Skip to content

Architecture Misfit #35: Edwin Lutyens

Post date:

Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869 – 1944) was, for most of his architectural life, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959) and Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965). Like Frank Lloyd Wright, he built most of his important houses before the First World War and like Le Corbusier there was a major project for the Indian government. Le Corbusier, not usually given to praising other architects, said of Lutyens,   

[the Viceroy’s House at New Delhi] “was built by Lutyens over thirty years ago with extreme care, with great talent, with true success. The critics may rant as much as they like, but to have done such a thing demands respect (at least it demands my respect).”

[originally in] W. Boesiger, ed., Le Corbusier: Œuvre Complète 1952-1957, p50

After Lutyens’ death in 1944, in a review of the then recently published Lutyens Memorial volumes, Frank Lloyd Wright wrote he was pleased to

… voice admiration of the love, loyalty and art with which this cultured architecs, in love with Architecture, shaped his buildings. To him the English chimney, the Gable, the Gatepost monumentalised in good brickwork and cut-stone were motifs to be dramatised with great skill. He was able to idealise them with a success unequalled. Nor can I think of anyone able to so characteristically and quietly dramatise the old old English feeling for dignity and comfort in an interior, however or wherever that interior might be in England.

[originally in] Building XXVI July 1951, pp 260-2

Le Corbusier refers only to the project in India but the Frank Lloyd Wright quote shows a wider admiration that is easier to understand because he and Lutyens were both Edwardian architects thinking through and solving similar problems in different styles but often similar ways. Lutyens’s project in New Delhi provided a way of understanding Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, drawing our attention to statement urbanism giving way to buildings and the spaces between them, and then the spaces and how they connect inside those buildings. The question is: If Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier thought Edwin Lutyens an architect of worth, then why don’t we today? Here’s some possible reasons.

Lutyens found early fame, apparently effortlessly. This goes against the grain in a culture in which architects are supposed to mature only after forty and keep going until they drop. Lutyens did all that too. Frank Lloyd Wright used to advise young architects to build their first one far out of town. Lutyens was 19 when he designed Crooksbury and set up practice when the house was completed in 1890. Crooksbury is nothing to be ashamed of.

Because of Crooksbury, Lutyens met the landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll who had been wanting to build a house for many years and had been planting its gardens since 1883 in anticipation. Lutyens designed Munstead Wood for her and when it was published in Country Life in 1897, it was already surrounded by mature gardens that it seemed to have been designed for. Because it was. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership.

This is the house today. It has its own website.

Lutyens was popular as well as famous. And without any help from architectural media such as the fledgling Architectural Review or from architectural historians such as Henry-Russell Hitchcock who did publish a history of Lutyens in 1929, but almost thirty years after the magazine Country Life had published Munstead Wood. Country Life was probably the world’s first lifestyle magazine, aimed at the newly rich who could afford to live in the country but within commuting distance of London. It was the world of Room with a View, and Howard’s End.

The fictional house of the Honeychurch family in Room with a View is the 1883 Foxwold House by Sir Alexander Stenning for Horace Noble Pym. It’s a Lutyens precursor in drawing from Shaw and Webb, but is too easy to label as mock-Tudor.

Country Life‘s owner was Lutyens’ greatest patron, commissioning Lutyens for the company offices and two houses including The Deanery which was one of Lutyens’ first and Castle Drogo which was one of his last. Unlike Architectural Review, Country Life has gone from strength to strength. Below right is the cover of the current issue. [Have you got the right daffodils?]

The book Lutyens Country Houses “from the archives of Country Life” by Gavin Stamp and published by Monacelli in 2001 is easily found in libraries and bookshops.

It’s been said the houses were the wrong size. Although they were significantly smaller than Victorian mansions they were still too large to be run without servants yet not large enough or old enough to be thought worthy of protection as historic monuments. There may be an element of academic snobbery at work here. Clients for the grand Victorian mansions were initially landed gentry and only in the second half to the 19th century came to include those who made their fortunes through industry. The typical Lutyens client was engaged in newly-important occupations and were bankers, stockbrokers, industrialists and businessmen. [btw Edgar Kaufman Snr. was a retailer, Mon. Savoye was an insurance man.] After World War I, Victorian mansions were considered part of history rather than relics of a bygone era.

