The buildings along India’s ‘power corridor’ – Raisina Hill – are among the finest specimens of colonial architecture in the subcontinent as well as one of the most visible legacies of British rule in the region. The names of Edwin Lutyens, architect and designer of the imperial capital of Delhi, and leading architect Herbert Baker are indelibly linked with the construction of the crown jewels of New Delhi – the Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) and the twin secretariat buildings (now the North and South Blocks).
The making of the new imperial capital was a complicated affair complete with marathon debates and discussions, bureaucratic hassles, power struggles, personality and ego clashes and cost and time overruns. Underlining this complex tale is an intriguing story of a long-standing friendship between Lutyens and Baker turning sour, which affected the way the ‘power corridor’ ultimately shaped up.
It was at the Coronation Durbar of 1911 that the British monarch George V announced the transfer of the seat of government from Calcutta to Delhi. A town planning committee was formed immediately with Lutyens, John A. Broodie (an engineer) and S. C. Swinton (municipal issues expert) and members. Reversing an earlier decision to build the colonial capital in the area north of the 17th century Mughal city of Shahjahanabad, they chose a rocky outcrop called Raisina Hill as the new site.
Old friends become colleagues
Once Lutyens (1869-1944) won the contract for designing the new capital, Sir Thomas Holderness, the permanent secretary at the India office, persuaded him to share the commission with Baker (1862-1946). Lutyens was more than happy to bring on board an old architect friend. They had first met each other at the office of Ernest George and Peto in London where Lutyens worked as an apprentice and Baker as a draughtsman. The two had gradually become friends and kept in touch through letters even when they moved to different professional locations.
Baker arrived in India in February 1913. According to the agreement signed between His Majesty’s Government and the two architects, Lutyens would design the Government House (later called the Viceroy’s House) and the overall layout of the city and Baker would take care of the twin secretariat buildings. The two architects were to be paid a fee of 5% of the total cost of the project and a body called the Imperial Delhi Committee was set up to collaborate with them. The two architects, based in different locations – Lutyens in London and Baker in South Africa – were required to visit Delhi at least once a year for the period deemed necessary by the committee.
The two old friends, now colleagues, brought together different experiences, perspectives and skill sets. While Lutyens had designed private and country homes in England, Baker had worked on a wide range of buildings in South Africa, Australia, France, Belgium and England. They were, however, strongly united in their assertion that classical architecture was far superior to Indian architecture.
Lutyens was known for his uncompromising adherence to European classicism. To him, as historian Thomas R. Metcalf points out, the line of descent of architecture was straight and clear – emerging from the Greeks to the Romans to the Italians to the French to the English via the acclaimed architect Christopher Wren. Lutyens regarded Indian architectural interventions as mere ‘spurts by various mushroom dynasties with as much intellect as there is in any art nouveau’. Indian buildings, according to him, reflected a childish ignorance of even the basic principle of architecture. He also firmly believed that in countries outside of Europe ‘without a great architectural tradition of their own, it was even more essential to adhere strictly to the canons of the architectural style’.
Baker too felt that Indian architecture did not have the ‘constructive and geometric quality necessary to embody the idea of law and order which had been produced out of chaos by the British administration’. However, as Metcalf points out, Baker was of the view that the design was neither going to be Indian or Roman or English but purely imperial – ‘The new capital must be the sculptural monument of the good government and unity which India, for the first time in history, has enjoyed under British rule.’ Further, ‘British rule in India was not a mere veneer of government and culture. It is a new civilisation in growth, a blend of best elements of East and West. The new city had to embody this synthesis in its style and layout.’
The then viceroy, Lord Hardinge, played an influential role in the planning of the new capital. He finally decided upon western-style classical architecture with details being filled up by Indian motifs. Lutyens and Baker found sufficient common ground to create a harmonious set of buildings on the Raisina Hill.
Differences in architectural styles
The difference in their respective architectural perceptions manifested in the buildings they designed individually. Baker’s twin secretariat buildings combine European-style columns and Renaissance-like dome with Indian architectural elements like the use of red sandstone, jalis (perforated screens), chajja (eaves), chhatris (canopies) carved brackets as well as elephant-heads on pillar capitals.
Lutyens’s Viceroy House, on the other hand, looks more classical with not so much of a conscious blending of the West and the East. He was perhaps more keen on creating a new architectural form. The great dome at the Viceroy House came in for particular praise from Robert Byron for its ‘individuality, its difference from every dome since the Pantheon’.
Their differences came out in the open on several occasions. One such project was the council house (now parliament house). It was originally meant to be located within the Viceroy’s House but for the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms (1919) which expanded the representative machinery and created the need for a new building.
Baker’s first plan was to have an equilateral triangle with three sides housing the three chambers – the Council of State (now Rajya Sabha), the legislative assembly (now Lok Sabha) and the Chamber of Princes – linked to a central imposing dome. Lutyens, however, insisted on a ‘circular Colosseum design’. Baker later admitted to being ‘declared out’ and reduced the grandeur scale and proportions of the building.
