—and that Lutyens’ still remains within Rashtrapati Bhavan.


Parallel Lines

For all their rivalry and the vicissitudes of fame there’s no question that Messrs Lutyens and Baker worked long and hard on the monumental project that was New Delhi. Surely they deserve memorialisation somewhere on the sprawling landscape of the capital? A couple of streets named after them perhaps?

Well, as it turns out, that honour was bestowed long ago. On an early map ‘Lay Out Plan of New Delhi’ from the papers of the legendary contractor Teja Singh Malik, both architects appear in uncomfortable proximity to each other.

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