Lutyens didn’t keep sketchbooks. Many of the anecdotal stories in this post come from Elizabeth Wilhide’s 2000 book Sir Edwin Lutyens: Designing in the English Tradition. She writes that Lutyens was a sickly child and largely self-taught.

“Rather than sketch on paper, he used a small sheet of glass, drawing the view he framed using a sliver of sharpened soap. The result was a quick appreciation of perspective and how different planes of buildings related to each other and to a particular setting. A means of looking, rather than a means of recording, his glass pane, rinsed clear for every outing, served to develop his prodigious visual memory. Throughout his life, Lutyens frowned on 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.” p17

Lutyens was to remain a prolific sketcher and drawer throughout his life. After his death, some 80,000 drawings were recovered from his office, about 70% for buildings never built. Over say, a 50-year career, 80,000 is between four and five per day. Here’s the first five I found.

Lutyens had a sensitivity for vernacular and craft that went deeper than Arts & Crafts.

But Lutyens’s delight in the picturesque was not solely an aesthetic preference. The pragmatic side of his character … expressed itself in a deep curiosity about how such buildings were made… . [Edwin] became a frequent visitor to building sites, carpenters’ shops and builders’ yards in the quest for knowledge about the variety of craft and construction techniques that had been employed for centuries to create such ‘architecture without architects’. At this time, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, there was still much traditional craft and lore to be learned; skills that would all but vanish over the next half century. In Edwin Lutyens: A Memoir, Mary Lutyens writes about her father: “From old Tickner [the village carpenter] he learned the ways of wood and how to recognize when the oak was ready for felling by the taste of the acorn.’ ” p17

The houses had the wrong kind of outside, outside. Lutyens’ houses were on sites far smaller than Victorian mansions but their grounds were fundamentally different as they did not have to support game or livestock or produce vegetables. They were gardens. The Edwardians did not see gardens as extensions of the interior but as destinations in themselves.

The view from a window could be enjoyed anytime, and often was. These are the windows at Marshcourt. It was possible at the time to manufacture larger plans of glass but Lutyens’ preference was for smaller ones that didn’t produce a wall of glare.

Still, the thinking was that if one wanted to be outside then one went outside and enjoyed being outside. This is a very sensible attitude. (It is not like one is on a ship with only an ocean to look out at.) The connection to the garden was important and the ideal country house was not only in the country but part of it. The house was the entry to the garden. The Edwardian garden was a refuge from the greater world but it was also a pleasant place to be, full of experiences and sensations. There were places to walk, places to view, places to sit and Lutyens’ architectural sense of spatial drama combined well with Gertrude Jeckyll’s approach to plant selection and planting that was more naturalistic and less showy than some of its modern restorations suggest.

Insufficient interpenetration of inside and outside. The Edwardian taste may have been for indoors being indoors and outdoors being a garden but the two were by no means conceptually or architecturally separate. Many Lutyens houses have an entry courtyard on one side of an H-shaped plan so that the building shelters arriving carriages from wind. At Daneshill House, of which I shall write more, this entry court is an outdoor room created by a thick yew hedge. A more astonishing example is the staircase court at the Viceroy’s House in new Delhi where the carriages arrive in a room that would be indoors were it not for the absent ceiling. Both are examples of transitional spaces used for climate amelioration.

Lutyens designed houses that seemed bigger than they were. This is no crime, for not many people want a house that seems smaller than it actually is. I’ve mentioned the houses weren’t that small to start with and, though our definition of what constitutes small may have changed, getting more for one’s money never goes out of fashion. One main way of accomplishing this is through circulation routes that are not straightforward or capable of being understood in their entirety from a single position. Many drawings have been produced with dashed lines tracking paths through Lutyens’ houses’ ground floor plans. All major rooms on the ground floor can usually be entered and exited in at least two ways. This is consistent with the then existing practice of the owners of large English country houses treating visitors to a guided tour. The owners, for their part, no doubt took no small pride in showing (off) their house. One of the conceits of the guided tour was to never leave a room the way it was entered and, after a series of architectural events, to arrive back at the place the tour began, the success of the tour and the building being indicated by how surprised the visitors were upon realising that. Lutyens’ country houses are Victorian mansions downscaled for the new late-19th austerity but the patterns of movement through them are typical of the high-Victorian dinosaur mansions. [c.f. The Maximum Dwelling] More to the point, the idea of the promenade architectural is not a new one.

