Two questions arose at the very beginning. First, who was to build the new city – the Public Works Department (PWD), a private firm in India, or a distinguished architect from abroad? The decision was in favour of an architect from overseas. Edwin Landseer Lutyens was a well-known name in England for designing country houses and gardens. He also happened to be married to the daughter of an ex-Viceroy of India, Lord Lytton, and King George V, too, was familiar with his name. Later, it was Lutyens who suggested the name of his friend, Herbert Baker, as a collaborator and that proposal was approved.

The second question concerned style. It was discussed and fought out with great persistence, spirit and some display of bad temper. All three buildings of the acropolis group still bear the mark of this clash of opinions and views. In a particular sense the question had almost been closed by the appointment of the architects. Both were exponents of the European Renaissance style.

Baker thought that essentially New Delhi should be in this style and in an article published in The Times, London, wrote that all government buildings in the new city should be built according to the tradition of the great Mediterranean lands, which grew out of the needs of a southern climate.

Lutyens believed, above everything else, in order and was a worshipper of Newton and Wren. He thought that there was a connection between the mathematical laws of the one and the laws of architectural proportion of the other.

Lutyens was also capable of making disparaging remarks about those styles or principles that he did not like. His remarks on Indian architecture would outrage most of us: “Personally,” he declared, “I do not believe there is any real Indian architecture or any great tradition. There are just spurts of various dynasties with as much intellect as there is in any other art nouveau.”

But that does not prevent us from enjoying his comments on Simla [now Shimla]. Contrasting the grandeur of the Himalayan settings with the buildings and planning of the summer capital of India, Lutyens remarked: “The building and conception of the place by the Public Works Department is beyond the beyond. If one was told that monkeys had built it, one could only say what wonderful monkeys – they must be shot in case they do it again.”

The ornate grill that separates today's Rashtrapati Bhavan from the Secretariat complex | Image: Dhruva N Chaudhuri
The ornate grill that separates today's Rashtrapati Bhavan from the Secretariat complex | Image: Dhruva N Chaudhuri

Although both the architects were in favour of a classical European style, they had to reckon with others. An influential body of opinion wanted New Delhi to be Indo-Islamic. King George V thought that the Mughal was the style for Delhi, if not dreadfully expensive. A group of British enthusiasts of Indian art represented to the Secretary of State that the indigenous styles and crafts should have a preference over others. Even a claim of the new method of steel construction was asserted.

Lord Hardinge, however, insisted on an eastern feeling in the buildings, though not on a purely Indian style. This he considered to be important from both artistic and political considerations. He wrote to Lutyens that it would be a great political blunder and also absurd to place a purely western town amid overwhelming eastern surroundings. Referring to the preference in England for the European classic style, he added: “It is not public opinion in England that is concerned, but public opinion in India.”

So he stressed the view that the Secretariat and all other public offices must have an Indian motif. He wanted the buildings of New Delhi to have a bold and plain character with an oriental adaptation. “You may call it bastard, or what you like,” he explained, “but the only alternatives are pure Indian pure western and both are of these I would depreciate.”

Besides laying down this general principle, Lord Hardinge also recommended as a model some Indian buildings he had seen such as the Hindola Mahal at Mandu. Thus Lutyens found it necessary to study the pre-existing Mughal and Hindu monuments in order to decide if they could furnish a starting point for New Delhi.

In Delhi it was generally agreed that the past should certainly not be ignored. As for Lutyens, he had serious reservations about the mixing of two styles. But, on the other hand, Baker did not have much difficulty in following this line. He told Lutyens that in a political capital the national standpoint must be recognised. Baker’s advice was: “The Indian sentiment should be given preference where it does not conflict with grand principles, as the government should do.”

Though Baker might have appeared to be opportunistic, his own views on the architecture of New Delhi were broadly similar to that of Lord Hardinge. In his article, too, Baker had stressed that in Delhi it was neither a case for imitating Indian styles nor for following the classical orthodoxy of European architecture. Baker on the whole followed the general style of European Renaissance architecture.

