Heat. Smog. Chaos. Extreme poverty. Enormous wealth. Heat. More chaos. First impressions of Delhi can be overwhelming.
It didn’t help that I’d been reading Rana Dasgupta’s disturbing portrait of Delhi, depicting the capital city not as the centre of a vibrant and emerging nation (a media construct, as we now know) but as a brutally divided city, which two decades after India’s economic ‘year zero’ has much more in common with contemporary Moscow than, say, New York at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Even so, you would expect a city as vast and dense as Delhi would be at its densest right at the centre, especially given the city’s hyper-inflating land prices. But New Delhi – the ‘city’ planned by Lutyens to be the imposing central government district of the new capital – is unexpectedly vast and open.
India’s capital, which everywhere else is an explosion of new gated-community highrises intercut with nightmare slums, has at its centre… a kind of bureaucratic parkland, in which not even all of the planned structures were built, with those that were seeming oddly stranded, like a lost desert city. The buildings, by Edwin Lutyens, Herbert Baker and others, are perfectly unsuited to the country’s present day administrative needs. And unsuited also to its heat. (I soon discovered that I also am perfectly unsuited to India’s heat – see the pictures, appreciate the effort.)
Development pressure seems to be at its greatest in the “Lutyens’ bungalow zone”, something of a misnomer since they’re not really bungalows and almost all are not by Lutyens. Actually, the zone is a vast swathe of villas built for the administrators of British India, but now under threat from alteration and demolition, unsurprising given ‘soaring property values’ (as journalists must say).
As a fastidious Brit, I tend to obey instructional signage, and therefore left my phone at the Mughal Gardens security checkpoint (‘No Cameras Or Photographic Equipment’). This means I have no images of Lutyens’ New Delhi masterpiece, the Rashtrapati Bhavan (formerly the Viceroy’s House) except this one, from a distance. Everyone else ignored the signs, posing endlessly for each other’s wonky phone photos.
Above image courtesy of the Lutyens Trust – www.lutyenstrust.org.uk.
As an aside, the thing that struck me most about visiting tourist sites in India was just how vast, and young, is the new Indian middle class (read the stats, it’s a young country). We were the only westerners that day, out of many thousands of tourists, and also among the oldest. Sometimes you feel that the subcontinent’s numerous ancient palaces, temples and ruins will eventually not be numerous enough for the coming tsunami of visitors.
Anyway, back at the plot.
Jonathan Meades has written that perhaps the best word to describe Lutyens is “alas”. Such a huge talent, but alas so often wasted, and so widely and badly copied. The blame for the existence of the whole of suburban Surrey can be laid at Lutyens’ primrose-framed cottage door. (As Meades likes to also quip, Lutyens designed around 200 private houses, of which 600 are in Surrey).
I don’t know most of the houses by what I think of as ‘Country Life’ Lutyens (I will rectify this soon) but some of his later, ‘monumental’ work is some of the most affecting and brilliantly composed architecture there is. To approach the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme on a misty day is not something easily forgotten.
The Viceroy’s House falls into this latter category of greatness. To my untrained eye, it seems that Lutyens’ attempt to meld his own take on Edwardian classicism with late Mughal palace architecture was successful, even if the concept of his ‘Delhi Order’ is unconvincing. The impact of the building is, as Lutyens feared, reduced by the fact that the ground rises sharply as it approaches his building, forming a kind of mound that means only the dome is visible from a distance. Apparently, and unfathomably, topographical cross-sections showing this ‘hill’ were withheld from Lutyens so he wouldn’t twig until it was too late (could this really be true?). He referred to this as his ‘Bakerloo’ – blaming his colleague Herbert Baker for what he saw as a fatal compromise.
New Delhi was a capital built in the dying days of Britain’s empire (and during its greatest extent). In 1931, at the time of its completion, its architecture was as out of step with the newly emergent religion of modernism as it was possible to be. Only two decades later, just up the road at Chandigarh, Le Corbusier was building his new city. Chandigarh was the style of the moment, the international style of post-colonialism (despite the fact that he was Swiss + French, two European nationalities for the price of one). Oddly though, both architectures* appear now as relics of an age no longer relevant to the fast-growing neoliberal hell that is Indian urbanism. The whole of New Delhi occupies only 1% of the total urban area, an island of architectural oddities, with most of the government’s back office functions moved elsewhere in the vast city of 22 million (and growing). It’s hard to imagine what could now be planned and built in India’s capital that would make the slightest impact on the city.
(And yes, I did just use the term ‘architecture’ in the plural there, and I never even went to the AA. I will be an MSc student come the autumn though, so need to get down to some English-mangling practice.)
One of the wing blocks by Herbert Baker
India Gate, Lutyens
Hyderabad House, Lutyens
Above image from the The Lutyens Trust’s Ten Years On Exhibition, www.lutyenstrust.org.uk