The variations in Lutyens’ critical standing provides an interesting sidelight on the history of the fluctuating fortunes of the Modern Movement in Britain
Originally published in AR November 1981, this piece was republished online in April 2018
In his Address to Students in 1959, the President of the RIBA, Basil Spence, dared to ‘stick my neck out now and make a prediction. I think that Lutyens will come back into favour in the future. He has been under a cloud since his death, but I think there will be a gradual coming back to the appreciation of this very great man’. In the year of the Lutyens Exhibition, with the BBC filming his work and with four new books about the man and his buildings on the shelves and more promised, Spence’s remarks may not seem especially percipient, but the renewed proposal to mount a major exhibition encountered opposition and it should be recalled that the attempt to celebrate Lutyens’ centenary in 1969 was, simply, a flop – the time was not right. The reputation of most artists seems to suffer eclipse in the years immediately following their deaths, but in Lutyens’ case, the rise, fall and rise again of his critical standing also provides an interesting sidelight on the history of the fluctuating fortunes of the Modern Movement in Britain.
The story of the rapid rise to fame of the young Lutyens in the 1890s is well known. With a series of superb Romantic vernacular houses to his credit, Lutyens enjoyed a considerable reputation by the first years of the new century and in the 1920s he was a national figure. His fame owed much to exposure in and encouragement by the magazine Country Life. Gertrude Jekyll was the gardening correspondent and she introduced her young protégé to the founder and editor, Edward Hudson, who became a lifelong friend. Hudson commissioned Lutyens to design him a house – Deanery Gardens – and premises in Covent Garden for the magazine. Subsequently he asked Lutyens to alter two further houses for him – Lindisfarne and Plumpton – and he went out to India in 1931 to see the inauguration of New Delhi and was seen to be near tears, muttering ‘Poor old Christopher Wren could never have done this!’. Country Life published Lawrence Weaver’s Houses and Gardens by E. L. Lutyens, RA in 1913 (reprinted in 1914, 1925, 1981) and the connection with the firm was not terminated by the architect’s death, for it was Country Life which published the superbly produced Lutyens Memorial volumes in 1950, by Christopher Hussey and A. S. G. Butler.
Lutyens, indeed, became something of a monopoly for Country Life. It did not matter that the architectural journals at first gave him rather less coverage, for Country Life introduced his work to potential clients rather than other architects. The AR, founded in the same year as Hudson’s paper, did not publish Lutyens’ work, and the directors later lamented that they did not take him up. This omission was, however, magnificently redeemed when Robert Byron was commissioned to write and to illustrate a whole issue of the magazine on New Delhi: the result, published in January 1931, remains one of the most perceptive and eloquent tributes to Lutyens’ genius.
‘With a series of superb Romantic vernacular houses to his credit, Lutyens enjoyed a considerable reputation by the first years of the new century and in the 1920s he was a national figure’
In that same year, 1931, Lutyens published an article in Country Life on ‘What I think of Modern Architecture’: not much, in fact. The New Architecture seemed to him to betray the humane standards and traditions he revered and he had little interest in new materials or in architecture as an answer to identifiable social problems. He concluded that ‘It is this kind of haphazardness, lack of grammar, inconsequence, that I find disturbing in much modern architecture. These adventurous young men thrill me tremendously and all my sympathies are with them. But good architecture needs more than bright ideas, and by my traditional standards most modern buildings seem to me to lack style and cohesion, besides being unfriendly and crude’.
It was Lutyens’ essential sympathy for the aspirations of the young, combined with his wit and vitality, which may explain why he never became a villain for the MARS Group and the devotees of the Modern Movement, as did such remote ‘traditionalists’ as Sir Reginald Blomfield and Sir Herbert Baker. Furthermore, he was of too great a stature to dismiss and his architecture, increasingly dominated by geometry, clearly contained lessons which transcended the partisan battles about style; as Sir John Summerson remembers, ‘The fact is we were always awed by this man of genius’.
The outbreak of war effectively ended Lutyens’ practice and the new mood, of austerity and collective national purpose, rapidly made his earlier work recede into history. This mood was well caught by a leader in The Architects’ Journal in 1943 reviewing the strange slim biography of Lutyens by Robert Lutyens – containing an elaborate explanation of Lutyens’ use of geometry by a system called the ‘armature of planes’ which the author’s father complained was quite beyond him. ‘With our minds and our efforts fixed upon realities, both material and cultural, we must, for the sake of the future, appreciate the great function fulfilled by Sir Edwin Lutyens. His work provided a catharsis – a complete fulfilment of the dreams of a whole generation of architects, whose last creative days ended abruptly and for ever in September, 1939. Lutyens has summed up the best of the old world for us and has thus left us unrepressed by frustrated desires, free to concentrate on building the new’.
