Washington British Ambassador’s Residence

The Beauty of Lutyens’ Approach

Rashtrapati Bhavan, originally known as Viceroy’s House, New Delhi (1912-29)

 

Edwin Lutyens was a British architect who approached the challenge of producing new homes and buildings in several historically sensitive and imaginative ways. He was born about the same time as Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work also adapted historical architectural themes and patterns in a modern manner. Lutyens’ approach, while equally inspired, tended to be less daring and perhaps more compelling to a wider swath of his contemporaries, especially with regard to his public buildings and monuments. And like Wright, Lutyens showed a sympathy with and appreciation for architectural features and elements from other regions and cultures (if not always their people) than his own.

Lutyens lead a group of architects to lay out and design a new capitol for India at what would be called New Delhi. Combining aspects of buildings from the western classical tradition with those of the Indian sub-continent, Lutyens with his team produced some notable structures. Among the most beautiful is Rashtrapati Bhavan, originally known as Viceroy’s House and Government House (shown above).

While he excelled at producing public architecture on a large scale, Lutyens was also adept at designing homes, with an early example being one for the noted horticulturalist, Gertrude Jekyll. Equally fascinating to me is his adaptation of the 16th century Lindisfarne Castle into a home on Holy Island (1901-14 / shown below). This residence provided the setting for the 1960’s film, Cul-de-Sac, through which I first became familiar with Lutyens’ work.

Lutyens was commissioned to design an astonishing number of war memorials, perhaps the most impressive being the Thiepval Memorial in France (1928-32, photo below), to honor the some 72,000 British and South African men who died in the WWI Battle of the Somme. His unrealized project for the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (1930/ not shown) demonstrates another facet of his remarkable ability as an architect, once again blending an historical design awareness with attention to contemporary needs.

One of my favorite Lutyens buildings is his design for the British Ambassador’s residence complex in Washington, D.C., his only completed project in North America (shown below). I had the opportunity to visit the residence in the 1980’s in connection with a charitable fundraising event. Though the building, completed in 1928, is in an unmistakably Queen Anne style, as were some early Frank Lloyd Wight Chicago homes, its scale and proportion also have a forward-looking appearance.

A significant aspect of what I consider the beauty of Edwin Lutyens architectural vision was his ability to inhabit the design sensibility of an earlier age, or that of a culture very different from his own. At the same time, he was able to produce structures that do not simply mimic the influence of their sources but which also achieve a somewhat timeless synthesis that is rather contemporary. Lutyens died in 1944 just after the birth of the kind of modern European architecture we associate with the Bauhaus, Mies Van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier. Examples of what is now referred to as ‘post-modernism’ in architecture show a return to a design approach that sometimes seems to evoke the work of Edwin Lutyens.

Lutyens’ 1939 Runnymede Bridge, UK (completed 1961), another example of his extensive architectural portfolio.