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1931 January: 'New Delhi, the first impression' by Robert Byron

Robert Byron’s essay on the capital of India, New Delhi, prior to the cities official opening in February 1931

1.−The Preconceptions.

That New Delhi exists, and that, twenty years ago, it did not exist, are facts known to anyone who is at all aware of the British connection with India. It is expected, and assumed, that the representatives of British sovereignty beyond the seas shall move in a setting of proper magnificence; and that in India, particularly, the temporal power shall be hedged with the divinity of earthly splendour. To satisfy this expectation, New Delhi was designed and created. But that the city’s existence marks, besides an advance in the political unification of India, a notable artistic event, has scarcely been realized. Nor is this surprising in a generation which has been taught by painful experience to believe architectural splendour and gaiety inseparable from vulgarity. Of the city’s permanent value as an aesthetic monument, posterity must be the final judge. But to contemporaries, and in the darkness of contemporary standards, the event shines with a Periclean importance.

The surprise which awaits the traveller on his first view of the imperial capital will be proportionate to the fixity of his previous ideas about it. Primarily, his conception has been political. The very words “New Delhi” suggest a Canberra in Asia, a hiving of black-coated officials in a maze of offices. True, there have been photographs; but these have been either of the worse buildings, which were finished first, or, if of the better, of structures in disarray, confused with scaffolding, and offset by no proper lay-out. Nor can, nor ever will, any photograph convey the colour of the scheme and the part played by colour in the unity and proportion of the architecture. Again, the traveller may already have assessed the worth of the architects from their buildings in London. He may have recalled Britannic House at Finsbury Circus, the little bank abutting on St. James’s, Piccadilly, and the cenotaph in Whitehall, from the hand of Sir Edwin Lutyens; together with the Ninth Church of Christ Scientist, India House, and the new Bank of England, from that of Sir Herbert Baker. And he must confess that, whatever the merits of these buildings compared with those around them, judged by universal standards they display little distinction and no genius.

Finally, before he reaches Delhi, the traveller must necessarily have observed the scale and variety already employed by English enterprise to embellish the chief towns of India; and he must have found himself, in the process, not merely depressed, but tempted to regret our nation’s very existence. For it has been our misfortune to have impressed on the length and breadth of the country an architectural taste whose origin coincided with the sudden and complete enslavement of European aesthetics to the whims of literary and romantic symbolism. The nineteenth century devised nothing lower than the municipal buildings of British India. Their ugliness is positive, dremonic. The traveller feels that the English have set the mark of the beast on a land full of artistry and good example. Here and there, in the large commercial towns, a new dawn is breaking. But the traveller remembers anxiously that the greater part of New Delhi was designed before the War. Only in the unremitting abuse lavished on the new city by resident Englishmen and occidentalized Indians does a perverse hope seem to linger.

2.−The Reality.

With sad expectations, therefore, the traveller hires a motor, and drives out of Old Delhi, past the Pearl Mosque and the Fort. Dipping beneath a pleasant Neo Georgian railway bridge, he debauches on an arterial vista of asphalt and lamp-posts. A fiat country - brown, scrubby, and broken, over which the cold winds of the central Indian winter sweep their arctic rigours - lies on either side. This country has been compared with the Roman Campagna : at every hand, tombs and mosques from Mogul times and earlier, weathered to the colour of the earth, bear witness to former empires. The road describes a curve-the curve of a solar railway; and embarks imperceptibly on a gradient. Suddenly, on the right, a scape of towers and domes is lifted from the horizon, sunlit pink and cream against the dancing blue sky, fresh as a cup of milk, grand as Rome. Close at hand, the foreground discloses a white arch, a fabric replete with stone, whose height exceeds that of the new Underground Building in London by three feet. This is the threshold of the city.

The motor turns off the arterial avenue, and, skirting the low red base of this gigantic monument, comes t o a stop. The traveller heaves a breath. Before his eyes, sloping gently upward, runs a gravel way of such infinite perspective as to suggest the intervention of a diminishing glass; at whose end, reared above the green tree-tops, glitters the seat of government, the seventh Delhi, four-square upon an eminence dome, tower, dome, tower, dome, red, pink, cream, and white, washed gold and flashing in the morning sun. The traveller looses a breath, and with it his apprehensions and preconceptions. Here is something not merely worthy, but whose like has never been. With a shiver of impatience he shakes off contemporary standards, and makes ready to evoke those of Greece, the Renascence, and the Moguls.

