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Lutyens’s Delhi and City Planning

Lutyens’s Delhi and City Planning

by Margaret L. Gaw (Marge)

It’s fitting that the tenth of thirteen children of Captain Charles Henry Augustus Lutyens and Mary Theresa Gallwey be named after a designer. For Sir Edwin Lutyens was certainly one.

A little over a century ago, Lutyens got a call from Lord Hardinge of Penshurst—the Governor-General of India and Viceroy of India from 1910-1916. Lutyens would oversee the planning of New Delhi, a grand imperial city capable of holdings its own against Washington or Paris.

From 1858-1947, the British Raj controlled India. In 1911, King George V uttered these words: “We are pleased to announce to Our People that on the advice of Our Ministers tendered after consultation with Our Governor-General in Council, We have decided upon the transfer of the seat of the Government of India from Calcutta to the ancient Capital Delhi….” (Lahiri).

In 1912, Lutyens sat down at his desk to design the new capital, inspired by the Garden City Movement started by another English architect, Ebenezer Howard, in the late 1800s.

Lutyens used Edwardian architecture (1901-1910), characterized by less ornate than Victorian (with the exception Edwardian Baroque architecture), light colors, and less complex decorative patterns. The Neo-Classical era paired with India’s Mughal and Buddhist heritage inspired Lutyens’s Delhi, the “Eighth City” of Delhi.      Lutyens invented his own “Delhi Order” of neo-Classical columns that fuse Greek and Indian elements.

Lutyens’s Delhi (New Delhi) was ultimately influenced by nature. The straight and diagonal pattern of the broad tree-lined avenues in New Delhi, with extensive green spaces and wide vistas, contrasts sharply with the crowded, narrow, and winding streets characteristic of Old Delhi.

The city axis contains a vast rectangular mall surrounded by government offices and crowned at its far end by an imposing palace for the viceroy (today the home of the Indian president Rashtrapati Bhavan).

Lutyens initially designed New Delhi with all the streets crossing at right angles (think NYC). Lord Hardinge, citing the dust storms that sweep through the landscape, insisted on roundabouts and nature to break their force (think Rome, Paris, Washington).

Lutyens designed tree-lined streets radiating from central vista and converging in hexagonal nodes peppered with white Bungalows for colonel administrators. The Bungalows caused immediate controversy.

For some, the Bungalows symbolize the yoke of imperialism and gap between rich and poor. They are “an indefensible use of land in a city where millions are crammed into claustrophobic housing colonies or slums” (NYT). Delhi’s Central Public Works Department made plans of tearing them down.

On the flip side, many people consider them historical and a sign of Lutyens’s mastery of architecture. The World Monuments Fund in New York named the Bungalows one of the planet’s 100 most endangered heritage sites.

Ultimately, the Delhi Urban Art Commission and the Indian government set aside 14 square miles as a conservation zone in the Rajpath, just south of the city’s central mall in 2014. As happens, protest arose when some blamed the commission as favoring real estate developers and bug businesses.

Mr. Charles Correa, chairman of the Art Commission, argued, “You have to have some sense of cohesion to urban form. Too much of what we have built in India today looks like the bottom of the sea.” Interesting thoughts, considering Mr. Correa has designed two modern high-rises near Connaught Place that critics say mar Lutyens’s vision for New Delhi.

“Today many of the bungalows have been so extensively modified or are in such disrepair that it is hard to get a sense of their previous grandeur. One Lutyens-era home that has been preserved in close to its original state is 10 Aurangzeb Road, the current residence of the Dutch ambassador, and once the home of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan” (NYT).

Guatam Bhatia, a Delhi architect and critic, said the very idea of restoring the bungalows to their original state was “farcical.” With a thriving and chaotic modern democracy, India may have outgrown Lutyens’s Bungalow layout, according to critics like Bhatia.

Regardless of the outcome of the Bungalows, Luytens’s Delhi leaves its lasting impact and will continue to elicit controversy over city planning.

By the 1930s, when the Luytens’s Delhi was completed, the sun was setting on the British Empire, and independent India’s first prime minister called Luytens’s Delhi a “symbol of British power, with all its ostentation and wastefulness.”

Historian William Dalrymple described Lutyens’s feat in a different sense: “The one thing we can be proud of is Lutyens’s Delhi—the buildings, the trees, the streets. It is the best thing the British ever did in colonial architecture.”


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