But, along with that style, many of the structural features of Indian architecture were grafted on, including many motifs and also decorations, which he thought expressed the myths, symbols and history of its people. That is what Baker did in the Secretariat. So when Lutyens wanted to resist the pointed arch fancied by Lord Hardinge, he wrote: “I should like to ask him [Hardinge], to what country the rainbow belongs!”

“One cannot tinker with the round arch,” was a typical succinct remark of Lutyens. He continued his harangue against the pointed arch and mentioned that God did not make the eastern rainbow pointed to show his wide sympathies. Lutyens’ dislike for a mix of art and politics was indeed strong. He expressed: “It is so difficult to design even a coal scuttle well; but if they bring in politics and diplomacy then it is impossible.”

Baker, who recognised the claim of politics, replied: “You get your way best by showing that there are more vital things than the mere accidental shape of an arch. Un-geometrical arches and vaults do not express a scientific and logical government, which the Government of India is or should be. That is the line of attack that I think should be the most appropriate.”

Dhruva N Chaudhuri | Image via Facebook profile
Dhruva N Chaudhuri | Image via Facebook profile

Lutyens was not totally opposed to the fundamental principle of synthesis. Only his idea of this synthesis was different. He did not think that a building could be made Indian by merely inserting Indian details. He particularly disliked the Viceroy’s habit of taking his sketches and inserting windows of a particular type. He went on to mention that Lord Hardinge did not realise what great architecture was meant to express and also stand for. To express modern India in stone, according to Lutyens, was no easy task.

Further, to represent in a building the country’s amazing sense of supernatural, along with the complement of fatalism and enduring patience, almost bordered on the impossible.

His conclusion was to build according to the broad principle of western architecture, but apply these principles differently in the utterly different conditions of Indian climate and bright sunshine. “If Wren had built in India,” Lutyens went on to say, “it would have been something so different to anything we know of his.”

Even with his rigid outlook about the style of his architecture, Lutyens was ready to integrate some of the motifs of Indian architecture such as the Buddhist stupa and its railings from Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh. He also took over the features that the Mughals had employed to counter the fierce sunlight of India. Lutyens found that the effect of strong sunlight on all buildings in India was to destroy the colour as well as dilute the solidity of the form.

To counteract this, the Mughals had used red sandstone to protect the colour and projecting cornices, which cast broad shadows to prevent the blurring effect of the strong sunlight. Whether the Mughals had employed these devices consciously or not, Lutyens had hit upon two real optical effects successfully. These can be observed in important buildings designed by him and his team.

In the end, both Lutyens and Baker worked according to the principles adopted by each and this should be kept in mind in judging the group as a whole. Striking notes altogether different, the two Secretariat blocks were built according to one conception of synthesis.

Rashtrapati Bhavan had another altogether different concept. For instance, the Rashtrapati Bhavan dome has a simple monumental character derived from early Indian architecture. On the contrary, Baker’s domes on the two Secretariat buildings are in the sophisticated Renaissance manner and somewhat complicated by more than one Indian motif. It is difficult to visualise the ensemble of three domes and two towers as the supreme harmonious unit on Raisina Hill.

Barring this criticism, which concerns the overall composition of the three important buildings of Lutyens’ New Delhi, each building, when seen individually, and also from a proper perspective, does appear as an impressive example of British architecture developed in New Delhi. Baker was often criticised for the mixing of Indian and Renaissance features, but the fact remains that chhatris around the main dome of Humayun’s Tomb are predominately Hindu in style, while the white dome is almost a replica of the dome of Goharshad’s mosque in Mashhad, Persia.

The main question is whether the combination is artistically justified or not. Both Lutyens and Baker were sincere in their efforts to find a happy synthesis between the classic European and divergent Indian styles. They have indeed added to an ensemble of impressive architecture in this historic city.

Excerpted with permission from New Delhi Down the Decades: A Behind-the-lens View of the City, Dhruva N Chaudhuri, Niyogi Books.