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1951 April: 'Building with wit' by Nikolaus Pevsner

[ARCHIVE] Nikolaus Pevsner’s essay on the architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens, first published April 1951

Professor Pevsner here launches the venture which was referred to in January and March, of publishing regular articles of architectural criticism. The opportunity is provided by the recent memorial publication of the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens. This extensive survey raises a question that has been asked, and answered one way or the other, many times: was Sir Edwin Lutyens a great architect? The memorial volumes make it easier than it has been hitherto to give a reasoned reply. Easier-yet still not easy. For the paradoxes remain-the paradox of the builder of follies who was at the same time the architect of the common man, the paradox of the eccentric who achieved such remarkable worldly success, the paradox of the revivalist in whose work geometry is more insistent than in that of any living architect bar

Corbusier, the crowning paradox of the twentieth-century architect of prodigious gifts who contributed nothing whatsoever to the main stream of development in twentieth-century architecture. Discussing the Lutyens case in the light of the evidence presented by Messrs. Hussey and Butler, Professor Pevsner shows how these paradoxes may be resolved. His analysis of Sir Edwin Lutyens’s work is criticism on the same lines as the criticism of plays, books and pictures, which in other magazines plays so important a role in keeping the intelligent public interested and informed about the arts. It is badly needed in architecture too, if architectural issues are to be brought more fully within the compass of both specialist and layman.

I have been unfortunate in my first impressions of the work of Lutyens. When I came to England in 1930, I was full of unquestioning faith in the new style in architecture-my wife’s father had just moved into a house built for him with a flat roof and horizontal windows, and I was working on a course of lectures on the Development of Architecture from the” nineteenth into the twentieth century, a subject wholly unconsidered then amongst art historians in the German universities. The first two buildings by Lutyens which I saw were Grosvenor House in Park Lane and No. 68, Pall Mall, the one big, red and utilitarian, with unjustifiable bits of classical decoration round a few windows and classical stone-faced hats on the corners, high above the ninth floor, where nobody can see their details; the other tactlessly tall next to St. James’s Palace and the Marlborough House Chapel, with segment-headed and segment-footed windows suddenly breaking out on the second upper storey, in a rhythm different from all the other storeys, and with silly tricks in the detailing of the pilasters on the ground floor. I remember, these disappearing pilasters irritated me particularly, even more than the fact that an architect should still use pilasters and columns and pediments at all in a building of 1928.

In the meantime, thanks to the twenty intervening years, I do not find them silly any longer, and I know that there is more to Lutyens than belated classical revivalism. What is there to him? This is the moment to try and assess his qualities and his position in British architecture; for the long announced Lutyens Memorial has appeared, three folio volumes on his work and one quarto volume on his life, published by Country Life and Scribner’s with a biography of 600 pages by Christopher Hussey, 115 pages of analyses written by A. S. G. Butler, 338 pages of working drawings and 1,000 photographs. No English architect other than Wren has ever been recorded like this. Does Lutyens deserve such a magnificent display? Everyone knows the danger to the fame of a painter of too comprehensive a commemorative exhibition after his death. Is Lutyens being put into the same danger? Certainly not, if Mr. Butler is right and Lutyens is indeed ‘the greatest artist in building whom Britain has produced.’

But Mr. Butler, in his remarkably close and penetrating analyses of Lutyens’s buildings, is so enthusiastic that he sometimes provokes more than he convinces. Mr. Hussey, on the other hand, in his Life never loses his head, though he also has evidently been deeply impressed by Lutyens the man and the artist. His volume is a masterpiece, and one does not know what to admire most in it-the consummate tact with which he manages what had to be said, about his hero’s private life, the wisdom with which he places his work in relation to its period, or the sustained fervour which glows through all his pages and flashes up brightly where peaks are reached in the architect’s oeuvre.

Only Mr. Hussey’s peaks are not as a rule mine and even after a careful study of his book I found myself left with many an embarrassing doubt. How great was Lutyens? And how important in the history of architecture? Speaking as an historian, his importance in the development of European architecture seems to me without any doubt less than, amongst his British contemporaries, Voysey’s, and his originality less than Mackintosh’s. Yet there is so far no more than a small preliminary book in existence on MackIntosh (and that not in English), and no more than a small book in preparation on Voysey.