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In the same year, 1943, however, the AR published an article by Lionel Brett (subsequently Lord Esher) entitled ‘The Cyma and the Hollyhock’ which pursued an unfavourable comparison of Lutyens with Frank Lloyd Wright in their respective contributions to making a modern architecture – an argument already suggested by Henry-Russell Hitchcock in 1929 and one which subsequently would be repeated by several other writers. Brett compared Gledstone Hall with Falling Water: ‘They started level… (but) to turn from Lutyens to Wright is to experience a wrench so sudden that one can hardly believe that they are contemporaries’. (they were not: Wright, who lied about his age, was two years older). Meanwhile the AJ reported Osbert Lancaster’s not unreasonable opinion of the Royal Academy plan for London with which Lutyens was very much involved in his last years: ‘… not unlike what the new Nuremberg might have been had the Fuhrer enjoyed the inestimable advantage of the advice and guidance of the late Sir Aston Webb’.
Sir Edwin Lutyens died on New Year’s Day 1944, in drab, depressed, blitzed London; his Surrey houses of the ‘90s and the sunny world of Miss Jekyll could not have seemed more remote. ‘Lutyens absent, the architectural scene is colder. December fog shrouds the facades of Brittanie House, as it has covered already the Corinthian epics of Cooper, Blomfield’s sturdy Doric, and all the old grey and black of Victorian London. A whole age has receded and its last monarch, Lutyens the magnificent, has resigned the sceptre’ wrote John Summerson (anonymously) in the Architect and Building News, eloquently reflecting the universal feeling that a very great man had died and that a whole age had passed away.
‘The death of Lutyens is a solemn event, for he was a great architect. Fertility of imagination, capacity to command the realisation of big conceptions, intuitive grasp of the abstract, spatial aspects of architecture – all these he possessed in such a degree that neither lapse of time nor change of fashion are likely to steal the laurels with which we, his contemporaries, crowned him. Indeed, if the rancour of reaction could have belittled such a man it would have done so already, for he lived to stand in the twilight of the Gods, with the burning City of 1940 for a back-cloth and the leitmotivs of modernity signalling the fall of the academic curtain’.
‘The New Architecture seemed to him to betray the humane standards and traditions he revered and he had little interest in new materials or in architecture as an answer to identifiable social problems’
It took a few more years for the rancour of reaction to express itself among a younger generation who, during the war years, were busy taking over positions of power and ensuring the victory of the Modern Movement revolution. This state of affairs was hinted at in the obituary in the AJ, again written anonymously by the ubiquitous Summerson: ‘There is, of course, no successor to Lutyens, and his death brings grim clarity to the architectural situation. Others will succeed to his honours but architecture does not now proceed dynastically. The Great Academician no longer represents leadership in the profession. Even Lutyens, great as he was, had long ceased to be in any sense a leader; the younger half of the profession prefers to look in any direction but towards Burlington House for inspiration and encouragement, and now the rift is more distinct than ever. Yet there is not the slightest doubt that Lutyens’ achievement will retain the precedence accorded to it by even the most radical…’
The obituary in The Builder was contributed by Sir Albert Richardson and, as he was a near contemporary of Lutyens, a slight vein of pessimism runs through his perceptive tribute, for the future was uncertain for his own traditional approach to architecture: ‘Sir Edwin Lutyens ranks as an unswerving romanticist who lived on in an age of realism, one convinced of his mission to create buildings of charm. Therefore, in some measure his career is unique … However the newer generation may differ as to the category in which Sir Edwin’s work should be placed, the admission must come that as a romanticist he ranks among the greatest, perhaps, in apostolic descent from Wren … Sir Edwin Lutyens will be resuscitated by posterity as a genius who flourished at a time when Europe was devastated by two appalling wars. His work will stand as a concrete statement of conditions of life at a time when the whole social system was in transition. His career will appeal as that of a wistful humorist weighing his art in the romantic balances, not without hope…’
A more cautious note was sounded in the same paper by H. V. Lanchester: ‘Despite his geniality and attractive social instincts, he was not in close sympathy with the general body of the architectural profession as he set little value on qualities less definitely artistic than his own … it may yet be doubted if the highly enthusiastic comments which have appeared in the popular Press can be maintained as historically justifiable. When we call to mind such architects as Chambers and Cockerell the phrase “the greatest figure in British architecture since Christopher Wren”, and others of similar purport, may well be considered as epithets of doubtful validity, and a verdict which would have been better left to a future generation to pronounce’. – but it should be remembered that Lanchester had been outmanoeuvred by Lutyens when he had tried to acquire the job of planning New Delhi.
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The longest and most interesting tributes to Lutyens were provided by H. S. Goodhart-Rendel and, as might be expected from such a writer, they were critical, incisive and illuminating. In the Journal of the RIBA Lutyens’ individualism and uniqueness was stressed: ‘That Lutyens’ originality, invention, sensitiveness, and skill, were outstanding cannot I think be questioned, and these qualities in an artist are those that dazzle the most. He was always opposed to the school of architects that proclaims itself Modern, recognising in them a romanticism not genial, as his was; and self-deluded, which his was not. He had the Renaissance (and indeed the Victorian) artist’s exhibitionism, imposing his own artistic personality in season and out of season; and the personality was one that generally received a warm welcome. Whether by the reality of his buildings or by their photographic illustrations he gave to thousands of his generation happy dreams, and dreams were what they needed. He was a magician, a spell-binder, and few of us have not been in thrall to him’.
