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Lutyens and Le Corbusier: from heritage to history

About the author

Jane Ridley is professor of History at Buckingham University and author of The Young Disraeli. Her latest book is Bertie, a biography of King Edward VII. 

openDemocracy is right to address the future of our cities. For too long we have been preoccupied with the state of the countryside, but it is Britain’s towns and cities that are really sick. Jules Lubbock has shown that urban density in England is the highest in Europe. Contrary to popular belief, England is not a country of sprawling suburbs. Three-quarters of the population is packed into 7 per cent of the land. Yet we ignore the sick tower blocks and underclass ghettoes, we pass by the beggars and asylum seekers who crowd the London streets. Instead we moan about hedgerows. We should be debating Ken Livingstone’s plans for London, yet all we do is bleat about farmers. It’s a strange paradox that the issue which fired real political passion in the largest progressive majority ever elected was the proposal to abolish foxhunting. The countryside has become sacrosanct, and ecology is the opium of Blair’s people.

Jules Lubbock argues that the solution to the urban crisis is to dismantle the entire post-war planning system with its distinction between town and country and allow a building free-for-all. This solution is elegantly radical, but we need more detail before it becomes practical. Roger and Sophie Scruton are right to insist that the urban crisis is aesthetic. They argue that architectural modernism has caused our problems and call for a return to the classical values that have been the historic inspiration for city builders.

Charles Landry has appealed for a new type of planning which he calls civic creativity, a holistic approach which takes in a far wider perspective than the old planning of engineering and land use. His utopia may not be possible to achieve within the existing institutional framework of local government. But he is surely right to highlight the way corporations are transforming retailing into entertainment. Disneyland and Niketown deliver experience and “story”. When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. Selfridges is retail therapy – though even Selfridges has a classical façade.

The Scrutons are dead right to stress the value of a historical perspective. History in the 21st century has become dysfunctional. Our appetite for history and art history as leisure subjects is apparently insatiable. History programmes on TV score record ratings, queues for National Gallery exhibitions are longer than ever before and National Trust membership grows. But no one today would dream of applying the insights of history to the real world. The custodian of history is the heritage industry, and it has succeeded in packaging history and making it seem yet another theme park, a quaint escapist fantasy lacking any relevance to the concerns of today’s society. Paradoxically, the heritage industry has cut us off from our past. We are less aware of our roots than ever before.

Nowhere is history more important than in the city. This is not only a matter of conservation and heritage, of preserving old buildings and designing new ones that are not carbuncles. It is also a matter of understanding where we have come from in order to see where we are going now.

Two artist-architects in India

The art history of the modern city can be expressed in terms of the careers of two leading 20th century architects, Lutyens and Le Corbusier. Conventional wisdom teaches that Lutyens was the end of a chapter and Le Corbusier the beginning. Le Corbusier has been hailed as an architectural visionary and modernist guru. Lutyens, on the other hand, is seen as the last of the humanists, the final flowering of Renaissance classicism. Lutyens left no school, but Corbusier was the father of 20th-century city planning.

So much for the conventional wisdom. I suggest that it needs revision. Le Corbusier, not Lutyens, represents yesterday’s architecture, the bad old days of the modernist city. Lutyens’s work holds the key to the future. He is not an Edwardian reactionary but a 21st century icon.

Oddly enough, Lutyens and Le Corbusier had much in common. They were born within twenty years of one another – Lutyens in 1869, Le Corbusier in 1887. Both were autodidacts who saw themselves as artist-architects rather than professional men. Corbusier spent every morning painting, and only did architecture in the afternoons. Lutyens designed all day and late into the night, but like Corbusier he resisted the move to make architecture a profession rather than an art. Both made their reputations by designing villas for a wealthy, cultured elite: not for the aristocracy but for the leisured upper middle classes. Stranger still, both designed cities in India – Le Corbusier’s concrete city of Chandigarh was commissioned by Nehru, leader of a newly independent India, in response to Lutyens’s imperial city of New Delhi.