Leaving aside for the moment all questions of aesthetic achievement, one can say that the Lutyens Memorial has a right to be so much bigger, because ~ Lutyens’s work is so much bigger in total volume and in individual buildings, and because his success was so much bigger and maintained over so much longer a period.

So the question arises: Why was Lutyens so immensely successful? He was not the type necessarily cast for professional success, as Sir Herbert Baker was, ‘tall, manly, athletic, outwardly calm’ (in Mr. Hussey’s words), captain at cricket and football at his public school, and in later life outstandingly good on committees. Lutyens was the son of a retired army captain and an Irish girl: His father devoted his time to painting and hunting. His mother was busy trying to bring up fourteen children on little money. Edwin Landseer Lutyens was the eleventh child. He was born in 1869 (Voysey 1857, Baker 1862, Mackintosh 1868).

His education was ‘irregular and scrappy.’ At Sixteen he went up to the Royal College of Art to study architecture. He did not complete the course and, was articled in 1887 to Ernest George & Peto. Senior assistant at the time was Baker. Lutyens was lazy, disliked sketching, but had a knack of ‘quickly absorbing all that was best worth learning’ (Baker). He left the office after six months and set up in practice on his own. He was twenty years old then.

The credit of having discovered him belongs to Gertrude, Jekyll, the formidable garden-maker, ‘frightening but kind and wise’ says Mr. Hussey from experience. She commissioned Lutyens to design Munstead Wood, a house for herself. It was built in 1896, not his first building-he had done cottages, lodges and additions to houses before, and in 1896 claimed earnings of about £1,000 a year-but it was his first building of consequence.

In 1897, moreover, he married Lady Emily Lytton, daughter of the first Viceroy of India. It was the happy end of a romantic love-story, but it also meant connections in a society in which to be a protégé of Gertrude Jekyll was a valuable asset too. And while Baker’s success was due to a large extent to his ‘accommodating architectural conscience and keen sense of practical politics,’ and of course his sentimentality-Lutyens said of Baker that he made architecture ‘the handmaid of sentiment’ (Life, 285)-Lutyens’s line was to be the perennial enfant terrible.

How much of this was spontaneous, how much methodical will always remain doubtful. Mr. Hussey calls him ‘genial, whimsical, disconcertingly irreverent and facetious … habitually schoolboyish and often impish,’ Miss Sackville West ‘the most delightful, good-natured, irresponsible, imaginative jester of genius.’ His jokes never ceased, and ranged from the most atrocious puns to brilliant flashes of genius. He could ask a poor clergyman called Western at a Viceroy’s party at Delhi whether he was a relation of the Great Western, but he could also say that the Delhi buildings in their finished form after all the exasperating quarrels with Herbert Baker were his Bakerloo. Herbert Baker on his part found Lutyens’s humour, which he had liked when they both worked at Sir Ernest George’s, ‘wearisome in repetition, and less becoming to mature manhood.’

But in England the eccentric has as good a chance of social success as the strong, silent, efficient man. Still, it remains remarkable that eccentricity can be a success even in the territory of such material professional accomplishments as architecture. One can understand that in Lutyens’s early years, the years of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau and the picturesque cottage, eccentricity could pass for originality, the most desirable quality at the time. But later when Edwardian Palladianism and Classical Re-revival had replaced the Arts and Crafts, and when Lutyens designed in these accepted styles-is one to assume that his clients did not notice his most eccentric details?
The motive, I think, lies deeper. It is connected with the fascination wrought on the British more than any other race by the folly in architecture. Nor need the British be ashamed of that fascination; for to appreciate folly and a folly a degree of detachment is needed which is only accessible to old and humane civilizations. Sir Edwin Lutyens was without any doubt the greatest folly builder England has ever seen.

Castle Drogo beats Fonthill, the Drum Inn at Cockington beats Blaise Castle, and the Viceroy’s house at Delhi beats any other folly in the world. Castle Drogo was to be three times the size it finally assumed, and it is overwhelming as it now stands on the steep edge of Dartmoor. Besides, while Wyatt’s and Nash’s follies were put up in flimsy materials, for Lutyens only the best and most enduring was good enough. ‘The Viceroy,’ he wrote in 1913, ‘thinks only of what the place will look like in three years time, three hundred is what I think of’ (282).

