Sir Edwin Lutyens and the Planning of New Delhi

Talk at the Asia Scotland Institute, Edinburgh, on 9 October, 2013
By Ewan Easton

Sunita Kohli, a noted resident of New Delhi and member of the Lutyens Trust, has among many other projects, worked on the restoration and preservation of Rashtrapati Bhavan, not to mention several other buildings in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone in New Delhi. The Asia Scotland Institute, who brought together a large gathering of interested parties from many disciplines, was treated to an inspiring talk from Sunita at the Business School within the University of Edinburgh.

Drawing sustenance, in more senses than one no doubt, from a visit earlier in the day to Lutyens-designed Greywalls in nearby East Lothian — now a superb hotel and restaurant set in magnificent gardens — Sunita spoke of her careful work maintaining and restoring the true spirit of the Viceroy’s House for its current role, which includes converting the refurbished Viceroy’s Suite into accommodation for state visitors to India. The gardens too are cherished and revered. No one in the audience could have been left in any doubt about the affection in which the building and, even more so, its architect are now held in India.

The talk also analysed Lutyens’s response to the challenge of master-planning New Delhi that led to the Delhi Order, and his determination in all his work to distil a design language distinct from, but nourished by, the styles already found in India a century ago. This is why his work is held in such high esteem and why we should see the work of Lutyens in New Delhi as “the crowning British achievement in India”.

In passing, we were offered an insight into Lutyens, the feminist. “What, Sir, is the role for women in the architecture profession?” someone asked him. His reply — tongue-in-cheek no doubt, but some might wonder exactly how much so — was: “It depends which architect they marry…”

A sobering, final note was struck in response to one of the many questions from the lively audience. Sunita concluded her comments by remarking wistfully that the struggle for good conservation in India is not yet won and that the explanation perhaps lies in the wealth of superb monuments India enjoys. Members of the audience might have had cause to reflect on that final observation as they headed out into the sad remnants of Edinburgh’s George Square, itself the scene of Scotland’s first major conservation battle around the time John Betjeman was seeking to save the Euston Arch. The attempt to save George Square, though seminal, was equally unsuccessful. Today, there are still more ugly additions to Edinburgh’s townscape at the hand of the University, and nearby the wholly graceless Quartermile development is accomplishing similar degradation to the former Royal Infirmary campus. Those of us who live and work in Edinburgh, fortunate though we are, have no less reason than Sunita, and her colleagues in New Delhi, to feel aghast at the occasional carelessness today with which the achievements of previous eras are treated.