In the A&BN, Goodhart-Rendel described how Lutyens’ Surrey vernacular had first seduced him and how later, as the aspiring architect became aware of the more rational, practical side of architecture, the dream faded – just a little. ‘The nostalgic-sentimental treatment of neo-Classical material is a thing that either you like or you do not. Personally I care for it so little that when Sir Edwin’s fancy took this turn – as Norman Shaw’s had before him – my admiration for his supreme skill had as time went on a great deal to contend with. My dream days were over, I was awake to the spectacle of my god no longer haunting his woods but being rather unblushingly Pan-whimsy in the market place. But his deity remained…’ Never one to repeat conventional judgements, Goodhart-Rendel asserted that ‘Nothing is more symptomatic of the sentimental aimlessness of our criticism than the inordinate reverence we now pay to the architectural production of Wren. To love the memory of Wren as Sir Edwin Lutyens loved it is natural enough – he was a brilliant and most attractive Englishman who turned upon architecture the full powers of an ingenious and provocative mind… But if he was a great architect, as practically all Englishmen and practically no foreigners believe, he was so in virtue of his one outstanding ability, the sculptor’s capability of making beautiful shapes. Sir Edwin had this capability also’, but, nevertheless, ‘I always feel that there has been a certain amount of bally-hoo about the Cenotaph, and that the extraordinary exquisiteness found in it by many people exists chiefly in their imaginations. But it is a perfectly elegant gracious thing, appropriately simple and serious; and the living architects are few who could be counted upon to produce its peer’.
Goodhart-Rendel also managed to suggest in words that compelling, extraordinary, almost absolute rightness in Lutyens’ work which can leave one speechless – as the architect would have wished – in admiration as he continued that ‘The dome of the Viceroy’s House, also, has a suavity that must come from a rare subconscious perception of imponderables, and in many doorways, chimneypieces and bits of furniture of Lutyens’ design one meets the sudden unanalysable felicity that makes one catch one’s breath’.
‘Lutyens was of too great a stature to dismiss and his architecture, increasingly dominated by geometry, clearly contained lessons which transcended the partisan battles about style’
A year later, in February 1945, Goodhart-Rendel lectured to the RIBA on Lutyens, and his published paper remains one of the most balanced, objective and perceptive accounts written about his work. Conscious of Lutyens’ debt to the tradition of the Gothic Revival, to Street and to Ernest George, Goodhart-Rendel put his buildings into context and was not sparing of criticism of his later lapses, such as Grosvenor House which has always been an embarrassment to Lutyens’ admirers: ‘It is always possible to hope that their worst features were due to collaborators and not to himself – but for so individual an artist as him any method of execution by proxy is in itself pregnant with disaster’.
In the discussion after the lecture, several speakers wondered what Lutyens’ future reputation would be. Hubert Worthington asked ‘to make a plea for hero worship amongst young architects. Since the last war, it seems to have vanished out of the life of our younger and rising generations’ (had he never heard of Le Corbusier?) and Edward Maufe thought that ‘It does seem extraordinary that in spite of the spirit of youth in Lutyens’ work, the magic in it does not appear to be appreciated by the youth of today. It may be because we are standing too near to him…’ and the lecturer summed up by saying that ‘there has to be a pause at the moment before Lutyens’ place is really understood. It is quite true that the very young do not like the particular sort of food, and do not know the best and the worst in it, and group Lutyens with numbers of people whom they think just like him, just as they group Norman Shaw with “Norman and Shaw and All That”. But people like Lutyens and Shaw get eventually their proper place… There is no one who would not have lived and died for Street in his own day, and his work is gradually coming to the front again after a long period of being unappreciated. I hope that such a period will not come for Lutyens’ work, but even it does I am sure that his fame will jump up again at the end of it’.
Earlier, Goodhart-Rendel had lamented that Lutyens ‘seems to have left behind him a grey world, full of grim architectural Puritans on the one hand and gentleman-like architects who do the done thing on the other. He took Shaw’s place, but who is to take his?’ and it may well be that these ‘gentleman-like architects’ exaggerated the indifference of the young and projected on to Lutyens’ posthumous reputation their doubts and fears about their own futures. Harold Falkner, who had followed Lutyens building vernacular houses in Surrey, wrote to Christopher Hussey in 1953 that ‘Of course no-one gives two hoots for Lut now thanks to the leaders on architectural thought (of which you must count yourself as one), the skylon and Coventry cathedral are the present vogue’ while in 1951 Geddes Hyslop, a younger architect, considered that ‘Inevitably the reputation of Sir Edwin Lutyens is at a low ebb. To many under the age of 40 he probably seems a skilful old reactionary, who at the most was the best sort of a contemporary bad bunch’.
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Yet Hyslop was reviewing the greatest publishing tribute ever paid to an English architect other than Wren, the Lutyens Memorial Volumes: three large folios of photographs, drawings and architectural analysis by A. S. G. Butler and a quarto Life by Christopher Hussey, arguably the finest architectural biography written in the English language. All four magnificently produced books were available in 1950 for a mere 25 guineas (£26 · 25; today their second-hand value is said to be approaching a thousand pounds). The reviews published of the Lutyens Memorial reveal something of the contemporary state of his reputation. John Betjeman was enthusiastic in the pages of Country Life – who had published the books; John Summerson was more sober – but still enthusiastic – in the RIBA Journal: ‘It is, on the whole, the most sterling tribute that could possibly be paid to Lutyens that, so soon after his death, at a time when events have abruptly closed the age to which he belonged, it should have been possible to write about him a work which is not only comprehensive and factually authoritative, but alive and inspiring’.