The plans of these and other houses all make sense in terms of a guided tour. Moreover, most of the plans are topologically similar in having the following connections but are allowed to be complicated by site-specific factors.

He designed houses that seemed older than they were. This is a Victorian hangover from designing for the newly monied, and probably has equivalents today. Lutyens’s houses may all seem old to us today but at the time they were said to seem neither new nor old, and without the affectation of wanting to be either. [c.f. The Maximum Dwelling: Respect] Whatever they were, they appealed to clients wanting to convey the impression of security and timelessness. One way Lutyens suggested the passage of time was to combine different architectural styles in the detailing. A classical fireplace or one in, say, the modern style of Wren was one way he suggested the modification of an older building.

Lutyens only built for rich people. Not so. Well, yes and no. This is Grosvenor Court, completed in 1928-1930 for the 6th Duke of Westminster, a rich person admittedly but, in 1937, the Duke’s trustees leased them (for a peppercorn rent of 1 shilling) to London’s Westminster Council on a 999-year lease with the proviso that they be used only as “dwellings for the working classes… and no other purpose.”

In 1990 the Council argued that the term “working class” was now meaningless and that the stipulation should be overturned, allowing them to sell the leaseholds of the flats to anyone, against the Duke’s wishes.[5][7][8] The Duke maintained that the properties should remain available as low-rent accommodation for those who could not afford to purchase long leaseholds. His freehold interest means the Duke can charge for extensions and structural alterations.[9] If a majority of a block becomes privately owned that majority can pay for and cease his future such rights: via collective enfranchisement.[10] The case was dubbed Westminster v Westminster by the media.[11]

This all goes to show that architects can design workable social housing when there is the political will for them to do so. Grosvenor Court still functions as social housing, despite Westminster Council. When it comes to social housing, realities that work are preferable to visions that remain unbuilt.

Lutyens is too picturesque. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is a modern house in that the landscape is there to be admired from within the house. The house is the destination and not an entry point to its surroundings. To this day, we continue to appreciate and understand Fallingwater as picturesque composition, and even then mostly from that one position. Lutyens’s didn’t invent picturesque composition any more than Wright did, but Lutyens’s houses have more sides to them. With Lutyens’s houses, picturesque composition is generally limited to the close relationship with the garden design. This doesn’t happen so much anymore, and is perhaps why the houses seem dated. It’s our loss.

Lindisfarane Castle (1906-1912) is an example of Lutyens creating a picturesque composition with a landscape feature.

Lutyens is insufficiently serious. Allan Greenburg uses the word paradox in his 2007 book Lutyens And The Modern Movement, itself a reprint of a 1964 essay that was responsible for a momentary resurgence of interest in Lutyens. Paradox is the setting up of rules and then breaking them. We don’t know if Lutyens did or even would have used to the word paradox but we understand the concept because the idea of paradox was to resurface later in the 20th century as contradiction.

  • A symmetrical house volume contains an asymmetrical circulation pattern.
  • There is a solid element such as a fireplace precisely where two major axes cross.
  • A house is symmetrical and “formal” on one side yet asymmetrical and “informal” on the other.

Lutyens’ use of paradox is, as claimed by Greenburg and also by Stamp, what prevents his houses from being “bombastic”, apparently. Along with the seemingly illogical pattern of movement, this quality of paradox is also responsible for generating the “informality” that Muthesius mistook for modernity. It was to be another six or eight decades before paradox was properly identified and accepted as a modern architectural device and even then only after Venturi had traced its pedigree back to Italian Baroque. Venturi equates paradox and contradiction so I think we can agree we’re talking about the same thing.

Lutyens was insufficiently international. It’s odd that Henry-Russell Hitchock was writing about Lutyens in 1929 and, less than two years later, about everyone else but Lutyens. It seems we can’t trust historians to show us the bigger picture. It is true that Lutyens, much like his houses, were rooted in their place but Lutyens did have commissions in other countries and, as an extension of his belief that a building should be have roots in its location, he adapted his allowed local conditions and motifs to influence the design. It is an international approach and not a style as such. Le Bois Des Moutiers from 1924 is, as you imagine, in France and less English than the other houses, so much so that even Country Life wasn’t to publish it or the other French houses until 1981.

