Urbanities

Jane Ridley
Architect for the Metropolis
Spring 1998

A classical revival is sweeping architecture worldwide, but so far it hasn't much affected big cities. For the most part, it has produced smallish buildings in the country or in towns. True, Quinlan Terry's Richmond Riverside on the Thames has taught us that classicism can triumph in the outer reaches of the city, but in the heart of the metropolis, architects still design big commercial buildings in modernist or postmodern styles. So the question remains: can classicism work as a metropolitan style today?

Ask that question in Britain and you will receive the answer: Edwin Lutyens. Lutyens (1869-1944) was arguably Britain's greatest twentieth-century architect, but he is little known in America. After all, America has its own architects, and Lutyens designed only one building here: the British Embassy in Washington, a classical work that combines Wil-liamsburg with Christopher Wren. But Lutyens deserves wider recognition in the U.S., for he is one of the few twentieth-century architects who turned his back on modernism and devoted his career to developing—with verve and supreme confidence—the possibilities of classicism as a style for cities.

Architects are not always lovable, but Ned Lutyens most certainly was. He smoked a pipe, he wore round spectacles beneath a dome-like forehead, and he had an incurable habit of making puns. "The piece of cod passeth understanding," he announced when presented with a peculiarly tough bit of fish. "Is Lady Ida down?" he asked the butler when staying with Sir George and Lady Ida Sitwell. Or, when addressing a learned society known as the Royal Society of Owls: "Gentlemen, I lack the wit to woo you." When he angered Lady Hardinge, wife of the Indian viceroy, over some detail of the work he was doing in New Delhi, the balding architect wrote: "I will wash your feet with my tears and dry them with my hair. True, I have very little hair; but you have very little feet." Of course, she forgave him.

But beneath the smoke screen of jokes, Lutyens was a deeply serious architect. In his pocket he always carried what he called a virgin, a small pad on which he scribbled designs with a soft black pencil, rubbing out with a blackened finger. No matter where he was, he designed. In trains, in taxis, at meals, he scribbled. Late at night, long after the household had gone to bed, he stood at his drawing board puzzling out the details of designs. He thought nothing of working until 2 or 3 in the morning. His output was massive. His voracious appetite for work nearly wrecked his marriage, and his children found him an absent and distant father. He was a perfectionist. He would go round his assistants' drawings in the office at night, correcting details on tracing paper. When a colleague complained that he was fussing unnecessarily over a detail that no one would see, he replied simply: "God will." God's view: that was what mattered to him.

Taking so much trouble was not merely a matter of professionalism. He was driven. He dedicated the prime of his career to a remarkable project: the reinvention of classical architecture to fit the needs of the twentieth-century city.

Lutyens's classical passion is especially interesting because he began his career in a very different vein, as an Arts and Crafts architect. He designed his early houses in what became known as the Surrey style, after the stockbroker-crowded county where it began. As an unknown young architect, Lutyens attracted the notice of the great garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. Under her supervision, he designed her house, Munstead Wood. Built of local stone by traditional craftsmen, Jekyll's home—even when new—looked as though it had been there for a century.

Gertrude Jekyll took Lutyens on drives in her dogcart along the deep, narrow Surrey lanes, and together they explored ancient tumbledown cottages with timber structures and gable ends. Insatiable in her thirst for detail, Jekyll peered through thick spectacles at beams and bricks and fireplaces and seventeenth-century tables that had never moved from the kitchen where they stood. She taught Lutyens how to read an architectural vernacular—how to create buildings that seemed literally to grow out of their site. Ned called her Bumps, the mother of all bulbs, and together they collaborated on over a hundred gardens.

Lutyens was a willing pupil because he knew how to look. He developed that skill through an odd education, since his parents never enrolled him in school. He was the 11th child in a family of 14, and the family had fallen on hard times. His father, a horse portraitist whose cranky ideas made it hard for him to earn a living, believed that he had discovered the long-lost formula for Titian's luminous shade of Venetian red, and he was mortified when the art establishment ignored his ideas. He kept young Ned, his health weakened by rheumatic fever, at home. Instead of learning Latin and Greek, Lutyens studied old buildings on bicycle trips to forgotten, sleepy Surrey villages. Armed with a pane of glass and a piece of sharpened soap, he learned to trace the shapes and outlines of buildings for his father.