Significantly, however, the AR gave the books to an author less likely to be swayed by the charms of English eccentricity but one who would subject Lutyens’ achievement to the straitjacket of German historicism: Nikolaus Pevsner, whose long article, ‘Building with Wit’, was prefaced by the question he tried to answer: ‘was Sir Edwin Lutyens a great architect?… 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 a 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 twentiethcentury architect of prodigious gifts who contributed nothing whatsoever to the main stream of development in twentieth century architecture’ and, of course, to the apologist for the totality of the International Style, the final paradox was Lutyens’ greatest sin.
Pevsner began by recalling how maddened he was by Lutyens’ newest, Classical work when he first arrived in England in 1930: ‘full of unquestioning faith in the new style in architecture’. One of the first two buildings he saw was No 68 Pall Mall, ‘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’. Yet Pevsner knew well the importance and quality of Lutyens’ earlier vernacular houses from their coverage in Hermann Muthesius’ Das Englische Haus (1904-05) and while he remained convinced that Mackintosh and Voysey were more significant in the development of European architecture, he could not fail to be impressed by Lutyens’ achievement. As an outsider, Pevsner was able to wonder how Lutyens’ eccentricity – in both life and architecture – could achieve such success. The answer, he thought, ‘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; to appreciate folly and a folly a degree of detachment is needed which is only accessible to old and humane civilisations. Sir Edwin Lutyens was without doubt the greatest folly builder England has ever seen. Castle Drago beats Fonthill, the Drum Inn at Cockington beats Blaise Castle, and the viceroy’s house in Delhi beats any other folly in the world’.
‘The outbreak of war effectively ended Lutyens’ practice and the new mood, of austerity and collective national purpose, rapidly made his earlier work recede into history’
Pevsner was deeply impressed by Lutyens’ craftsmanship and skill, by his precision and feeling for geometry, and in particular by his handling of space, while remaining irritated by much of the whimsy. Pevsner, indeed, presents us with a paradox quite as much as Lutyens: the architectural critic whose sensitive perceptions are at odds with his dogmatic theoretical approach, for he had to continue to believe that ‘whereas Berlage and De Klerk and then Dudok were led by their lusus geometricus to a complete renunciation of period ties, Lutyens’ art was petrified by the cold, never wholly relaxing grip of Palladianism’. In the end, Pevsner’s conclusion was interestingly equivocal: ‘Now architecture for art’s sake is for good reasons the bête 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’ angelo divino”, Lutyens’ wisdom will be recognised as effortlessly as I recognise his folly. In his serious mood he is so completely divorced from all that architects of the last 50 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’.
Nikolaus Pevsner’s influence on Lutyens’ reputation has, in fact, been the result of sins of omission rather than commission. Although his buildings, both early and late, are included in the many volumes of the Buildings of England, Lutyens was omitted entirely from Pevsner’s two seminal text-books: Pioneers of Modern Design (1936 &c) and An Outline of European Architecture (1943 &c). Other historians of modern architecture have been more generous and more objective. Lutyens receives fair coverage in the two volumes of Arnold Whittick’s European Architecture in the Twentieth Century (1950, 1953) and the great American apostle of the International Style, Henry-Russell Hitchcock has never been able to dismiss Lutyens although being deeply troubled by his move from Surrey Vernacular to the Grand Manner, which is seen as retrogressive. This has become the orthodox Modern Movement view of Lutyens and it was one held by Voysey, who believed that had Lutyens not led other young architects towards Classicism, England might have developed a sound – craft based – modern architecture of her own.
In his 1929 book Modern Architecture: Romanticism and Reintegration, Hitchcock identified the villain in the story: ‘Lutyens surrendered completely to revivalism in building Heathcote, Ilkley’, but he remained enchanted by Deanery Gardens, ‘the finest house of the New Tradition. It is surely one of the finest pieces of traditional craftsmanship produced in the twentieth century’. He had not changed his opinion three decades later, for in his magisterial history of 1958, Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Hitchcock wrote of Lutyens that ‘In his finest early houses, such as Deanery Gardens at Sonning of 1901, he rivalled Voysey’.
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However, although Viceroy’s House receives a full-page illustration, Lutyens is relegated to a chapter on ‘Twentieth-Century “Traditional” Architecture’ and Hitchcock has to make the extraordinary – and surely meaningless – qualification that ‘Lutyens, one feels, in a different time and place – a generation earlier in England, say, or a generation later – might have been a greater architect. But even as his career actually worked out, he is not unworthy to occupy the place given to him here as the “last traditionalist”. Since his death there has not been, either in Europe or elsewhere, any traditional or semi-traditional building of consequence…’
A surprisingly late interpretation of Lutyens’ career in terms of its divergence from international modernism was made in 1977 – by which date the historical inevitability of the Modern Movement was by no means so generally accepted – in Who’s Who in Architecture, edited by J.M. Richards, where Andrew Saint wrote about Lutyens that ‘For better or for worse, the example of his genius must be regarded as a crucial factor in any explanation of British reluctance to adopt a more wholeheartedly modern idiom for architecture in this period’.