The layout of the Viceroy’s House in New Dehli is generally regarded as being climatically responsive, the domes and sharp cornices as providing dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, in its layout, and the architectural devices suggesting what classical architecture could have been had it developed in India from Hindu and Mughal traditions.

There’s also the palace of El Guadalperal (1915-1934), designed for the eighteenth Duke of Peñaranda as a country house on his estate in south west Spain. It does the same thing for classicism in Spain.

There’s also the British Embassy in Washington. An embassy building is a kind of ambassador, yet one that’s familiar with the local culture. Whether this building is British or American, both or none I can’t say.

Over-reliance on local materials. I’ve already mentioned how Lutyens believed that buildings , should emerge from their local context and not comprise disparate elements and design ideas borrowed from radically different locations. He believed one would never get the colour of a building wrong as long as one used local materials. If there was granite nearby then the building was made of granite. If there was chalk then chalk it was. Local stone of lesser quality could still be incorporated into garden walls and pergolas.

Gertrude Jekyll said there was something nice about knowing the forest where the oak trees were felled [25 years or so prior!!] to make the beams in one’s house. She said she chose the bedroom at the end of the gallery at Munstead Wood so she could have the pleasure of walking along it every day.

Using local materials used to be best practice because it was economically expedient. Much of Georgian London as built by Cubbitt was constructed from bricks made from clay excavated from what were to be basements. The 1903 Daneshill House was built from bricks specially made from the local clay of Basingstoke.

“Lutyens and [the client] Walter Hoare visited the ruins of Basing House, destroyed during the Civil War, where Lutyens admired the colour and quality of the Elizabethan bricks from which the ruined house had been constructed and whose slighting had provided bricks to rebuild the village of Old Basing. Lutyens said that he would build Hoare a house if clay could be found of the same quality. They found a local source and a brickworks was set up employing 12 workman who produced particularly beautiful narrow bricks about 10” x 5” x 11⁄2”. Lutyens then encouraged Hoare to set up a company and The Daneshill Brick and Tile Company was formed.

The former offices of the Daneshill Brick and Tile Company still exist in what is remains an industrial area. This is the building and one of its fireplaces.

Daneshill House I know well because it was converted into a business centre that housed the practice where I first worked as an assistant architect [with my desk against the wall but not quite in front of the leftmost dormer]. The south side of the building looked across the Gertrude Jekyll garden with a series of lavender-terraced lawns overlooking the countryside.

The downstairs reception rooms had Lutyens’ circuitous circulation and illustrate the house as entry to the garden. Fireplaces showcase the local brick.

There was simply too much attention to craftmanship! Edwin Lutyens did not design for machines. He never did, he never wanted to and he did not pretend to want to. In that vein, Lutyens had no thoughts on how architecture should be taught. He was too occupied and preoccupied doing it. He never went to a university. He was not interested in teaching. He began his career as he intended to go on, using local materials worked by local tradespeople and craftspersons and the results could not be any more locality specific or any less anonymous, or any less “international” as we’ve come to understand the term. Designing for craftspersons is different from designing for machine production because machines don’t talk back or have conversations from which both parties can learn how to design and collaborate better.

Lutyens had a way with staircases and iron balustrades and fireplaces and window reveals but he had a way with everything. In the door of the centre image below, the door furniture is handmade and the hinges are recessed into the door. The carved blocks at the top vent what looks like a closet. There is no need for them them be carved. The chalk walls at Marshcourt do not have to have blocks of flints interspersed and, even if they did, there is no special need to order those flints into rows.

If, at Marshcourt for example, chalk was found locally, then it would have been quite likely there was somebody local and skilled at carving it. That someone might not have had the idea of designing the local flowers into classical swags carved into a decorative cornice. These were some of Lutyens’ s 80,000 drawings.

Still at Marshcourt, we have panels of handmade emerald green tiles and marble, with quoins defining virtual columns defining the space. That, along with underfloor heating, heated towel rails, and light streaming in through the windows and you have my definition of perfection in a bathroom. It’s exquisite and unattainable and, needless to say, because the 20th century went the way it did, as inconceivable to us now as all of the rest if it has become.

