Is Lutyens' Delhi falling victim to a misplaced modernism?
India's National Trust wants the lavish gardens and homes designed by
Sir Edwin Lutyens to be a World Heritage Site. Delhi's council has
announced plans to demolish them. Justin Huggler reports
02 November 2004
Which would you rather live in: a priceless historic monument, or a
bland modern apartment block that looks like something in Benidorm? In
what may prove among the worst acts of cultural vandalism of modern
times, Indian authorities have proposed to demolish entire swaths of
Lutyens' Delhi, and replace the city's renowned classical bungalows with
It has been a bad few weeks for India's cultural heritage.
Archaeologists have admitted the minarets of the Taj Mahal have started
to tilt dangerously. The famous lakes of Udaipur have dried up. And now
the Central Public Works Division (CPWD) is intent on razing the
capital's famous bungalows designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Architecture lovers are up in arms. Art historians are in despair. But
the CPWD has decided the revered bungalows have "gone beyond their
lifespan" and "most of them should be up for demolition". The irony is
that India's cultural watchdog, the Indian National Trust for Art and
Cultural Heritage, is proposing that Lutyens' Delhi be named as a Unesco
World Heritage Site, even as the CPWD is planning to demolish large
parts of it.
The most famous monuments, India Gate and the great domed Rashtrapati
Bhavan, the Indian President's official residence, designed for the
British Viceroy, are not in danger. But if the CPWD gets its way, more
than 100 of the houses built across what is known as the Lutyens
bungalow zone may be demolished.
Even before the proposals were made public, the World Monuments Fund in
New York had named Lutyens' Delhi on its list of world's 100 most
endangered heritage sites because of unauthorised alterations made to
Proposing to tear down large parts of Lutyens' Delhi is like levelling
Mayfair in central London, or demolishing Edinburgh's New Town. The plan
is still subject to the approval of the Prime Minister's Office, and
Lutyens' admirers are pinning their hopes on the Indian Premier,
The bungalows are owned by the Indian state and used as residences for
ministers and senior government officials. Under the CPWD proposals,
they will be replaced with modern condominiums built around swimming
pools. Delhi's heritage will be demolished so government ministers can
luxuriate in apartments planned to incorporate whirlpool baths.
New Delhi was built between 1911 and 1931 when India's British colonial
rulers decided to move their capital from Calcutta back to Delhi, which
had been the capital of successive dynasties, including the Moghul
emperors, and is believed to have been the site of Indraprastha, the
fabled ancient capital of Hindu legend.
Until then, most British colonial architecture in India had been
uninspiring attempts to recreate designs from home in India, which led
to such oddities as Viceregal Lodge at Shimla, a Scottish baronial
sprawl that looks distinctly out of place nestled among the Himalayas.
Brought in as chief architect for New Delhi, Lutyens found himself
competing with the monuments of Delhi's past: the Purana Qila, a huge
fortress built by the Afghan invader Sher Shah Suri, the Mughal tomb of
Shah Jahan's great-grandfather, Humayun - a prototype for the Taj Mahal
- and Shah Jahan's own Red Fort.
With the help of his friend and fellow architect Herbert Baker, Lutyens
devised a new style for New Delhi. He invented his own order of
classical columns, known as Delhi Order, and, unlike the British
architects who came before him, he was inspired by and incorporated
features from traditional Indian architecture, most notably the great,
drum-mounted Buddhist dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
He achieved a successful marriage of European classical and traditional
Indian architectural styles that had never been seen before, and ever
since, his creation has wowed visitors to Delhi.
There is an old prophecy that anyone who builds a new city at Delhi will
surely lose it, and the British were no exception. Within two decades of
New Delhi's formal inauguration in 1931, India won its independence. New
Delhi had been an expression of British imperial power, and Lutyens' own
sentiments were no exception. But the new, independent India took the
colonial city to its heart, and moved its government into the buildings
vacated by the British.
It is not only misty-eyed colonels, nostalgic for the Raj, who will
mourn the destruction of Lutyens' Delhi, if it happens. His creation is
admired by architecture-lovers the world over, and it has as many
admirers among Indians as it has among Europeans. The Indian press is
regularly full of encomiums on the city's grace and beauty. Which makes
it all the more astonishing that the CPWD now wants to tear part of it
down. The authorities say the bungalows do not meet the requirements of
modern ministers and officials.
"Today's politician may not need a big hall but a bigger study, or more
room for office space," a CPWD official told the BBC. "All these points
will be incorporated in the new design. If the CPWD gets its way, no
fewer than 1,114 houses built across 1,000 acres of what is known as the
Lutyens bungalow zone may be demolished."
But it will come as news to many Indian politicians that they are not
happy with the bungalows. Some ministers in the BJP government that was
voted out in May's elections were so fond of their bungalows they all
but refused to move out, and had to be forced. One even offered to pay
commercial rents for the property if he could stay, and commercial rates
for the few bungalows in private hands are staggeringly high.
The CPWD says its new apartments would be more environmentally friendly,
and incorporate solar heating and water recycling. But the proposal's
critics say the plan could have a devastating effect on Delhis' environment.