The motor moves forward again. Beside the arch lie circular basins of water. In front, on either side of the gravelled way, run strips of park, grass, and trees, to the width of 189 yards each. The trees disclose gleams of other waters. These are water-ways, connecting with the basins by the arch, and continuing parallel with the central drive as far as the Great Place, a distance of a mile and a quarter. This central drive is known as the King’s Way. Up it the tall black lamp-posts still persist. Half way is a crossing road, off which, to the right, stand the facade and half a side of the Record Office. But there is no time to turn the head. The central group at the end begins to reveal itself; and with every detail its enigma and grandeur increase.

The eminence on which it stands, once known as the Raisina Hill, has been invested, from in front, with an artificial character by foundation walls of rich rhubarb stone; so that, from having been a gentle rise in the ground, it now pretends to the illusion of a portentous feat of building, as though its entire area, half a mile across, had been raised above the surrounding country by human effort. From this massive undercarriage rise the end facades of the two Secretariats, red to the first storey, white above. At either corner of each facade project pillared extensions, throwing heavy triangular shadows on the intervening walls. These shadows give depth and solidity to the buildings, and increase their character of entrance-lodges, on a huge scale, to the steeply rising roadway in between them. Over the centre of each facade stands a slender white tower; while from the central point of each whole building, a considerable way back, rise two companion domes of cream stone, set on tall bases of the same material picked out in red. These domes, surmounted each by a cupola, are shaped like those of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s, after the fashion et the High Renascence. From the cross-roads on the King’s Way they stand up outside, though lower than, the towers in front. Then, as the motor draws on, they gradually move inward, till the towers cut across them, and at length they reappear, diminished in height, on the inside.

The Secretariats, however, are but the ancillaries of a pivotal and more distinguished monument. For nearly 400 yards along the same, though now uplifted, axis as the King’s Way, their main bulks face one another, Il7 yards apart, and separated by invisible platforms, through which runs a broad gradient of asphalt in a red stone trough. At the top of this gradient, though evidently very distant, stands a column of white marble, suggesting the intervening level. And beyond this again appears another central dome, upheld, right and left, by a stupendous white colonnade, a furlong and a half in length, whose total extent is cut short by the converging perspective of the Secretariats.

This dome, a flat hemisphere of glistering metal supported on a great red and white plinth three times its depth and half again as deep as its own diameter, seems impervious to the laws of distance. From the middle of the King’s Way it appears to be neither behind the Secretariats nor in front of them. Enough that, in a symmetrical plan, it lies between them. For its character is so arresting, so unprecedented, so uninviting of comparison with known architecture, that, like a sovereign crowned and throned, it subordinates everything within view to increase its own state, and stands not to be judged by, but to judge, its attendants.

The Secretariats, remarkable buildings in themselves, exist only in relation to it, and inasmuch as they minister to its success. Its individuality, its difference from every dome since the Pantheon and particularly from the domes adjoining, lies in its intrinsic solidity. It has the character of a pure monument. Encircled with a narrow gallery, whose function is only to provide, by its blind shadow, a black and further solidifying variant to the red and white, it seems not to have been built, but to have been poured compact from a mould, impermeable to age, destined to stand for ever, to watch the rise of an eighth Delhi and a hundredth Delhi. Let the breath of destruction threaten all around; this it cannot penetrate. Such an expression of irrefragable permanence, of the monumental function transcending all considerations of adornment or utility, recalls the architectural intentions of Antiquity, of Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, and alone makes the first drive up the King’s Way an experience of instant and increasing pleasure.

As the motor approaches the Great Place, the colonnade beneath the dome gradually sinks below the level of the Secretariats’ platforms; so that the monument stands by itself, appearing to rise off the top of the asphalt gradient between them. It has receded now. Its top has sunk below the roof-line of the Secretariats. But the marble column stands out in front, to indicate the extent, half a mile in length, of the intermediate distance.