Lutyens’ apparent traditionalism has never worried the greatest of the modern masters, however, and their judgment of him has been concerned with architectural form rather than with the moral necessity of being in tune with historical development. As is well known, not only do the early houses of Wright have much in common with those of Lutyens, but ‘Lutyens was probably the only contemporary architect whom Wright really admired, and the four volumes of Lutyens’ work were constantly referred to during discussions with students…’ Wright actually agreed to review the Memorial Volumes for a British journal and expressed his ‘admiration of the love, loyalty and art with which this cultured Architect, in love with Architecture, shaped his buildings. To him the English chimney, the Gable, the Gatepost monumentalised in good brick-work and cut-stone were motifs to be dramatised with great skill. He was able to idealise them with a success unequalled. Nor can I think of anyone able to so characteristically and quietly dramatise the old English feeling for dignity and comfort in an interior, however or wherever that interior might be in England. I have much admired the way in which his passion for Tradition thus graciously fitted its place in his own country’. While Wright felt that Lutyens’ Arts & Crafts work was very English and belonged to an era which was over and which could not be recreated, so that ‘We can follow his own great qualities, not his buildings’, he was sure that ‘all effort in Art of the quality of Sir Edwin’s effort is precious as a natural heritage, and rare. I am glad to see it regarded with reverence. These splendid volumes treasuring it all will preserve it as a national monument. My own faith and desire would leave it there worthy as such and go on towards the expression of a life inevitably changed and changing for the better only if we apply the lessons learned from devotion to the Ideal by men like him’.
‘Edwin Lutyens’ work provided a catharsis – a complete fulfilment of the dreams of a whole generation of architects’
In Le Corbusier’s Oeuvre Complete 1952-1957, Chandigarh was introduced with a compliment to Lutyens: ‘New Delhi, the capital of Imperial India, was built by Lutyens over 30 years ago with extreme care, great talent and true success. The critics may rant as they will but the accomplishment of such an undertaking earns respect’. While, in his 1959 lecture already quoted at the beginning of this article, Basil Spence compared Corbusier and Lutyens: ‘…recently, when I visited Liverpool… I went into the crypt of the Roman Catholic Cathedral there. I had recently visited Ronchamp and I was struck by the similarity in the weight and strength, and the desire to create space using depth of material, strongly modelled. Ronchamp is to me very similar in essence to the crypt of Lutyens’ Cathedral in Liverpool. The mouldings, of course, are palladian in the crypt, where Corbusier does not use mouldings at all, but there is this understanding of what great architecture is, that is common to these two great men’. (An attitude which contrasts with that of Frederick Gibberd, who wanted nothing whatever of Lutyens in his new circular cathedral raised on top of the crypt).
Nevertheless, Lutyens’ standing evidently did diminish in the 1950s and 1960s, although this is something very difficult to document. Growing indifference to his achievement is best and most poignantly symbolised by the abandonment of his design for Liverpool Cathedral in 1954, and the subsequent disappearance of most of the drawings he prepared to complete it and the disgraceful vandalism of the superb model of the Cathedral made in 1933-34.
Despite his earlier filial devotion, even Robert Lutyens ‘began to have misgivings about my father’s real place, even as an architect’, he recalled in 1969 ‘I was worried by the scale of some of his early work, and wondered if he was really no better than Voysey, or Unwin, or even Mackintosh. He was not much less gimmicky than they were; and if his work had ended, say in 1912, some of it would have been better and more comprehensive than theirs, such as Marshcourt and Lindisfarne, but he would still rank below Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright… And then (it must be confessed) I found Andrew Butler’s text in the Memorial Volumes of such boredom that I, at least, fell into the error of supposing that the work itself was boring…’ While in the architectural schools, Lutyens – like most architectural history before the Fagus factory – was simply regarded as irrelevant. At Cambridge, Peter Inskip recalls how he was regarded with ‘amused patronage’ when he wrote a thesis on Castle Drago in 1963-64, for Lutyens was considered a dead-end.
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Attitudes to traditionalists like Lutyens were probably more hostile at the Architectural Association for, while Modern Movement architects of the 1930s generation could respect Lutyens as a great designer of an age that had passed, the seductiveness of his buildings may have been a threat to a younger generation of hard-line believers in the avant-garde. This was particularly true of disciples of Pevsner, such as Robert Furneaux Jordan. Jordan spoke at a discussion about Lutyens by those who had known him held at the AA in 1959; he was there, he said, feeling ‘like an atheist giving an address from the balcony of St Peter’s. I have been asked to give what is called an objective assessment on behalf of the younger generation’. Although he admitted that he had once ‘worshipped Lutyens only just this side of idolatry and certainly came into architecture because Lutyens had existed’, he felt obliged now to condemn him as just a ‘superb pasticheur… When you practice pastiche, even with the hands of a supreme artist, you are imposing on society a style which was not made for it, and you can be quite sure that your sin will find you out… I believe that no man, however superb his artistry, however much a poet he may be, and however sensitive, can live out of his time’.