But there the similarities end. Le Corbusier was a prolific polemicist. Only now is it apparent how pernicious his influence has been. As an artist-architect he could touch the sublime, but as a policy-maker and social thinker he was disastrous. Lutyens distrusted words and believed that true art begins where words leave off, but he has far more to teach us today. His work shows a way forward for the modern city, a way of repairing the damage wrought by Le Corbusier’s disciples.

Le Corbusier was one of the first architects to grasp the design possibilities of reinforced concrete. It allowed him to escape the constraints that had historically limited architects. The house became a kind of shoe box hung from a steel structure, within which space could circulate freely, and walls and partitions inserted at will. Plan was no longer a function of construction.

The principles of modern architecture, said Le Corbusier, could be reduced to five points: 1. pilotis (concrete stilts supporting the house, carrying waste and electrics); 2. free plan; 3. horizontal windows; 4. free façade; 5. roof terrace.

Houses without liveability

All these points are beautifully realised by looking at Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye outside Paris. Its photograph hangs on the wall of many architects’ offices today. The Villa Savoye was a medium-size house for a private patron; moreover, for much of its life it has stood empty, being extremely uncomfortable to live in and unable to adapt itself to the life-style of anyone save the original patron. Like much modern art, it was addressed to an elite. With modern architecture as private good we cannot quarrel. But, as Roger and Sophie Scruton have pointed out, of all the arts architecture is the most democratic and public. It is a public good. And it is here, in the public sphere, that Le Corbusier’s influence has been disastrous.

Wearing trademark round black spectacles, Le Corbusier enjoyed playing the role of architectural guru. As a socialist, he was especially interested in town planning. Discussing the town plan of Paris in the 1920s, he laid down what he called four brutal axioms: 1. town centres must be made less congested; 2. town centres must be more densely built up; 3. means of transport must be increased; 4. there must be an increase in open spaces.

Le Corbusier knew exactly how greater urban density was to be achieved: through low-cost concrete housing, piling box-like dwellings one upon another high up in the air. Le Corbusier hated garden cities. Instead he wanted to design a “vertical garden city”, such as the Unite d’Habitation he created in Marseilles, which offered shops and amenities within a single tall building. The result is admired by architects, but not, on the whole, by the residents.

With or against the Indian grain?

In considering Le Corbusier’s conception of the public realm it is fruitful to compare Lutyens in New Delhi (1912-31) with Le Corbusier in Chandigarh (1951-59). Lutyens studied existing Indian traditions, and did his best to learn from them and respect what they said about climate, social expectations and lifestyle. The result was an architecture that was noble, peaceful and functional, which is as admired and cherished today as when it was built. Indians don’t see the Viceroy’s house as a symbol of imperial domination; on the contrary, they use it as the presidential residence, recognising that its titanic dome and Moghul garden make it into a lasting symbol of India and its meaning. Its cliff-like walls of pink and cream Dholpur stone slope inwards, incorprating chujjahs, the shadow-casting cornices familiar from Mughal architecture which play such an important role in keeping the building cool.

At Chandigarh, by contrast, Le Corbusier showed an insolent disregard for the traditions, social order and climate of India. He eliminated the shadow-filled alleways, narrow streets and inward-looking houses of the traditional Indian city, even though these are a vital weapon in the daily battle against the sun. He made no provision for traditional activities such as bazaars, travelling vendors and open-air entertainment. None of his buildings are able to change their function easily, and none fulfil their original function well. His government buildings are particularly disastrous, wholly isolated from the rest of the city, their vast scale allowing an insupportable level of heat and glare. Equally horrible are the exposed concrete surfaces, inhuman in texture and appearance, and now horribly soiled.

Le Corbusier’s inability to design public space goes hand-in-hand with his modernist arrogance. But his polemics chimed perfectly with the aims of British town planners after the 1947 Act – namely, to create a strict differential between inner city and agricultural land, to zone the cities into residential and office areas and cram as much population as possible into low-cost high-density housing. In the name of Le Corbusier, old slum housing was not restored but demolished and high tower blocks erected. The assumption throughout was that governments and administrators had a right to shift populations, to demolish settlements, to manipulate people as though they were objects. Marx’s horrible prophecy was being fulfilled through architecture, as the “government of men” gave way to “the administration of things”. The tower block is the final recognition that, for the modernist, men are things.