The pure whiteness of this column contrasts with the sandstone cream of the Secretariats and of the dome behind it, and still more with the burnt rosy red of their foundations and the dome’s gallery. These two sandstones, employed in all the chief buildings of New Delhi, have come from the same quarry. The contrast between them is intense; in fact the degree of this intensity has played an important part in determining the proportion of foundation to upper storey, and in reducing the weapons of architectural definition and emphasis to a minimum, throughout the city. But at the same time there is none of that glaring disunity displayed by Mogul buildings, where white marble of an entirely separate patina and luminosity is employed with the same red stone. For in New Delhi, the red and cream, being of the same texture, and each containing the tints of the other, seem to grow into one another, as they did in the earth.

In Mogul buildings, the marble becomes simply an electric decoration, an exquisite appliance. Here, the light is absorbed and refracted equally by both stones, and every building shares to some extent the quality of the central dome-as though it had been poured liquid from a mould and as though the red, being heavier, had sunk to the bottom. In both colours the stone has an exquisite freshness, bathing in light like the petals of a flower in dew. At the same time, the essential affinity of the two colours produces an air of strength and maturity, which attains, on a sufficient scale, to grandeur.

A mile and a quarter from the Arch, two low triangular flights of steps on either side of the King’s Way mark the rise to the Great Place, a rectangle with elliptical ends, 26t acres in extent, and lying across the axis of the main design. The middle is empty, save for the necessary traffic islands; so that nothing interrupts the view of the gradient between the Secretariats and the central dome above it. But at either end of the Place are set three fountains, each 240 feet in length and consisting of two circular sheets of water joined by an oblong on a slightly lower level. In each of these triple groups, the fountains are set at right-angles to one another, the centre one laterally, pointing outwards along the length of the Great Place, the other two parallel with the King’s Way and exactly in line with the flanking waterways, with which one of them actually connects, while its opposite number lies across the Place immediately beneath the end facades of the Secretariats.

The circular sheets at either end of the fountains are of different sizes: the larger placed outermost in each case, and sprouting a stone obelisk, altogether 30 feet high, from a double basin on a pedestal; the smaller and inner decorated only with a tiny curling jet. All six fountains are executed in the red stone, which their blown spray turns a rich rust colour. Finally, the ellipses of the Place are rounded off with curving rush-plaited railings of the same stone, 15 feet high, and finished, where radiating thoroughfares cut through them, with stone posts bearing stone lanterns As an urban space conceived in dressed stone, only the piazza of St. Peter’s can compare with the Great Place of New Delhi for spaciousness and economy of design.

I must here interpolate a personal experience. I had reached this point in my observations when a company of Scottish soldiers, heralded by bagpipes, marched through the stone railings on to one end of the Great Place, and threading past the three fountains reached a point between the Secretariats. Here they wheeled sharply to the left and went at a smart pace up the asphalt gradient in the direction of the central dome. The dramatic value of Scottish kilts and Scottish music in foreign countries is fully realized by the authorities, who always use it to give point to “forceful demonstrations”; nor is that value lessened by the presence of a khaki coal-scuttle on each man’s head. But in this setting, beneath this range of towering buildings multicoloured in the blue sky, amidst all this decorated space, the apparition of these troops defiling up that mysterious trough between the Secretariats towards the glowing dome beyond, their accoutrements flashing in the Indian sun, and only a crawling ox-cart to deflect the attention, was more than merely theatrical.

The emotion of time and circumstance, third dimension of true splendour, was evoked. The whole history of civilized man, of all his politics, empires, th rones, and wars, of all his effort to govern and be governed, followed in the soldiers’ wake. That the entire spectacle, men and buildings, was the symbol of English dominion, seemed merely incidental. But that the evolution of government could demand, and create, in its everyday course, such a spectacle, seemed to postulate an apotheosis of human order. Indian nationalists, should they see them, will detect a propagandist ring in these words, and will point my attention from gaudy display to the rights of man. To which it must be answered that beauty is infallible, and confers a measure of right on its creators, whatever their sins.