By the mid-1960s Jordan’s judgment was even more blinded by his progressive, collectivist conviction that individualism was a heinous sin. In his Victorian Architecture of 1966, Jordan condemned Lutyens by his clients and by his time in an astonishing passage which reflects as much inverted snobbery as socialist principle: ‘These famous dream houses – built around the turn of the century… will remain a curious monument, not to culture – for they are clean outside their time – but to one man. Like a dream they are unreal, and like a dream they have left not a wrack behind… an architecture where the high-pitched roofs, textured stone and tiny casements served mainly to conceal, ever so charmingly, the whole apparatus of conspicuous waste. It all died, as it should have died, in August 1914. Lutyens himself outlived it: with the Cenotaph, the grand manner of New Delhi and the pretentious nonsense of Lutyens’ Roman Catholic cathedral, he declined virtually into a species of Architect Laureate. He was greater than his contemporaries of the same school, like them he was a dead-end kid’.
The absurd irrelevance of this criticism is best shown by the fact that only one of Lutyens’ ‘dream houses’ has been demolished – Papillon Hall (it was an enlargement of an older house and was haunted) – and most have always been lived in and cherished by owners blissfully unaware of the imperatives of modern architectural criticism – the contrast with the sad fate of most of the houses of Philip Webb, the hero of progressive critics, is surely significant.
‘Fertility of imagination, capacity to command the realisation of big conceptions, intuitive grasp of the abstract, spatial aspects of architecture – Lutyens possessed all these in such a great degree’
As might be expected from his collaboration on two volumes of the Buildings of England, another Pevsner disciple is Ian Nairn. Faced with the rich concentration of Lutyens houses in the Surrey volume of 1962, Nairn was both full of admiration and yet constantly obsessed by the criminal retrogression of Lutyens’ later Classical work. The early houses he characterised as ‘feminine but not effeminate, as personal as the series of houses Frank Lloyd Wright was building in the same years’, but, on the other hand, ‘The genius and the charlatan were very close together in Lutyens’ and, ‘After 1900 his buildings were almost all Classical, first gay and pretty… then becoming progressively heavier and drearier. But Lutyens was not really to blame for the neo-Georgian style, although his change of heart must have given it a tremendous fillip. In Surrey the responsibility falls more squarely on the shoulders of Ernest Newton…’ But the principal condemnation of Lutyens in print, on the grounds of his influence and refusal to conform to the demands of the Modern Movement, was to appear in the RIBA Journal in 1969 – the centenary of his birth.
In 1968 plans were made to hold a major centenary Lutyens exhibition at the Royal Academy – the most appropriate location as Lutyens had been PRA when he died. The cost of this was estimated at £12 000; to help raise money a fund-raising dinner was held at the RA in June 1968. In the Lutyens ‘Biography File’ in the RIBA Library is a fascinating and poignant document: a list of possible guests – Lutyens house-owners, chairmen of firms with premises by Lutyens, etc – with pencilled comments next to their names made by Margaret Richardson (principal organiser of the present exhibition at the Hayward Gallery and cataloguer of the Lutyens material at the RIBA Drawings Collection): ‘Not v. rich’, ‘v. v. rich’ etc. Alas, if some of the guests were rich, they were not generous; a total of £120 was raised and Reuters, the Government of India and other bodies declined to be represented.
In the event a small exhibition was held in 1969 at the RIBA at 66 Portland Place, which cost about £1000. There was not enough money to exhibit the Liverpool Cathedral model, which the Liverpool School of Architecture were then valiantly trying to restore – only to return it to the cathedral authorities to sustain further damage. There were more disappointments. Henry Medd commissioned Lawrence Josset to execute a superb mezzotint copy of the portrait of Lutyens by Meredith Frampton at the Art-Workers’ Guild, of which he had been Master in 1933. Most of this limited edition remained unsold. A continuing disappointment has been that the planned centenary biography commissioned by the short-lived RIBA publishers from Nicholas Taylor-who today knows more about Lutyens than anybody – has never appeared.
