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Our greatest architect. By Clive Aslet

Blog | Jun 24, 2024

King of all he surveys: Sir Edwin Lutyens, 1942

One afternoon in the 1880s, the Indian civil servant and translator Forster Arbuthnot drove his coach and four horses into the Surrey village of Thursley. He had come to commission a painting from a former infantry captain turned artist, the increasingly eccentric Charles Lutyens, whose family lived ‘like gypsies’ on the wild heath.

A ‘shock-haired boy’, dressed in ill-fitting hand-me-downs from his many brothers, proved to be Edwin Landseer Lutyens, named after the famous animal painter whom his father attempted – not very successfully – to emulate.

Born in 1869, Ned, as he was universally known, never learnt to dress smartly and persisted in cutting his own hair, even when he had lost most of it. But he would grow up to be an extraordinary architect – perhaps the best Britain has ever had.

Why so highly rated? Partly because of the sheer volume of his oeuvre: no other architect has been so various.

He designed country houses, town houses, institutional buildings, churches, offices, a cathedral of epic proportions in Liverpool (only the crypt was built), the fountains in Trafalgar Square, a palace for the British Viceroy in India, the plan of New Delhi, as well as a plethora of ingenious small structures – a village shelter at Mells to remember a dead child, a belvedere for Gertrude Jekyll to watch thunderstorms sweep over the South Downs, a reservoir head on Dartmoor known as the Pimple. All three of the last examples are triangular, testament to his love of geometry.

Marrying the demanding daughter of an earl, he could never turn down work – and never wanted to. He hated holidays and although he adored the woman he married, he did not understand her and was often away, making site visits or drumming up work.

Lonely and hating housework, his wife found a spiritual home in the new religion of theosophy, falling head over heels for its beautiful young World Teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Viceroy’s House, New Delhi, built in 1929

Lutyens opened his first office in 1889 when he was 19 – a precocious age, given that many architects do not find their feet before they are 40. Putting his bicycle in the guard’s van of the train from London, he would pedal to sites around Surrey, full of energy, lyricism and jokes.

His many country houses, often in the Home Counties, were a rhapsody to the English landscape amidst which he had grown up. Under the tutelage of the craftswoman and gardener Gertrude Jekyll, he thrilled to the old, handmade culture of the country people whose way of life was fast disappearing, while at the same time finding fun in its quaintness.

Card-carrying members of the Arts and Crafts Movement strove to be ostentatiously dull: Lutyens was irrepressible, a master of form and a poet of materials. This was expensive architecture for rich people, which gave him an unhelpful reputation for extravagance.

As his thirties wore on, he sought a bigger canvas. Hampstead Garden Suburb gave him two churches to design and, from there, with little other public architecture or planning experience under his belt, he made the leap to the Viceroy’s House and New Delhi. They came in 1912.

It was, however, the First World War that enabled – indeed, forced on him – a shift in gear. The country-house practice dried up. In its place arose an aching need for monuments that would pay respect to the fallen. Thousands were erected across Britain, the Empire and the battlefields of France and Flanders.

Unusually, Lutyens believed that the most appropriate form they could take would be abstract, a matter of geometrical proportion and little else: an architecture stripped of most ornament and devoid of overt symbolism.

This was remarkable in an age habituated to great military parades and the pomp of Edwardian Baroque. But it was immediately understood by the millions of people in the country who had lost sons, husbands and brothers. It was for his unpaid work for the Imperial War Graves Commission, and the design of New Delhi, that he was knighted in 1918.

This year sees the 100th anniversary of another product of those years, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, created to provide work for unemployed craftsmen and as a record of the pre-war life that seemed to have been lost for ever. Now in Windsor Castle, it has just been restored.

In the early works, we can glimpse Lutyens’s love of the abstract in his insistence on an exact angle for roofs – 54 degrees and 45 minutes (54.75 degrees): the beauty of this pitch was that it created a hip or corner of 45 degrees, which made the job of carpenters easier on site.

Despite a lack of formal education in mathematics, he was fascinated – to an almost occult extent – by numbers. Ratios and proportions are the stuff of Classicism, the ‘high game’ which enthralled him after 1905.

But, in a plastic form, we can feel the aesthetic excitement of geometry even more thrillingly in – of all things – the after-its-time castle on Dartmoor which Lutyens reluctantly built for Julius Drewe: Castle Drogo is better understood as a gigantic piece of sculpture than as a country house, let alone a family home.

After the First World War, Lutyens’s greatest works transcend the conventions of Classicism to become works of mathematics – pure form of the most inventive and cerebral kind.

His magnum opus of the 1930s, the unbuilt Roman Catholic Cathedral at Liverpool, revisits previous themes – such as the triumphal arch motif which he used in a bravely original way at Thiepval – which were then developed with the complexity of a Bach fugue.

Although never completed, his titanic vision continues to amaze visitors to the 17-foot-long model that exists in the Museum of Liverpool.

Not a conventionally religious man, Lutyens was, at the end of his life, happy in the company of the Jesuits for whom he designed the monastic Campion Hall in Oxford. He said it was his best building. Aspects of Campion Hall reprise of the Surrey style with which Lutyens started his long career. In 1942, he became the first architect to be awarded the Order of Merit. Two years later, he died.

After the Second World War, the doctrinaire architects of the Modern Movement made Lutyens into a hate figure. He had seen himself as a Humanist, not a product of the Machine Age. A major exhibition in 1981-82, which turned the concrete bunker of the Hayward Gallery into a series of delicious Lutyensesque spaces, restored his reputation, and now the National Trust owns three of his country houses.

They include Castle Drogo, now sparkling after an epic restoration, and Lindisfarne Castle, converted from an ancient artillery fort which surges above a conical outcrop of rock on Holy Island, off the Northumbrian coast.

Lindisfarne’s client was Edward Hudson, founder of Country Life: he and Lutyens loved the remoteness and romance. Last year, the National Trust acquired Munstead Wood, outside Godalming in Surrey, home of the gardener Gertrude Jekyll, a mentor of the young Ned in his early days. They became informal partners in the creation of more than 100 gardens.

At Munstead Wood, Lutyens saw a marble bench one of Jekyll’s guests likened to the Cenotaph of Sigismunda. When asked by Lloyd George to design a catafalque that soldiers returning from the First World War could salute, his mind returned to that moment. Not a catafalque, he said, but a cenotaph.

The result was the Cenotaph on Whitehall, a work of complex geometry, without a hint of religious symbolism – and yet the public immediately took it to its sorrowing heart as the natural focus for people’s feelings of grief and loss.

Campion Hall, Oxford University, built by Lutyens in 1936
Modern classical: the Cenotaph, built in 1920, in 1953

It was, above all his contemporaries, Lutyens who expressed the big ideas of his time – another reason he is called great.

Sir Edwin Lutyens: Britain’s Greatest Architect? by Clive Aslet is published by Triglyph Books

Clive Aslet is Visiting Professor of Architecture at the University of Cambridge