Lutyens' contribution did not stop at the buildings he designed. He also
laid out a street plan for New Delhi of wide, tree-lined avenues. All
the bungalows are built in large garden plots, and wide areas of park
lie between the public buildings, making Delhi one of the greenest
cities in Asia.
The contrast with the desperately crowded narrow and dusty lanes of Old
Delhi to the north is extraordinary.
Part of the rationale behind the CPWD's proposal is that by building
two-storey apartment blocks, far more accommodation can be fitted on to
the plots occupied by Lutyens' bungalows. But Ratish Nanda, an Indian
conservation architect, told the BBC that Lutyens' open garden plots are
"the heart and lungs of the city".
Delhi suffers from desperate pollution, and Mr Nanda says that Lutyens'
green spaces are one of the city's last defences. "With its huge green
cover, it provides cleaner air to more than two million people who
travel through this area on a regular basis," he said. "Densification of
the area will decrease the green cover and Delhi will be facing a very
severe pollution problem."
The CPWD claims the upkeep of the bungalows simply costs it too much.
The annual outlay on each bungalow is budgeted at 72,000 rupees, a mere
£850, but the CPWD says the real figure it ends up paying out on each
bungalow is closer to 360,000 rupees (£4,350).
The authorities have also cited security as a concern, saying providing
heavy security for public figures individually at each bungalow is a
In truth, Lutyen's Delhi has been slowly ruined for years by large-scale
alterations being made illegally to the bungalows by the politicians and
officials who live in them, ranging from closing in the verandahs to
adding large new office blocks. Ironically, the authorities now
proposing to tear the bungalows down have been trying to stop the
politicians making their own alterations for years.
These alterations, illegal under Indian law, prompted the World
Monuments Fund to list Lutyens' Delhi among the world's 100
most-endangered cultural sites.
Almost 30 of the bungalows were significantly altered under the previous
government, and the ministers of the new Congress-led government are
racing to catch up. The prize for the most tasteless alteration must go
to Vijay Goel, a former minister of state who replaced his bungalow's
portico with an absurd, Disneyfied imitation of an Old Delhi house.
The fate of the bungalows is now in the hands of the Indian Prime
Minister's Office. Lutyens' fans have found some hope in an announcement
last week that the Prime Minister's Office had ordered the 1988
regulations protecting the Lutyens Bungalow Zone to be strictly
enforced, and ordered a new survey to identify the unauthorised
alterations and determine how they could be reversed.
India's tourism board has a massive promotional campaign under way at
present, and Delhi airport is festooned with posters of the country's
extraordinary wealth of cultural monuments and beauty spots. But what
with the new fears over the Taj Mahal, the lakes of Udaipur drying up,
and now the threat to Lutyens' Delhi, the posters at the airport may be
the only place you can still see them.
THE MAN WHO CREATED A CAPITAL
By Elaine Moore
Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens was born in London in 1869, and studied
architecture at South Kensington School of Art, in west London, from
1885 to 1887. A shy and inarticulate man, who had rheumatic fever as a
child, his work encompassed unpretentious domestic commissions and state
monuments with equal success.
One of his best-known collaborations was with the garden designer
Gertrude Jekyll, whose home at Munstead Wood in Surrey was one of
Lutyens's first commissions. Together they created more than 100
gardens, including Hestercombe in Somerset, now being restored but still
open for visitors.
Lutyens is also responsible for the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the Thiepval
Memorial on the Somme and many other First World War monuments. Other
state commissions include the British Embassy in Washington and the
Johannesburg Art, but he also immersed himself in more light-hearted
projects such as Queen Mary's Dolls' House, now in Windsor Castle, and
designs for furniture and stage settings.
He took delight in designing nurseries. The nursery floor in Viceroy's
House in New Delhi was in red and white stone checks for chess and
draughts. In two of his nurseries in England he inserted a window at
floor level so that children at the crawling stage could look out. He
once built a circular nursery so no child could ever be put in the corner.
But in the designs for New Delhi, Lutyens felt he had an opportunity to
make an international contribution. From 1772 until 1931, the British
administrative centre had been Calcutta, but Delhi was to be a brand-new
Lutyens sketched out the flowing lines of a great city, the viceroy's
palace (now the Rashtrapati Bhavan, or President's House), the
Parliament, the magnificent drive, or Raj Path, from the President's
house to the India Gate and the Canopy beyond for the statue of King George.
Building those and the 112 distinctive bungalows beyond the President's
House took nearly 20 years. And everywhere there were lawns and trees,
providing a cool green contrast to the red brick and dusty streets.
Sadly, the Delhi project was not the happiest experience for Lutyens.
Conscious that he would be overstretched by such an enormous task, he
had urged the appointment of Herbert Baker, with whom he had worked in
the late 1880s.
He had been impressed by Baker's Union Buildings in Pretoria. But the
two fell out over Baker's design for the twin Government Secretariats.
Lutyens said the ramp obscured visibility of the lower façade of the
Viceroy's Residence. He later called the building of New Delhi his
The architect was knighted in 1918, was awarded the gold medal of the
RIBA in 1921 and was president of the Royal Academy in 1938. He died in
London on New Year's Day in 1944.
More information on www.lutyenstrust.org.uk