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1969 probably marks the nadir of Lutyens’ reputation. To add insult to injury, the editor of the RIBA Journal allotted two out of the three articles published in the Lutyens centenary issue of April 1969 to Alison and Peter Smithson and thus allowed them to attack Lutyens with the tired old argument that he had perverted the course of English modern architecture. Alison Smithson’s article ‘The responsibility of Lutyens’, is a curious, jealous diatribe against the English domestic tradition: ‘Lutyens bears the responsibility for the look of housing in England from 1934 to 1965 [why 1934?]… With the example always before the public of the Lutyens house and with Lutyens the master of the art of building at the pinnacle of his profession – a reputation held despite his complete Americanisation, most visible in Heathcote (1906) – the debasing of the language of architecture became anyone’s game: an influence still popular in the world of town and country planners, seemingly common to sociologists, and reflected in the disregard-unto-disparagement of the main stream of architecture flowing through the Mackintoshes and Le Corbusier. Therefore this Lutyens-worship, brought to the fore again in 1969 – the centenary of Mackintosh’s birth – represents something by contrast distasteful and sick fall-too-real in England… Lutyens joined in the Americanisation of our cities through monstrous office blocks with hideous plans (and what was the Economist building?) The invidious “Wrennaissance”… all worked for ill on every proportion affecting the taste of would-be copyists and clients alike. The constant flow of “good” and easy fitting had dried up. Still the craftsmanship left no loopholes for doubt or criticism. The activities of the Lancelot Keay era, through to the Housing Manual, sheltered behind Lutyens’ rejection of Voysey, of the Glasgow Art Movement, and in consequence all of the heroic period happening in Europe. Thus from approximately 1901 stems the death of English the look of domestic England and the life that is lived in these houses and the ashy taste it leaves in the mouth and the eyesore furniture they contain…’
This smug, patronising polemic was complemented by Peter Smithson writing a short piece on ‘The Viceroy’s house in Imperial Delhi’ which concluded that ‘Trying to think about Lutyens is like trying to think about the younger Saarinen: enviable talent, but historically speaking distressingly unhelpful. Lutyens was caught in the box of his time too tightly for it to be possible for my generation to think about his work without pain…’
It is not necessary to answer the Smithsons’ attacks, for this was done magnificently by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in the August 1969 number of the RIBA Journal. Under the heading ‘Learning from Lutyens’, they argued that the Smithsons’ articles were ‘condescending and irrelevant’, exposed their inconsistencies and mistakes and suggested that the Smithsons themselves, in their attitudes and dependence upon the ‘good guys v bad guys’ view of recent history, were caught in the box of their time. ‘Mrs Smithson refers to “that particularly dead hand the English can lay on Classicism as seen from this side of Mansart’”. May we uphold the Anglicisation of Classicism in the land of Wren, Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh, Archer, Adam and Soane as seen from this side of Bunshaft? But the most disturbing aspect of these articles for us is the hollow-heroic stance of the saviour-architect, contemptuous of the mess and sure of the answers: “We (presumably we architects) have not yet knocked this sick culture on the head (sic, so help us)”. Our greatest lesson from Lutyens is perhaps his tolerance and wit’.
‘Lutyens’ work was full of deliberate paradoxes and ambiguities – what Summerson described as his ‘wit’ – and geometrical structures underlied his designs’
It required another American to make the first defence of Lutyens in the popular press. The Californian historian David Gebhard chose Viceroy’s House as the subject for his article in the series ‘The Master Builders’ in the Sunday Times colour magazine in 1972 and he concluded that ‘the Residency stands as a formidable argument: an argument for classical humanism, for man’s ability to control and at the same time to accommodate himself to his physical and social environment – and against those planners and architects who, as aged period pieces, still cling to the tenets of the “Modern Movement” in architecture’.
Sir John Summerson denies that Lutyens’ reputation ever sank – for his generation the greatness remained; but each generation seems to have had to discover – or to dismiss – Lutyens for itself. Clearly, for the avant-garde generation who emerged in the 1950s Lutyens was an irrelevance if not a threat, but younger generations of architectural students have rediscovered Lutyens with excitement and with delight. A ‘Lutyens Revival’ was a palpable phenomenon by the 1970s. The origins of this – in England – are difficult to identify or date, but very important in the process were the ‘pioneering’ tours of Lutyens houses organised for the Victorian Society by Nicholas Taylor and Roderick Gradidge in the late 1960s – and well do I remember the thrilling revelation of architectural richness and possibility that these tours presented.
One of the last rear-guard actions against this ‘Lutyens Revival’ was fought in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement in 1978 by Reyner Banham. In his bitter review of Morality and Architecture, Banham criticised David Watkin for complaining that Pevsner had omitted Lutyens from his Outline of European Architecture and stated that ‘It might be that the reason for this is that Pevsner (like me) would find preposterous Watkin’s claim that Lutyens was one of the “two or three most brilliant and successful architects England has ever produced”’. Watkin replied that ‘My impression is that Banham is probably now in a minority in maintaining this view and that we are in for a Lutyens revival’.
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The sponsoring by the Arts Council of Great Britain of a major exhibition about Lutyens at the Hayward Gallery just three years after this correspondence would seem to be a complete vindication of Watkin’s claim. Watkin was, indeed, one of those originally involved with promoting the idea of a second, and appropriately large, Lutyens Exhibition, along with Colin Amery, Roderick Gradidge, Margaret Richardson, Mary Lutyens and the present writer. However, before the exhibition could become a reality, not only had sponsorship to be sought but lingering prejudice had to be overcome. As in 1968, the thoughts of the ‘Lutyens Committee’ naturally first turned to the Royal Academy as the most appropriate venue for an exhibition but, after months of prevarication, the current PRA – unusually, but like Lutyens, an architect: Sir Hugh Casson – declined to commit the Academy to the idea. The Arts Council were then approached, early in 1980. The Architecture Panel of the Arts Council had to be persuaded, and it was then considering the idea of a Le Corbusier exhibition as the most suitable subject to interest the general public.