Lutyens and Baker also differed on the location of the Columns of the Dominion of the Empire presented by the Commonwealth countries including Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Lutyens wrote: ‘Baker has collated the emblems of the Colonies for his babu court [area in front of the secretariat buildings] instead of my Great Place [Vijay Chowk].’
Fault line in friendship begins to emerge
One place where their differing perspectives took an ugly turn was the location of the secretariat buildings vis-à-vis the Government House. By the time Baker had arrived, several key decisions regarding the new capital had already been taken – the focus of the plan was to be Viceroy’s House on its citadel at Raisina Hill. The hill was seen as an Indian acropolis with Viceroys’s House as the Parthenon. Baker agreed with the idea of an acropolis capital which was congruent with his classical sentiments.
However, he insisted on one major alteration, namely that the secretariats be moved up on to the acropolis with the Viceroy’s House. It should form ‘one high platform expressing the importance of the unity of the viceroy with his government’, he said.
What implications would this have for the overall layout of the capital? First, it meant that the Viceroy’s House had to be pushed further back and away from the top of the Raisina Hill. Lutyens agreed though it entailed additional costs in clearing and flattening a larger area to accommodate the twin buildings. Second, the gradient leading up to the hill had to be gentle to give a harmonious and balanced effect to the altered architectural scheme.
However, Baker, who oversaw the construction of the slope, allowed for too steep a gradient. This created a situation which Lutyens later described as his ‘Bakerloo’. As one looks at the Raisina Hill buildings from Vijay Chowk, the Viceroy’s House disappears and only its dome is visible. Lutyens had always wanted it to stand on top of the hill so that it could dominate an otherwise flat landscape. However, Baker’s twin buildings, originally meant to stand at a slightly lower level, got in the way.
Lutyens had seen the perspective plan of the buildings earlier but had failed to take adequate notice of the gradient. When he discovered it finally, it was perhaps too late. Lutyens wrote to his wife Emily: ‘I am having difficulty with Baker. You remember the perspective showing the secretariats with Government House. Well, he has designed his levels so that you will never see Government House at all from the Great Place. You will [only] see the top of the dome.’
Loss of ‘trust and confidence’
Expressing his helplessness at the issue, Lutyens targeted Baker directly in a letter dated July 4, 1922: ‘….I realise that the present financial crisis in India makes it impossible to reopen a question which involves spending of some thousands of pounds in repairing a mistake. But this in no way alters my opinion that a colossal artistic blunder has been made, and future generations will, I am convinced, recognise this and condemn its perpetrator.’
Further in the letter, he says: ‘I used to count you as one of my best friends and a man I held in great affection, but I cannot help feeling that a great deal of my work in Delhi has been wasted and spoilt because I trusted to your loyal cooperation; and that this trust has been misplaced.’
He concludes the letter saying: ‘We have to continue to work together, and I am willing to do my best’ and then quoting Robert Browning he says: ‘but where trust and confidence has once been lost, it can never be glad confident morning again.’
In a reply dated July 14, 1922, Baker accused Lutyens of reopening a ‘closed controversy’ and ‘flogging a dead horse’. He wrote: ‘… [I]f, as you say, there has been a “colossal artistic blunder”, it is one for which you must share the responsibility.’ He reminds Lutyens about how the plans and general features had emerged out of a joint initial conception accepted by the viceroy and his government. He also talks about ‘Lord Hardinge’s judgment at a later date on your appeal to change the design of the Processional Way [Raj Path].’
Lutyens tried very hard to get this remedied but could not succeed. The capital was inaugurated in 1931 amidst lot of pomp and show. It was finally built at the cost of Rs 13 crore as opposed to the original budget of Rs 9 crore. It was only much later in 1944, when Lutyens died, that Baker admitted to a fault line in his friendship and ascribed it to their different perspectives of art.
In an obituary published in The Times (London), he talked about ‘a friendship which survived the sunshine and storms of a long association’. He wrote: ‘But looking after these many years – and the capital buildings of Delhi stand united in conception together, and are, I think I may say, acclaimed by all – I can see more clearly that our personal differences had their roots in our natures and outlook on our art. He [Lutyens] concentrated his extraordinary powers and immense industry on the abstract and intellectual values to the sacrifice sometimes, I considered, of human and national sentiment and its expression in our buildings. Is it not a natural difference of outlook and one which is inherent in an eternal conflicting dualism in all the arts?’
The Raisina Hill buildings continue to attract thousands of visitors from across the world for the sense of grandeur they project. To those in the know, Lutyens’s ‘Bakerloo’ is not only a reminder of a friendship that soured during the designing of India’s power corridor but also a reflection on how grand designs of empire play out. For many who see Rashtrapati Bhavan in the here and now, its location may seem to embody its place in the working of the Indian republic.
Shashank Shekhar Sinha has taught history in undergraduate colleges at the University of Delhi. He does independent research on tribes, gender, violence, culture and heritage.