How odd it seems to us, a mere twenty years later, that such self-confident displays of imperialism could have been made at all. Yet Lutyens himself was not an imperialist, as Baker for instance was. In fact he was not interested in politics at all. He disliked them. ‘Politics,’ he wrote, ‘ought to be included within the Corrupt Practices Act’, (269). A committee in his mind was ‘all sorts and kinds of horrible, ignorant and unsympathetic men’ (186), and a democratic government one ‘that can only work through compromise, leaving its conscience in the hands of accountants’ (380).

Not for him then the commissioning ministry or board of directors. His ideal client was the rich man, preferably self-made or at least not too distant yet in descent from the adventurous stage of self-madeness. And Lutyens was extremely, uniquely fortunate in working at the very last moment in British history when such clients were about. Just as he could complete his work at Delhi five minutes before closing time, so houses of the size of Castle Drogo, Marshcourt, Great Maytham, Nashdom Taplow, Temple Dinsley were only possible in that last Indian Summer of unashamed British prosperity before the First World War. A tendency towards the colossal in size seems to go with the mood of the eve of disaster. So it was at the end of Imperial Rome, so in the years of Louis XVI. But whereas Ledoux’s dreams of huge axial compositions for no utilitarian purposes ’ remained on paper, Lutyens’s actually rose in solid stone into the air of England and India.

Given the huge scale on which it was permitted to Lutyens to work, and given his universal success, it remains admirable that his work is never, or hardly ever, dead (I except the British Pavilion at Rome of 1910 and the British Embassy at Washington of 1930), as the contemporary campuses and civic centres of the United States so often are. This is no doubt due to two causes which seem at first to exclude each other, Lutyens’s elan vital and his immense care over details. The many pages of detail drawings in the Lutyens Memorial show clearly how meticulous a worker he was, and how the naughtiness of so many of his motifs is by no means the outcome of faith in accident. Lutyens admired the Norman Shaw of his later period, that is of Bryanston and Chesters (17)-Shaw had set an example for Lutyens of how an architect of immense picturesque gifts can in later life find a way to Palladio and Wren-but he objected to the manner in which at Chesters all details are ‘left go lucky beyond a point’ (120). Yet Chesters must have impressed him more than any other nineteenth century building.

Philip Webb he discovered in 1891, and also admired greatly. Voysey is nowhere mentioned in Mr. Hussey’s Life, although his influence on, say, Orchards seems to me beyond doubt-see the bay window with its unmoulded mullions and transomes (a Shaw motif originally) and the batter of the buttresses. Another influence worth considering is that of E. S. Prior on the plan of Papillon Hall with four wings projecting diagonally from a central core. The common source is of course again Chesters, but Lutyens’s solution is nearer Prior’s than Shaw’s. And Prior also possessed a liking for rather crazy primeval details which Lutyens shared.

But Papillon Hall of 1903 has got one feature which neither Voysey nor Prior would have introduced: the circular anteroom and the circular Basin Court with its colonnades. This introduction of motifs which seem to have nothing to do with each other, this playing-up of contrasts sometimes just to amuse, but sometimes also pour epater le bourgeois, is in my opinion one of the most characteristic features of Lutyens’s style. How he enjoyed such bits as the specially low-silled ‘crawling window’ in the nursery at Middleton Park, or the one Victorian window left unaltered when he converted Ashwell Bury, or those disappearing pilasters which annoyed me so much twenty years ago at 68, Pall Mall, and which also occur in the Midland Bank in Poultry, and even in the British Embassy at Washington, those pilasters which start innocently with Doric bases and then fade away in the close pattern of rustication or brick courses, until much higher up they suddenly reappear and end in correct capitals as if nothing had happened.

How he enjoyed adding in completely different styles to houses he had built himself- Crooksbury, the earliest of all his works, was originally in the Caldicott style of picturesque cottages (as Mr. Hussey calls it). The addition of 1899 was Lutyens’s first effort in a William and Mary, of Shaw derivation. At Folly Farm, on the other hand, the house of 1905- was neo-Georgian, the bold addition of 1912 Tudor with a vast steep roof and hugely battered piers. The entrance side of Homewood at Knebworth of 1901 (not illustrated in the Memorial) has a big classical doorway and weatherboarded gables above. Little Thakeham of 1902 is Tudor, but the hall has broad stone doorways towards the staircase with Gibbsian surrounds.