We are all familiar with the squalid, depressing results – even though Ken Livingstone has produced a town plan for London which suggests that he has learned nothing from the failures of the past half century. The bankruptcy of post-1947 planning has led Richard Rogers et al to propose urban villages, where everything is within a ten minute walk. Jules Lubbock proposes the abolition of the 1947 planning regime and abandonment of the principle of concentration. Either way there is an aesthetic issue here. For the fact is that modernist construction won’t work in these contexts.

Sophie and Roger Scruton propose classicism as the urban vernacular, simple to replicate, following fixed rules about proportions and window heights. Of course, it’s no good trying to turn the clock back and build classical pastiche in the centre of our cities. That was the trouble with Edwardian baroque: it was heavy facadism. Classicism needs to move on. This is where Lutyens may have something to teach us.

Designing for difference

When he read Le Corbusier in the 1920s, Lutyens talked of our need for soft-muffled plaster walls, for houses that respected our human dimensions, for windows partitioned into panes. He understood the need to make houses human and he rejected the modernist idea of the house as machine. Lutyens came to architecture from a tradition that suggests an alternative aesthetic to the modern movement. He began his career as an Arts and Crafts architect in Surrey, designing villas in the local vernacular. He never lost the Arts and Crafts feel for local materials and texture, for craftsmanship and local skills. This is something that modernism, with its reinforced concrete and prefabricated structures, has destroyed altogether. Like the local food economy food, we need to get it back; modernism is to building what the supermarket is to food, and not for nothing has it been described as the “international style”.

But Lutyens disliked the idea of a William Morris-like socialist/medieval village community. Nor did he buy into the idea of the architect as social reformer, moulding people’s lives and creating ideal communities. At Hampstead Garden Suburb, he designed Central Square as an aesthetic experience. His country houses have circulating plans, rather than straight axes; they set up expectations only to baffle them, and arrive at an unexpected climax. At Hampstead he did the same. He designed a square where the pedestrian, moving through the central space, sees different vistas, playing games with perspective. People were not things for Lutyens, but moral beings, with social and aesthetic needs.

Learning from Lutyens

According to modernist critics like Nikolas Pevsner, the Arts and Crafts movement ought to have developed towards art nouveau and hence modernism. In the case of Lutyens this didn’t happen. Instead, by his “turn to classicism” in the years before 1914, he caused the abortion of the modern movement in this country. Lutyens is seen as the great betrayer, and his classical work has been dismissed as mere historical pastiche.

In fact the opposite is the case: Lutyens developed a new kind of classicism, known as elemental classicism. Take the memorials he designed after the Great War. Instead of heavy, fussy stone crosses, he designed two simple structures: the stone of remembrance, which is the prototype for the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and the memorial arch. The stone of remembrance is a segment of a circle; its centre is some 1000 feet below the earth. All the vertical lines would meet at some thousand or so feet into the sky. In other words, rather than a solid square, the stone is slightly curved: this is playing with the classical concept of entasis, or curving a column. With the memorial arches at Thiepval he took another simple classical concept, the triumphal arch. At Thiepval he piled arches upon arches in strict geometrical ratio to create an extraordinarily moving memorial to the missing of the Somme, inscribed with the names of the dead. For Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral (unbuilt) he used the same structure of massed monumental arches.

Geometrical inventiveness underlies some of his greater pieces of city architecture. The Midland Bank at Poultry in the City of London plays with the idea of the wall. When he designed castles like Drogo, he took the idea of the castle and played with it, hinting at “enlargement” and climax and creating a castle which is really a piece of theatre rather than a working castle. As Pevsner pointed out, Lutyens was perhaps the greatest builder of follies the folly-building English have ever produced.

Lutyens was not an architectural visionary, but he was certainly an artist-architect, producing non-functional one-offs and designing houses for an elite. To this extent he gives no example for the modern city. But we can still learn from him today. He believed passionately that cities should be aesthetically pleasing. Shoddy design was anathema: when his assistants objected that no one would see the roofs of their houses, he replied simply, “God does”. He took the language of classicism and pushed it to new limits. His later work suggests an alternative to modernism which has been too long ignored.


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