Munstead Wood made Ned Lutyens's name. Spurred on by the need to make money to support his new wife, he poured out an astonishingly fertile variety of country house designs. His houses deliberately evoked past historical styles, typically combining classical elements with, say, Elizabethan vernacular. With their steep pitched roofs, long horizontals pierced by tall brick chimneys, and asymmetrical windows, they hint at the shapes of modernism.

Lutyens's best country houses are rhapsodies in texture. He knew how important it was to use a specially made two-and-a-half-inch brick, such as the Elizabethans had used, rather than the standard four-inch brick, and to use seasoned oak and local material. He built one house, Marsh Court, entirely of chalk, with a chalk billiard table. He designed every detail: the door furniture, the fireplaces, the garden paths in herringbone brick, the kitchen dresser, even the humble vegetable rack. Living in one of his houses is to experience that peculiarly English feeling of craftsmanship, like wearing tailored Scottish tweeds or handcrafted leather boots. He loved designing for children, too. He built nurseries with floor-level crawling windows so that toddlers could see the view. I doubt that any other architect had the idea of building a round nursery, as he did, so that naughty children could never be banished to the corner.

His designs received wide publicity. His friend and patron Edward Hudson wrote them up in his magazine Country Life, and in 1914 Laurence Weaver brought out a book of sumptuous photos of Lutyens houses. A Lutyens house and a Jekyll garden became the Edwardian dream: a dream of simple housekeeping in the country, of tea and strawberries on the lawn.

His architecture began to change in his thirties, as his practice became more urban. He had always used classical elements—Tuscan pillars around an entrance, or sometimes a classical interior within a vernacular shell. Now the classical began to dominate, a development his drawings record. He became fascinated by what he called the High Game of classical architecture. "In architecture Palladio is the game!" he told his friend the architect Herbert Baker, invoking the great sixteenth-century interpreter of classical tradition. "It means hard labour, hard thinking, over every line in all three dimensions and in every joint." Lutyens had embarked on his great journey: the rediscovery and reinvention of classical architecture.

Munstead Wood is a long, long way from the classical splendor of Lutyens's later work, and his turn to classicism has baffled his biographers. He was obsessed by the intellectual challenge of classical design. The complex geometry of the Greeks fascinated him, and he wrestled over the mathematical ratios of great classical buildings. But he was also an artist's architect; more than anything, he wanted to build beautiful buildings, and he became convinced that pure beauty resided in the mathematical purity of the classical orders. "When they are right," he wrote, "they are curiously lovely and unalterable like a plant form."

In 1903 he made designs for a house for E. H. Harriman on the Hudson River. The prospect of working for a multimillionaire excited Lutyens, and his drawings show a proud Renaissance palazzo crowning Harriman's rocky cliff-top site. He didn't get the job—Mrs. Harriman told him it was bad form to engage an English architect—but the drawings for the Harriman house show clearly the way his mind was working. Heathcote, a house he built in the Yorkshire industrial suburb of Ilkley for a businessman named Ernest Hemingway, definitively em-bodies Lutyens's new mood. Here, in a Leeds suburb in 1906, he marshaled the full Doric order: columns, friezes, cornices, all with their correct mathematical ratios. The unfortunate Mr. Hemingway didn't know what was coming to him. Taking him around the unfinished building, Lutyens pointed to the site of the black marble staircase. "I don't want a black marble staircase," protested Hemingway. "I want an oak staircase." "What a pity," said Lutyens. When the house was finished, the staircase was black marble. "I told you I didn't want a black marble staircase," complained Hemingway. "I know," said Lutyens, "and I said, `What a pity,' didn't I?"