What made Lutyens so fond of this Palladian motif of blocks of alternating sizes for doors and window surrounds? It is due no doubt to the same delight in geometry as the circular room and the circular court at Papillon Hall. The square, the rectangle, the circle occur everywhere in his work. The voluptuousness of the long, swaying curves of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau and the single-minded dynamic intensity of the pointed arch of Gothic and Eastern tradition were equally abhorrent to him. When the Viceroy pleaded for pointed arches at Delhi instead of round-headed ones, because these would not be in harmony with the Indian past, Lutyens wrote: ‘God did not make the Eastern rainbow pointed, to show his wide sympathies’ (296).

His first conception of the focal monument for graveyards of the First World War in France was ‘a solid ball of bronze’ (373), and wherever one looks in the three volumes of plates of the Memorial, one is struck by elementary geometrical patterns-the squares of different materials in the Westminster Housing Scheme, the black and white marbles in the paving of entrance and staircase halls, the quadrant front of Gray Walls, the exactly semispherical domes of Delhi, the Midland Bank in Poultry and the British. Pavilion for the 1928 exhibition at Antwerp. This worship of geometry could in some later works lead to most complex and ingeniously thought out ratios of proportions. The memorial arch of Thiepval is as geometrically perfect as any Modulor-designed exercise of Le Corbusier. ‘In architecture Palladio is the game,’ wrote Lutyens in 1903 (121).

But where Lutyens’s geometry seems to be most successful is where he uses it not for the sake of perfection but for the sake of contrast and surprise. Thiepval and the Poultry facade of the Midland Bank reveal little of the best in Lutyens. For that you have to go to such early houses as Tigbourne Court of 1899. The contrast between the pertly upcurved front wall carrying two absurdly tall chimneys set diagonally, and the facade itself further back with its low Tuscan loggia and its sheer wall above with windows set wide apart and straight gables on top is irresistible. So is the geometry of the south front of Deanery Garden of 1899, that of the Tank Cloister at Folly Farm of 1912, and also that of the pools and fountains at Delhi, though here and even more, still later, at Liverpool cathedral the play with geometry gets dangerously near the continental jazz idiom of 1925-a curious entirely independent parallelism.

If I look for continental parallels to what is most valuable in Lutyens’s work, I find some similarity with Berlage (born 1856) and his Dutch successors, especially de Klerk (born 1884). Here is the same origin in picturesque traditions, the freedom of handling, the faith in elementary cubic forms, the occasional jazziness of detail, and also-and this introduces two more qualities essential to Lutyens’s character-the keen interest in a variety of materials and in craftsmanship. But whereas Berlage and de Klerk and then Dudok were led by their lusus geometricus to a complete renunciation of period ties, Lutyens’s art was petrified by the cold, never wholly relaxing grip of Palladianism.

As for variety of materials, one of Lutyens’s earliest buildings, a pair of loggias at Park Hatch, Hascombe, is described as of Bargate stone, Horsham slates, timber in the gables, and pavings of ironstone and of brick. Marshcourt is mainly of chalk, but has an admixture of stone, flint and brick. At 42, Cheyne Walk, a corridor is wallpapered with varnished sheets of The Times. As for craftsmanship, the otherwise not very interesting building at Magdalene College, Cambridge, has the hand-rails of its five staircases designed all completely differently, and with details challenging the skill of any craftsman. At the Midland Bank in Poultry every course of stone had to be 0.273 inch less in height than the one below. The variety of wrought iron balustrades to staircases is equally remarkable.

But Lutyens’s liking for delicate and transparent ironwork is characteristic not only of the fun he had with materials and their shaping by craftsmen, but also of the fun he had with space. The library steps at Campion Hall, Oxford, are one of the most endearing examples of this spatial fun. They get you up six steps as any old ladder, but are at the same time spatially and geometrically no less entertaining than a young person’s tricks in designs for children’s playgrounds are nowadays.