I’ve reached the end and not even begun to do justice to this wonderful architect. Every three decades or so, upon some anniversary, there’s a resurgence of interest in Lutyens and then he’s forgotten again. Upon the occasion of Gavin Stamp’s death, a January 2018 Architecture Review article reprinted Stamp’s 1981 article on Lutyens. Not much has changed. It’s still appropriate to finish a re-introduction to the work of Edwin Lutyens with the words that Greenburg used to finish his in 1969.

In 1967 Alan Colquhoun wrote: “It would seem that we ought to try to establish a value system which takes account of the forms and solutions of the past, if we are to gain control over concepts which will intrude themselves into the creative process, whether we like it or not.” Architecture springs from the and and the mind, combining the ability to manipulate forms in space and to relate them to the world of ideas. As sculptors of architectural form, Le Corbusier and Lutyens are probably without contemporary rivals. Their work is related by a mutual love of geometry and proportion, and by roots buried deep in the history of architecture. It is part of a continuing dialogue with and commentary on the past. It is ironic but also fitting that these two men, one of whom was for so long the undisputed leader of the modern movement while the other was a prime symbol of reaction, should share this great common legacy. That confluence underlines our desperate need for a more comprehensive frame of reference to relate the architecture of the past to the architecture of the present. Architectural history, working as it does with existing or recorded artefacts, cannot afford to ignore an entire segment of experience.

To this I can only add that architecture, working as it does with present and future artefacts, can’t really afford to either.

• • • 

Sir Edwin Lutyens!

for being very very good at what you did

misfits’ salutes you!

• • • 



  • Graham, what took you so long?

    I was not truly convinced in all things until I purchased Butler’s 3 volume treatise of his life’s works including drawings and B&W photos, when it was reprinted in the 1980s.

    • says:

      I know I know – but I don’t know what took me so long. I really only learned of Lutyens in 1999 but only this year did I get to thinking why he is not taught or remembered and I think it’s because he’s an inconvenient reminder of all that was lost post 1930 and certainly post 1950. I’ve yet to see something midway between Grosvenor Estate and the houses. But congratulations on buying the reprint – the three volumes are $1,100 used on Amazon! I’m curious to see the drawings. There’s no end of photographs old and new but very few drawings to be found. I’m still wondering what lessons we can learn from his life and career. Design for local materials? Design for construction? Don’t go to university?

  • says:

    In 1999 I visited Lindisfarne Castle, because it was conveniently in my way exploring Eastern England. I knew about Lutyens from Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction principally, but a few other sources as well, and wasn’t extremely impressed or excited about his work.
    Lindisfarne simply blew me away. The circulation made no rational sense to me, but was rich, compelling, simple and complex, ordinary and utterly astounding, I was confounded and in love.
    Jekyll’s garden on the coastal plain below was exquisitely dumb.
    I knew I had entered an alternate universe to the Neolithic-Egypto-Mesopotamian-Graeco-Hellenistic-Roman-Buddhist-Hindu-Gothic-Islamic-Renaissance-Baroque-Gaudinian-Modernist-Fractal-Chaotic architectures I knew and felt amply defined the history of our profession.
    I remain humbly confounded by Lutyens.

    • says:

      Sergio your comment made me think of perhaps another reason why Lutyens isn’t better remembered. I forget which of the three books I read it in, but the author said that Lutyens would have disagreed with Le Corbusier’s statement that “the plan is the generator.” The plan was of course important for Lutyens but it wasn’t everything (was the author’s gist). Rather, Lutyens seems to have conceived of his designs as volumes, each of them linked in a spatial sequence with slight (or great) differences in shape, volume or illumination between them. As you wrote, this is a very different way of designing. Movement and anticipation and changes in illumination are all resistant to being photographed.I don’t think the photographs of Lutyens houses do them justice. The only one I have firsthand experience of is Daneshill House and how the ground floor spaces all linked to each other is what I remember best about it, rather than the individual rooms or features.

  • Hard not to admire Lutyens, as your lovely survey shows. I remember coming across Heathcote in Ilkley for the first time – an Edwardian villa standing in a street of others but like no other – and being amazed.

    • says:

      Heathcote is one of the houses in Gavin Stamp’s book. It’s pretty impressive. I just noticed those quirky quoins in the upper floor, balancing the oriel windows. Great stuff!