To the right of the Great Place lies a circular building, approximately 125 yards in diameter, and a fifth of that distance, or 75 feet, high. This amphitheatre is the Council Chamber. Its outer casing falls into three divisions : a red foundation, whence project various carriage-porches; a middle storey enclosed within a colonnade of heavy white stone pillars ; and above the cornice which they support, a small attic storey of white plaster, which is divided in two by the heavy shadow of another cornice. Finally, above the centre, protrude three quarters of an irrelevant wart -like cupola. The idea underlying this building is worthy and remarkable. But its execution has not been successful. The pillars, though in themselves well proportioned, are so placed, and are so numerous, as to appear unpleasantly thin, like the iron struts of a fender.

A building so squat in proportion t o it s area needs to satisfy the eye with an illusion of massive solidity, as though it were an outcrop of the rock beneath. Unfortunately, the colonnade produces precisely the opposite effect; while the attic storey, robbed of meaning by its cornice, appears to be merely a screen. In addition, the red foundation looks more like a red veneer than a heavy plinth such as the building demands, the red being carried neither high enough up nor far enough out.

It is perhaps unfair to stress the poverty of the Council Chamber in a preliminary survey, as it stands apart from the main design; and, considered as a companion to the whole rather than as a separate entity, it possesses certain merits. Its rotundity, while striking a note of pleasant unexpectedness, nevertheless prevents it from impinging on the symmetry of the general layout, as a square building, with its inevitably triangular shadows, must have done. It must be admitted that, in view of its posit ion, its unobtrusiveness is a major virtue. It remains now to ascend the gradient between the Secretariat s, and to resolve the mystery of the white pillar, of the central dome, and of the colonnade that was visible beneath it from the gravelled way. As the asphalt leads up between the walls of red stone, the enormous length of the opponent Secretariats is revealed. On either side, a great expanse of red and white wall is broken by four pillared extensions similar to those of the end-facades, and throwing similar triangular shadows. These extensions are placed in couples. Between each couple the main wall is thrust back into a broad recess broken by a tall Mogul doorway.

Above the doorway, the big egg-top domes are now revealed in their entirety. In front of the buildings, on the platforms through which the road has been carved, are gardens, squares of turf, and orange trees, which are broken, beneath the domes, by cruciform sheets of water. Their chief harvest is a crop of red stone lamp-posts in hexagonal hats. The roadway reaches the level of the platforms just before the middle of each Secretariat. Immediately in front, though still half a mile away, stands the Viceroy’s House and the Viceroy’s dome. Where the Secretariats end, a forecourt intervenes, a quarter of a mile long, revealing views of the surrounding country on either side. This is enclosed by a screen of tall iron railings, closely set on a red stone foundation and divided at intervals by solid square columns of the same material. The central gateway is flanked by stone horse-guard boxes, in which lancers mounted on black horses stand as motionless as their prototypes in Whitehall. On a broad space in the middle of the courtyard appears the white pillar, 100 feet high, known as the Jaipur column, and standing on a double base of red and white. On top of this column another 48 feet of ornament will cleave the sky-a floreated bronze pinnacle bearing a six-pointed star of glass, 15 feet in diameter.

On either side of the court run sunk drives, sloping down to a central point, then up from it, so as to show the foundation line of the guard-house at the end. Along their parapets stand red stone posts bearing twisted basket lanterns. The drives are flanked by strips of grass and water shaded by small trees. The gravel in the centre is of the same red as the stone. The whole court is raised above the surrounding country, and is supported by massive sunk walls of red stone, which run almost flush from the sides of the guard-house at the end. These are interrupted to allow the passage of lateral drives, which meet the others at their lowest point. The points of interruption are denoted by square gazebos of red stone capped with white hemispherical roofs. The Viceroy’s House, whose chief ornament is the central dome of the city already described, presents a colonnaded facade 500 feet in length. This is flanked by two projecting wings, whose facades, standing 140 feet in advance of the main body, are each 64 feet wide. The total length of the house is therefore 630 feet or 210 yards. The dome rises 170 feet from the courtyard, and 180 feet from the level of the surrounding plain.