Lutyens’s handling of space has not in the past been sufficiently appreciated. The staircase at Little Thakeham is almost as ingenious with quite simple geometrical means as the staircases of the eighteenth century which we admire in Germany and Austria. Equally ingenious is the way in which at Ashwell Bury a staircase in a comparatively small well is made to look large. The vaulted corridors at Castle Drogo have a spatial force which Mr.Hussey rightly compares with Piranesi’s. No wonder that Lutyens on his first journey to Italy got excited about the staircases of Genoa. ‘The lavish space given away in staircases makes me sick with envy,’ he wrote in 1909 (197). If the architects of Genoa had seen the size of Lutyens’s staircases at Delhi ten or twenty years later, the envy would have been theirs.

England has never been particularly keen on ingenious or monumental stairs, and Lutyens’s are amongst the finest she has produced. The English reluctance to give staircases enough space is connected with the practical, pragmatic, utilitarian side of the national character. But Lutyens had no patience with the utilitarian, and if perfect architecture is defined as a blend of art and use, then Lutyens was certainly not a perfect architect. ‘Lut was not interested,’ says Nathaniel Lloyd, ‘in what held the building up or composed the core, heated or drained it …. The office dealt only in surfaces’ (493). This is why so often Lutyens’s buildings, in spite of all their good solid materials, seem unreal. The best of them are indeed too good to be true.

The Drum Inn at Cockington is the cottage straight out of the pantomime, Castle Drogo is a fairy castle, the Viceroy’s house a fairy palace, and New Delhi as planned by Lutyens a fairy city. No wonder he could not stick Geddes (‘he seems to have talked rot in an insulting way,’ 336). Lutyens was as immune against the social as he was against the structural aspects of architecture. Hence he believed only in axial, symmetrical ‘Beaux Arts’ planning and never considered the visual variety and intricacy resulting from functional planning, although his architecture looks so much as if he should have been able to appreciate picturesque layouts. But no-in the Royal Academy plans for London which were essentially his, he proceeded to duplicate Burton’s screen and Apsley House to get symmetry into the new roundabout at Hyde Park Corner, and to duplicate the Deanery of St. Paul’s to achieve the same result for the side wings to the left and right of the fac;ade of the cathedral. When Lutyens saw the Acropolis for the first time, he was disappointed. ‘The Parthenon has no relation to its site,’ he wrote, ‘no dramatic sense such as Romans had’ (539).

That disgruntled reaction to Athens after Rome is a familiar experience with travellers of untrained visual sense. With a distinguished architect it is curious. But it again helps to explain Lutyens’s great popular success. The Lutyens of the Delhi plan, the Viceroy’s house, Castle Drogo and the Drum Inn is indeed a laymen’s architect. His grandeur, his banality, his jokes-there was everything there to please the common man. ‘Directly you introspect, you may be sure you are wrong,’ he could write to Baker (181). Soane would not have written that, nor would Michelangelo.

Yet in his geometrical speculations he was clearly working along lines concealed from the layman, and it is they that betray the inner core of seriousness and intellectual effort in him. That is why Mr. Butler in his notes to the folio volumes of the Memorial gives so much space to them and analyses them so patiently. Lutyens’s supreme faith was in the divina proporzione. He did not really care for the Empire, except inasmuch as it was a big client. Nor did he believe with his whole personality in God. ‘There is that in art which transcends all rules-it is the divine,’ he wrote to his wife in 1907. ‘If only the nations would go for beauty with their whole resource and energies … the millennium would be ours! ! .. .’ (140).

In such words he seems to be transported far above the conception of architecture as a game to be played with gusto. Yet the two seemingly contradictory . aspects of Lutyens’s mind are au fond one thing. They are both expressive of art for art’s sake, or rather architecture for art’s sake. Now architecture for art’s sake is for good reasons the bete noire of the twentieth century architects of all schools. It is therefore quite conceivable that, if once again in the distant future a period may dawn in which the architect can afford to, and will want to, be an artist as elevated above social and structural interests as ‘Michel’ angel’ divino,’ Lutyens’s wisdom will be recognized as effortlessly as I recognize his folly. In his serious mood he is so completely divorced from all that architects of the last fifty years have striven for, that a balanced judgment of his place in history is perhaps impossible. I am fully aware of that. All I can claim for these pages is that they have emphatically not been written to debunk but to arrive at a judgment at least not consciously biased.

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