Perhaps what most tellingly persuaded the Arts Council that Lutyens was a more relevant subject for an architectural exhibition – with a greater chance of popular success today (though Le Corbusier’s moment will certainly return, and possibly quite soon) – was the fact that a small exhibition of photographs of Lutyens’ work was held at – of all places – the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1978. This extraordinary and unlikely phenomenon owed its existence to an equally extraordinary phenomenon – the growth of interest in Lutyens in the United States. This is extraordinary in that Lutyens seems in so many ways a peculiarly English architect and, indeed, many American writers try to interpret Lutyens in terms of the equally significant revival of interest in the architecture of the Ecole des Beaux Arts – also the subject of an exhibition at MOMA, in 1975. Americans therefore tend to stress the Classical work in Lutyens’ career, while the English respond most to the Romantic, often eccentric earlier work. But, misguided as the American interpretation of Lutyens can be, American interest was of crucial importance in this Lutyens historiography.
Hitchcock included Deanery Gardens in his 1929 book as it was the only Lutyens building ‘modern’ enough to be included. This was the first time Philip Johnson heard of Lutyens, but Johnson’s current interest in Lutyens he attributes to Robert Venturi and it was Venturi who was principally responsible for there being a Lutyens Revival in the United States before his reputation rose again in Britain. Venturi first encountered Lutyens in the Weaver book, Houses and Gardens, in the early 1960s in the waiting room of an old Philadelphia architect. In 1966 he travelled in England looking at Lutyens buildings and when he told English architects what he was up to at a party given by James Stirling for Philip Johnson they were shocked: ‘He’s doing Lutyens!’ he remembers people muttering in amazement. Also in 1966 Venturi published Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, a book remarkable, among other things, for the fact that Lutyens was taken seriously and the ambiguity of his detail and planning referred to several times. In 1969, as has been already mentioned, it was Venturi who, with his wife Denise Scott Brown, came to Lutyens’ defence in the pages of the RIBA Journal.
‘The richness, the skill and the delight in Lutyens’ buildings cannot, and possibly ought not to be realised today, but they are no longer irrelevant, no longer a snare’
It was also in the Lutyens centenary year that a long and important article on his work appeared in the Yale School journal, Perspecta, written by the South African-born architect Allan Greenberg. Greenberg had studied in Johannesburg, where Professor John Fassler considered Lutyens to be one of the greatest twentieth century architects and an outstanding Classicist. Greenberg’s very first exercise at architecture school was to sketch the Johannesburg Art Gallery. In his article, ‘Lutyens’ Architecture Restudied’, Greenberg undertook a formal analysis of Lutyens’ plans and his use of axes, discussed the mixture of the ‘formal’ and ‘natural’ in his garden and town plans and compared Lutyens’ work with that of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. Like Venturi, Greenberg was fascinated by the deliberate paradoxes and ambiguities in Lutyens’ work – what Summerson had earlier described as his ‘wit’ – as well as by the geometrical structures underlying his designs. Greenberg concluded that ‘As sculptors of architectural form Le Corbusier and Lutyens are probably without contemporary rivals… It is ironic that these two men, one of whom was for so long the undisputed leader of the modern movement, while the other was a prime symbol of reaction, should share this great common legacy. It underlines the desperate need for a more comprehensive frame of reference to relate the architecture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Architectural history, working as it does with existing or recorded artefacts, cannot afford to ignore an entire segment of experience. Hopefully the demise of simplistic definitions, characteristic of the early years of the modern movement, and the reviving interest in Victorian and Beaux Arts architecture will achieve this end’.
Allan Greenberg has become the principal American interpreter of Lutyens as a Classicist and he proposed the exhibition of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art and organised it with Arthur Drexler, who was earlier responsible for the Beaux Arts exhibition and had, earlier still, published Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction. Coinciding with the MOMA exhibition in 1978 was an event in Washington which also marked a stage in Lutyens’ return to grace. Having been advised that Lutyens’ British Embassy was 50 years old, the ambassador, Peter Jay, encouraged by Philip Johnson, held an anniversary dinner in honour of Lutyens at which Johnson and Hugh Casson spoke.
Two years later, in 1980, it was India’s turn when the School of Architecture and Planning in Delhi organised a large and comprehensive exhibition on Lutyens and ‘The Making of New Delhi’. So, when the final, comprehensive Lutyens exhibition opens in London this November, the Architect Laureate will have returned home to be honoured in his own country at last. Perhaps we can now regard him with more historical objectivity. The age in which Lutyens lived and worked, enviably full of wealth and possibilities, is as remote now as it seemed when he died, but the intervening years now also seem to be a period which is over and one which is, to many, of barren achievement. The richness, the skill and the delight in Lutyens’ buildings cannot, and possibly ought not to be realised today, but they are no longer irrelevant, no longer a snare. Rather, they represent the summit of architectural achievement by a great master and provide lessons of eternal value. As John Betjeman concluded in 1951: ‘What other architects have done so much work with such haunting power in it and sudden humour?’
I should like to record my thanks to Roderick Gradidge, Allan Greenberg, Peter Inskip, Philip Johnson, Robin Middleton, Sir John Summerson and David Watkin for their help and advice in assembling this article.