LET THERE BE NEW DELHI, SAID GEORGE V March 28, 1982, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 12, Column 1; Book Review Desk
By PAUL GOLDBERGER; Paul Goldberger is the architecture critic of The New York Times and the author of ''The City Observed: New York'' and ''The Skyscraper.''
INDIAN SUMMER Lutyens, Baker and Imperial Delhi. By Robert Grant Irving. Illustrated. 406 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press. $39.95.
TOO few books about architecture are stories -too few of them have a beginning, a middle and an end. Not the least of the pleasures of Robert Grant Irving's handsome and well-illustrated ''Indian Summer'' is that it is a narrative, the long and complex saga of the creation of New Delhi over the years 1911 to 1931. Architectural history is here truly one part architecture and one part history.
There is, in fact, no other sensible way to tell this tale, which has almost enough of a story to it to make the book a candidate for a film treatment. Consider the plot: King George V arrives in India in 1911 and, at a dazzling coronation pageant attended by 100,000, reveals to the crowds what has been ''the best-kept secret in the history of India,'' the British Government's plan to transfer the capital from Calcutta to Delhi.
Both India and England are thrown into debate over every aspect of the plan, from the very idea of it to the cost to the specific part of Delhi in which the new capital will be located. Two of England's most celebrated architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker, are given the commissions to design the new buildings; they not only become involved in controversy over whether or not their designs should reflect the architectural traditions of India, but squabble to such an extent that they cease speaking to each other. The project takes 20 years instead of the expected three, and when it is finally finished it is an imperial capital for a dying empire, for it has only a few years to shine before the end of British rule in 1947.
That there is much to learn from such imperialistic architectural adventures goes without saying; Mr. Irving, a Yale- and Oxfordeducated architect, is conscious of the irony of this stupendous city completed just in time for its own obsolescence, and he does not belabor it. He presents New Delhi as an awesome architectural achievement, executed with immense skill, but carried out on what can only be called shaky ideological ground. In this sense, however, New Delhi has no precise equivalent in our time. It is not like Mussolini's or Hitler's vast construction projects, for many aspects of New Delhi, most particularly the great Viceroy's House by Lutyens, are architecturally quite brilliant. But neither is it like Canberra or Brasilia, for it was not built by a native government, hoping in some way to express the aspirations of its own culture, but by the rulers of another culture altogether.
The clashes between the culture and architecture of India and England form a large part of this book, and they speak, of course, with relevance to us today. Both Lutyens and Baker were classicists - Lutyens an inventive eclectic who tended toward a more personal and idiosyncratic architecture than did the proper and stuffy Baker, but a classicist nonetheless. Neither man was likely to suggest an architecture that relied heavily on Indian tradition. Lutyens especially believed that he had come to the subcontinent to bring Western culture to it, and he saw no reason to work in accord with the traditions of a place that, in Mr. Irving's words, he felt ''had no real architecture: the buildings were just tents in stone and little more.''
Before their falling-out, Lutyens wrote Baker his formula of how to create Mogul Indian architecture: ''Build a vasty mass of rough concrete, elephant-wise on a very simple rectangular-cum-octagon plan, dome in space anyhow. Cut off square. Overlay with a veneer of stone patterns.... Inlay jewels & cornelians if you can afford it, & rob someone if you can't. And then on top of the mass, put on 3 turnips in concrete & overlay with stone or marble as before. Be very careful not to bond anything in, & don't care a damn if it all comes to pieces.''
There is not a little racism in these words, funny as they are; what Mr. Irving tells us about Lutyens is a rather helpful balance to the reputation of the architect. The recent surge of interest in Lutyens's work, which climaxed in a huge retrospective show of his architecture this winter at the Hayward Gallery in London, has led to a general sense that he could do no wrong. Lutyens never achieved much respect either for India, which he called ''a heartbreaking country,'' or for the Indians themselves. Lord Hardinge, the viceroy at the time New Delhi was begun, wanted the architecture to pay at least some attention to the Indian vernacular ''lest Indians justly complain that he had ignored their tastes while asking them to underwrite the cost.'' Others used less pragmatic reasons for suggesting some sort of composite style; E.B. Havell, a writer on Indian art, wanted the buildings to be ''a bridge between the cultures.''
SUCH grandiose language was not at all out of character for this enterprise; the expectations for New Delhi were overblown in every way. In the end, however, what is most remarkable is how fine the architecture turned out to be. There was really no reason to fear that Lutyens would impose Western classicism literally, despite his harsh words; his inherently eclectic design sense led him ultimately to a remarkable blend of Western and Indian influences for the Viceroy's House.
It is an extraordinary house -perhaps the most extraordinary house that has been constructed in the 20th century. It is 630 feet long - longer than Versailles -and contains 340 rooms; it is perhaps closer than anything built in our time to the fantasy of an immense palace for a potentate that every student at the Ecole des Beaux Arts designed in the 19th century.
But this is a work of genius, whatever the social attitudes behind it. The building looks like a vast, solid mass; the colonnades surrounding it and the spaces within seem carved almost out of a single piece, yet the arrangement of rooms is at once intricate and dramatic; Lutyens's ability to create processional architecture, architecture that depends for its effect on our approach and movement through a sequence of varied spaces, was unsurpassed.
Mr. Irving describes all of this well, with an understanding of how, through Lutyens's high, molded space in the great throne room, ''human control over the world stage - British imperial control - is insistently, inescapably, dramatized.'' The description of this awesome work of architecture is the climactic moment of ''Indian Summer.'' After that Mr. Irving's narrative loses a bit of its steam. We are told little, unfortunately, of how British rule came to an end, or of how New Delhi has fared in the years since independence. But this is a minor flaw in a book that is a rich blend of architectural, political and social history.
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