Lutyens’ popularity was undoubtedly down to the ease with which he manipulated architectural signifiers of wealth and taste
Edwin Landseer Lutyens’ reputation has not so much ebbed and flowed over the years as gone through a huge tidal range. Lauded during his lifetime, his legacy drifted like a ghost through the decades immediately after his death in 1944. Dismissed by Pevsner – who said: ‘for the first forty years of the 20th century, no English name in Architecture need be mentioned’ – Lutyens’ country houses for the wealthy Edwardian bourgeoisie must have appeared staggeringly irrelevant to postwar Modernist architects. And his larger, public commissions such as Viceroy’s House in New Delhi or his work for the Imperial War Graves Commission represented the bygone products of the British Empire.
His rehabilitation coincided inevitably with the rise of Postmodernism. Arguably his most important champion in this was Robert Venturi, who included a number of Lutyens’ projects in his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Venturi’s ‘gentle-manifesto’ argued for the full range of spatial and formal effects available to architecture and against the reductive orthodoxy of mainstream Modernism. With its rich allusions, spatial ambiguity and playfulness, Lutyens’ work was an exemplary model. In the UK, his reputation received a significant boost with the 1982 retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, though Piers Gough’s full-on exhibition design – which involved wallpapering the Hayward’s Brutalist interior and inserting full-scale chunks of Lutyens’ buildings – might have enraged as many as it turned on.
‘The reworking of familiar elements, the surreal disjunctions, the interest in manipulating both spatial and stylistic archetypes are all classic Lutyens’
Lutyens’ early life is well documented. He was born in 1869, the 10th of 13 children. He suffered from rheumatic fever as a child and was educated largely at home. His architectural awakening has long been the subject of mythology, an idyllic childhood spent cycling the Surrey countryside sketching old houses. These he supposedly traced onto glass with pieces of soap, an ingenious invention, or cheating, depending on your point of view. He studied architecture at South Kensington School of Art (now the Royal College of Art), but only for a couple of years, after which he joined the office of Ernest George in 1887, where he began a friendly rivalry with Herbert Baker, a friendship that ultimately foundered during their collaboration on New Delhi.
In George’s office, Lutyens was aloof and seemingly already convinced of his own talents. He didn’t stick around long. He began his practice in 1888, receiving his first private house commission – Crooksbury, in Surrey. This began a long run of house designs that took his beloved Surrey vernacular and fed it through an architectural mincer. Lutyens borrowed the basic elements of this architecture – big, barn-like roofs, dormer windows, half timbering and soft-red brickwork – and refashioned them into something much more formally ambitious. Increasingly he mixed vernacular elements with the Classical, a mash-up that had mildly surreal and disorientating effects. At Homewood – the house he designed for his mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess of Lytton, on the Knebworth estate in Hertfordshire – he inserted a Classical villa into the middle of a vernacular cottage, stripping one away at various places to reveal the other.
Lutyens’ popularity was undoubtedly attributable to the ease with which he manipulated these architectural signifiers of wealth and taste. The Classical elements communicated the cultural aspirations of his clients, while the vernacular ones provided a sense of history, albeit a fabricated and illusory one. This instant history reached a peak of inventive fantasy in the castle Lutyens designed for Julius Drewe on Dartmoor. Drewe was a self-made grocery millionaire who purchased a Devonshire village, on the spurious grounds that it was his ancestral home, and commissioned Lutyens to design him a suitably baronial pile. The result was Castle Drogo, officially the last castle to be built in England, a vast granite fortress looming over the moors below. Everything about the project was preposterous. Lutyens had a full-size wooden model built on the site to make a point about its composition. Drewe insisted – against his architect’s advice – that the walls be solid stone (like a proper castle, he said) rather than cavity construction, with the result that they leaked like a sieve. Inside it is mostly circulation with an epic staircase that is like a vision from a Piranesian dream.
Lutyens’ most important professional relationship was with Gertrude Jekyll, the eminent horticulturist and gardener who hired him to design her own house – Munstead Wood – in 1896. This began a profound collaboration where Jekyll’s subtly formalised cottage gardens and Lutyens’ equally formalised country houses worked in perfect harmony, together summoning up a dreamy Arcadian idyll of long summer afternoons, bees buzzing, foxgloves gently swishing and always honey for tea.