Beneath the dome, a portico of twelve pillars, each 30 feet high, is approached by a stupendous pyramid of steps which splay out to meet the ground, thus increasing their perspective by an optical trick. This portico is slightly recessed. On either side of it, supported on the massive red foundation that runs all round the house stand pylonic blocks of masonry in couples, embellished with flat niches at the bottom and small windows, black and square, immediately beneath the cornice above. Between each of these couples is a black space, wider at the top than the bottom, and relieved at the sides by single columns, between which are placed diminutive statues of the King and Queen in white marble. This marble contrasts brightly with the black shadow behind, and also with the cream sandstone on either side. Below each of these statues, which are 23 feet oft the ground, lie circular pools framed in white marble; and on either side of these, tall pedestals, again of white marble, which are intended to receive four prancing horses.

Beyond the pylonic couples, in either direction, run colonnaded galleries, of somewhat less depth than the portico, till received by other pylons to meet the corners, whence the wings project from pylons at right-angles to the last. The insides of the wings, similarly colonnaded, end in couples of pylons similar to those which contain statues of the King and Queen; as also do their end-facades. The red base throughout is broken by a series of magnificently proportioned archways, black shapes, whose key-stones rise up to bind the narrow bases of the colonnaded galleries. But the red stone reaches only as high as the point, 14 feet up, whence springs the curve of the arch. Thence to the base of the colonnades is white; so, too, is all above. By this means the arches, unlike those of similar position in the Secretariats, bring the foundations into unity with the upper part and increase the value of the ratio between the two colours.

Above the colonnades and the portico runs a blind parapet, delicately finished with an imperceptible red inlay so as to meet the sky with decision, and at the corners continuing the convergent lines of the pylonic blocks. Beneath this parapet projects, to a distance of 8 feet, a chujja, a thin blade of stone shaped like a tin cooking-dish, and sloping downwards from a line of black and white dots at the base of the parapet. This chujja, whose underneath is decorated with a bold pattern of red, runs the whole way round the house, binding wings, pylons, colonnades, and blank walls, into a composite whole. That the building is a composite whole is its strongest feature. And the importance of the chujja cannot therefore be exaggerated. Without it the building would disintegrate into groups, would become a kind of stone encampment rather than a piece of architecture. But the chujja performs its work not only of itself, but by the agency of its black shadow, or, when the sun has changed position, by the light its top catches when all above and below it is in darkness. Without the most profound understanding of the manipulation of light and shade, no building in India can ever be successful. This understanding the classic builders of India, Hindu and Mohammedan alike, possessed in the highest degree. And the architect here has not hesitated to take his lesson from them.

The parapet above this admirable device is broken, at the corners and beside the portico, by diminutive cupolas, properly called chattris, which appear in couples, one above each of the sixteen pylonic blocks visible from the front. Only their tops, of heavily moulded red, capped with white and set on white bladelike chujjas, rise above the parapet; below, their bodies are indicated by a hollow break showing daylight. These chattris are very small and very severe. Their function is to define, not to decorate, the roof-line, and to suggest, with the utmost reticence, that a dome is to be uplifted.

They are not, however, the only additions to the roofline. From the centre of each parapet of the wings’ end facades, rises a stepped plinth of white stone, which supports a saucer, and above this, another saucer. This motive is repeated above the corners of the portico, on either side of the dome; though here the plinths are set back behind the parapet. The saucers are fountains. From the smaller a circular cascade descends into the larger. The engine to work them is concealed by the main flight of steps leading to the portico.

There remains the dome. Set back from the parapet, so as to be over the middle of the house and present a symmetrical effect from the sides, a square white base, rising well into the range of vision, supports a ponderous red circle. The corners of this base have been cut into narrow facets, which are continued upward into small blocks that point diagonally in-wards towards a hypothetical centre. But on the fronts of these the white only forms a stepped pattern; the corners and sides have become red. The tops of these blocks have scarcely begun their inward course before they are absorbed into octagonal corner turrets of red stone-octagonal, save that three sides and half two others are in their turn absorbed into the circular red plinili behind.

