I just finished reading Elizabeth Wilhide’s book Sir Edwin Lutyens: Designing in the English Tradition. The book serves as a good summary of the works and quirks that would come to define Lutyens’s career as one of Britain’s greatest architects. As I never read a book without marking it up with notes, I have assembled together what I found to be some of the more interesting bits of information for your reading pleasure.
Note: Numbers in parentheses, where shown, correspond to the referenced page number in Wilhide’s book.
- Edwin Landseer Lutyens (pronounced “luch’ns”) was born in 1869 in London.
- He was the eleventh of fourteen children.
- He preferred to be called “Ned”.
- When Ned was teaching himself how to draw, he used a sheet of glass as his paper and a sharpened piece of soap as his pencil. This allowed him to trace exactly what he saw in the field. Additionally, the soap was easy to erase and cheap to buy.
- As Wilhide writes: “Lutyens frowned upon the common practice of keeping a sketchbook as a repository for ideas that could later be assimilated into buildings. Buildings, he believed, should emerge from their local context and not comprise disparate elements and design ideas borrowed from radically different locations” (p. 17).
- Lutyens started studying architecture at the South Kensington School of Art when he was almost 16. He was there only 2 years before apprenticing under the architect Ernest George. After only 6 months he secured his own commission, told Ernest goodbye (or cheers), and started his own firm. Do the math: he was 19.
- Lutyens on the Orders:
You cannot play originality with the Orders. They have to be so well digested that there is nothing but essence left. When right they are curiously lovely–unalterable as plant forms…The perfection of the Order is far nearer nature than anything produced on impulse or accident-wise.
- On the Doric Order:
That time-worn doric order–a lovely thing–I have the cheek to adopt. You can’t copy it. To be right you have to take it and design it…It means hard labour, hard thinking over every line in all three dimensions and in every joint; and no stone can be allowed to slide. If you tackle it in this way, the Order belongs to you, and every stroke, being mentally handled, must become endowed with such poetry and artistry as God has given you. You alter one feature (which you have to, always), then every other feature has to sympathise and undergo some care and invention. Therefore it is no mean (game), nor is it a game you can play lightheartedly.
- Lutyens was chosen as the primary designer for the planning and architecture of New Delhi. Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy in power at the time, suggested to Lutyens that the buildings should have “an Indian motif” and “an oriental adaptation”. Here’s what Lutyens thought about that idea:
I do not think he realises the use of ornament in relation to construction, where it should begin and end, and what is integral and what applied. He begins with ornament instead of construction… To express modern India in stone, to represent her amazing sense of the supernatural, with its compliment of profound fatalism and enduring patience, is no easy task. This cannot be done by the almost sterile stability of English classical style; nor can it be done by capturing Indian details and inserting their features, like hanging pictures on a wall! In giving India some new sense of architectural construction, adapted to her crafts, lies the great chance of creating what may become a new and inspiring period in the history of her art…
- Later, when Hardinge demanded that oriental, pointed arches be used, Lutyens flipped out:
I should like to ask him to what country the Rainbow belongs! One cannot tinker with a round arch. God did not make the Eastern rainbow pointed to show his wide sympathies.
- According to Wilhide: “Lutyens designed not only the furniture for Viceroy’s House, including the Viceroy’s throne, but also most of the light fittings, and all the fireplaces, down to the fenders, fire-irons and firebacks. A team of Indian cabinet-makers was trained to make the furniture. The principal material used was teak, but other exotic hardwoods, including padouk, black-wood, koko and ebony, were used decoratively” (p. 166).
- Lutyens and his wife, Emily, were both theosophists. Google aptly defines “theosophist” as “a believer in theosophy;” “theosophy” requires a little more explanation…
- The only car Lutyens ever owned was a Rolls-Royce which was given to him by a client. (This kind of puts things in perspective for modern-day architects. From what I have seen, clients today are more likely to send a box of chocolates than a Tesla Roadster).
- Lutyens developed the idea for the Cenotaph, the famous World War I monument in Britain, in just 6 hours.
- On drawing:
[An architectural drawing is] merely a letter to a builder telling him precisely what is required of him, not a picture wherewith to charm an idiotic client.
- On the use of steel and concrete:
I enjoy all construction, and the steel girder with its petticoat of concrete is a most useful ally in the ever-recurring advent of difficulty. The thin walls are worth while, if only to watch your client’s face glow with joy at winning a few square feet of carpet. But I crave for the soft thick noiseless walls of hand-made brick and lime, the deep light-reflecting reveals, the double floors, easy stairways, and doorways never less than one foot six inches from a corner…The time may come when we shall be able to choose girders to our taste, as we select particular boughs of particular oaks for struts and braces. Then will girders become friendly and personal.
- On color:
You cannot go far wrong in building-colour if you use local materials.
- On architecture:
Architecture, with its love and passion, begins where function ends.
- We (architects) have all done it before: drawn sunlight diagrams with arrows flying down at a strict 45 degree angle, seeing at what point a shadow will be cast on a wall. Lutyens does not approve:
Those idiotic diagrams which architects and others make don’t work… Light is a flood, and you might as well try to show the banks of a river, its flow and varying depths, swirls, eddies, and currents with one arrow.
- On light:
Deep window reveals which reflect, distributing a diffused light, give the most kindly illumination.
- On glass:
Glass as an essential material has to be used, but I prefer its use in moderate sizes and faceted so no sheet of glare is produced…Areas of glass alone do not give serviceable light.
- According to one of Lutyens’s assistants:
All window panes had to be identical in proportion, generally in that of a square to its diagonal in height.
- According to Wilhide: “There is a story that Lutyens was asked if it was true that he had once designed a circular nursery, to which he replied that he had. When asked why, he answered that it was so that no child could ever be sent to stand in the corner” (p. 182).
- Lutyens died of cancer in 1944. His ashes lie in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
- Upon his death, Lutyens left over 80,000 drawings in his office. Let’s give this a little perspective: First of all, Lutyens worked pretty much every day of his life (he practiced architecture continuously for 56 years). Assuming an even distribution of work, to produce 80,000 drawings he had to work at a rate of one drawing every 2 or 3 hours. Keep in mind that these are full drawings–not tracings or napkin diagrams–implying that behind each one was intense thought and rigorous design process.
When you start feeling badly about yourself for how little you produce, just think of Lutyens and you’ll feel even worse.
The photographs below show a few plates from the third volume of A.S.G. Butler’s amazing monograph “The Architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens.” Click the image for a larger file size. Apologies for the relatively poor quality as they were taken with my iPhone.