The zenith of their achievement together was undoubtedly Deanery Garden in Sonning, an extraordinary spatial and material tour de force. A small door in a brick wall running along the village high street, leads in, then out and then back inside the house before exiting through an arched doorway that is also partly a chimney and into a garden of staggering formal control. Steps go up and down in converse and convex semi-circles, criss-crossed by axes that align with the house’s internal plan. Lutyens’ formal wit and Jekyll’s lush planting stop the whole thing from being pompous or staid. Instead it takes its place alongside Alice in Wonderland as an example of hallucinatory English pastoralism. Fittingly enough, it is now owned by Led Zeppelin’s former axe-meister, Jimmy Page.
Spatially Lutyens’ houses are extraordinarily rich. Even the boring ones – of which there are few – contain something that wakes you up. They abound in tricks and illusions. Axial routes end in blank walls or mirrors. Symmetries are set up only to be undermined. Hidden doors open out of fireplaces and balconies burst into interior spaces. Sometimes the insides are detailed like outsides (as at Little Thakeham) or the outsides look like something they aren’t (as at Nashdom). Lutyens loved surprises and often hid his houses off-axis, so they aren’t seen until the last minute (Homewood, again) or flipped them around so that the front turns out to be the back (Greywalls, Folly Farm).
Lutyens also designed some great public buildings. Britannic House in London’s Finsbury Circus is a beautiful curving crescent, ‘a great drum roll of columns’ as Ian Nairn described it. His offices for Country Life in Covent Garden are a Mannerist version of what was he called his ‘Wrenaissance’ manner. Country Life was to prove one of his most important clients. The magazine published many of his houses and the proprietor Edward Hudson commissioned him no fewer than three times. None of which increased his stock as a radical architect, but it did demonstrate his modern flair for publicity.
His most ambitious building was to have been the Roman Catholic Liverpool Cathedral designed in 1932, a vast stone edifice drawing on the monumental classicism of his First World War memorial at Thiepval, in northern France. The advent of the Second World War stopped the cathedral at ground level, leaving his bizarre Mannerist crypt lurking below Frederick Gibberd’s postwar replacement. Next to Lutyens’ vision, Gibberd is pretty thin gruel.
‘Lutyens’ genius was to combine his ability to manipulate found elements with a profound sense of the geometric and proportional principles that underlie great architecture’
Lutyens’ private life was less happy. His marriage to Emily Lytton was by all accounts a somewhat miserable one. She proposed to him, but following the birth of their five children, wrote him a letter stating her wish to be celibate from then on. Emily was a theosophist and a suffragette, whose intellectual beliefs must have gone over the head of the undoubtedly conservative and reputedly rather childish Lutyens. His sense of humour veered from witty to puerile and he produced charming sketches and cartoons for his children and clients.
Like most architects he was a workaholic who feared the projects would dry up at any minute. He was perennially worried about money and seemed to have taken on every conceivable job offered to him. Recently I stumbled across a number of his projects in a tiny Somerset village: a drinking fountain, a war memorial, a church plaque and a formal row of yew trees in the churchyard. They don’t appear in books of his work, merely minor details from an extraordinarily productive and creative life.
Lutyens’ ripeness for rehabilitation depends on how much you divorce architecture from its social programme. Aside from some honourable mentions, including his excellent Battenberg-checked Page Street social housing in Pimlico, his work was undoubtedly the product of some dubious ideology. But it is formally brilliant and endlessly inventive, reconciling a desire for domestic comfort with the highest artistic ambition. And you can learn a lot from it.
The Belgian architect Kersten Geers has written about the influence of Lutyens on the contemporary practice of De Vylder, Vinck, Taillieu. Though stylistically poles apart, Geers defines in DVVT’s work a methodology analogous to that of Lutyens. The reworking of familiar elements, the surreal disjunctions, the interest in manipulating both spatial and stylistic archetypes are all classic Lutyens. Geers removes the social context and reveals a methodology that has resonance and usefulness today. It is not what you borrow, but how you borrow it. This is true, but Lutyens’ genius was to combine this ability to manipulate found elements with a profound sense of the geometric and proportional principles that underlie great architecture.
This piece is featured in the AR’s April 2018 issue on Rethinking the rural – click here to purchase a copy