Both plinth and turrets are very squat and massive, and are further bound to one another at the top by a boldly projecting all-round moulding, which follows alike the circle and the swelling facets of the turrets with the most complete and satisfying uniformity. This brings the eye to a gallery whose red stone roof, sloping downwards, and thin as a sheet of iron, describes a similar course. This roof-chujja is supported on heavy bars of red stone, which stand out from the black shadow behind. Above it, each turret is carried to conclusion by a small white roof, a domical octagon capped with a white hemisphere. The circular central mass, into which these are absorbed like the turrets below them, now continues white, and is decorated, at the top, with a slightly projecting band of rush-plait pattern-a decoration which resembles the marks of a thumb-nail in close formation, and only serves to increase the general severity. Above this, well back, sits the dome on a heavy ribbon of red and white stone, which completes its hemisphere-a glowing copper . mass, later to be gilded with a bold pattern, and bearing, on its apex, two crown pieces and a twopenny-bit of white stone.

Such are the salient motives of the Viceroy’s House, as they resolve themselves after the first drunken sensation of pleasure has given place to rational thought. The building is remarkable for its gigantic size, its perfect proportion of mass and detail, its colour, and its ponderous adhesion to the earth. But its essential genius, its novelty, lies in the way these qualities have been brought to serve a taste in architectural fonn which pertains specifically to the twentieth century. For the whole house is constructed on a faintly pyramidical principle. The red foundation has actually a definite “batter.” Above this, the convergence of the perpendiculars, though seemingly continuous, is in reality obtained by a system of delicate steps and mouldings. Viewed from a distance, the convergent outsides indulge a curious and delightful opposition to the directly vertical pillars of the colonnades. But this effect, at close quarters, when it might become inharmonious, is mitigated by the sides of the pylonic blocks being actually, though imperceptibly, at successive right-angles to successive horizontal levels.

The feeling of movement in mass thus produced has found particular favour and widespread expression in the modern industrial age. It is an admirable quality, dynamic, expressive of growth and at the same time of solid union with the earth. But hitherto, except in Tibet, its interpretation has been so strictly industrial, so ruthless in its disregard of the graces of architecture, that even the best modern buildings, whatever their virtues of line and mass, invariably present a raw and stark appearance and smell, truthfully enough as a rule, of imprisoned clerks and the eternal pregnancy of machines.

But in the Viceroy’s House we behold this dynamic quality, while enfleshed with sufficient severity and on a sufficient scale to make it effective, combined with a scenic employ of colour, a profound knowledge of shadowplay, and the most sensitive delicacy of moulding, pattern, and ornament. Moulding, pattern, and ornament are rare; but where they exist, they do so only in relation to the whole; they help complete the dynamic quality; they never amuse, are never simply ornamental or reminiscent. At the same time the fountains are playing on the roof, and a metal hemisphere flashes in the sun. These tell us that our age, despite its physical enslavement by the machine and the mass, has again discovered that joy in the sensuous beauty of the world perpetuated by the works of the Italian Renascence. The Viceroy’s House at New Delhi is the first real justification of a new architecture which has already produced much that is worthy, but, till now, nothing of the greatest. It is remarkable, indeed astonishing, to remember that its design was completed nearly twenty years ago.

Since first turning up the King’s Way, the traveller has come two miles. Returning to the iron screen across the front of the courtyard, and afterwards perhaps ascending one of the Secretariats’ towers, he can now look back across the park and waterways to the great white Arch in the distance. On all sides radiate the avenues of the new city, lined with bungalows in spacious woody gardens, and carved into merry-go-rounds at points of intersection. Every thoroughfare conducts the eye to some more ancient monument, looming in grey silhouette from the horizon of the imperial plain. Even the great Pearl Mosque, four miles oft in the heart of the old city, has its approach, set at an angle of sixty degrees to the axis of the central design. Beyond the Arch, a hump of walls proclaims the Old Fort. A side avenue discloses the clustered domes of the tomb of Safdar Jang. Far away the Q’tab is visible, an extravagant chimney on the south horizon.

Dusk approaches, falling like a curtain. The lights come out, furlongs of gold dots, suffusing the sky with an electric blue that deepens to black. Stars complete the night, a powder of silver. Below, the dark earth seems as though its crust had been punctured with a million pricks to reveal an ocean of light within. The plan of the new city lies open as a page of print: a map of quivering gold points. An artist has planned it, the artist of the fountains on the Great Place and the Viceroy’s House. “Will it ever be finished?” I asked him five minutes’ later, warmed by a glass of milk punch. “You may have observed,” he replied, ” that London is not finished yet.”

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