The timing of his turn to classicism is remarkable. Architecture was on the cusp of modernism. Charles Rennie Mackintosh, born a year before Lutyens, designed the Glasgow School of Art in 1896 and developed into a master of art nouveau. Art nouveau influenced Lutyens, too, as some of his early houses show. Mackintosh died in poverty and obscurity, acclaimed by a later generation of admirers as a neglected genius and pioneer of modernism. Lutyens, by contrast, lived a life of professional fulfillment and recognition. He was knighted, awarded the Order of Merit, and elected president of the Royal Academy, the highest honor the English art establishment can offer. Did he betray his art for the sake of his career? In turning to classicism, did he play it safe, rather than risk losing clients with frightening modernist designs?

Nikolaus Pevsner, the high priest of progressivist architectural criticism, certainly thought so. He admired Lutyens's early work, but his Buildings of England series is liberally sprinkled with snide comments about Lutyens's betrayal of early promise, his "fatal" reversion to classicism, his lack of artistic integrity.

Pevsner deplored the classical work because he thought it was mere historical pastiche, or what he dismissed as "historicism." This, for Pevsner, was the ultimate sin—the deliberate denial of the social and political Zeitgeist. The spirit of the twentieth century, Pevsner believed, was the modern movement, a cultural unity that Lutyens willfully rejected. Lutyens, thought Pevsner, should have been building art nouveau or, better still, modernist steel-supported glass walls. After the modernist promise of his early free style houses, he should have "developed," instead of regressing to what Pevsner called mere "period imitation." For Pevsner, Lut-yens was the supreme architect of follies, those architectural eccentricities in which the English so loved to indulge.

Pevsner believed that each epoch had a single "legitimate" style, and that the artist succeeded only insofar as he expressed the essence of his time. Modern architecture he worshiped, because he thought it was the style of the masses and the machine, involving the ruthless jettisoning of tradition and aristocracy; it was the instrument of egalitarianism and social engineering.

Pevsner got it wrong. There never was a single appropriate style in any era. It is too simplistic to see architectural history in terms of linear pro-gress. Classicism is not regressive. Nor is it mere pastiche. It is one of several possible ways of designing in the city: not archaeology but a living humanistic vernacular. This was how Lutyens saw it, and that is why his city architecture matters today.

A glance at Lutyens's London work proves the point. The best known is the Cenotaph, the memorial in Whitehall to the World War I dead. This deceptively simple stone block has no straight lines or flat surfaces, like a Greek column. If you follow the line of the verticals, they meet 1,000 feet above the ground, and the horizontals are curves of a circle whose center is 900 feet belowground. Of course, in 1919 the mourners didn't know that; all they knew was that Lutyens's simple, dignified memorial somehow summed up the stunned grief they felt for a lost generation of young men. Neither triumphalist nor religious, the simple dignity of the inscription said it all: "Their name liveth for ever more."

Lutyens designed eight major institutional and commercial buildings in London. Not all are in the grand manner. At first he experimented, as if unsure of how to build. His first big London office building was the Country Life Building (1904) in Covent Garden for his friend and patron Christopher Hussey. Built in the style of Wren in brick and stone, it is like a slice of Hampton Court Palace. The high brick chimneys are very unusual for London, and so is the steep pitched roof. In fact, this is a country house in the city. The editor's room on the first-floor piano nobile was very gentlemanly indeed, decorated in the style of a house of 1700, with an impressive fireplace. Country Life magazine was a highly profitable venture, but every sign of trade was hidden away, banished like a madwoman to the attic—literally so, as Lutyens housed the magazine's composing rooms there, beneath the roof.

Lutyens was projecting the image his client wanted: if any institution deserved a country house in the city, it was Country Life. The building and the magazine both express a very English attitude toward moneymaking—hide it away, pretend it isn't happening, disown it, and behave like a country gentleman.

Lutyens designed one other institutional London building in brick and stone: the headquarters of the Theosophical Society, that strange religious cult founded by Mrs. Besant. It was a bittersweet commission, since Lutyens's wife, Emily, had converted to the cult, and her consequent insistence on chastity imposed an almost intolerable strain on their marriage. The Theosophical Building of 1911 (today the British Medical Society) is Wren's Hampton Court in front, but the rear facade is a grand Italian palazzo—tall first-floor windows punched into a plain brick wall above simple arches. It's interesting because it gives the key to what comes next: great commercial buildings in the heart of the city of London. These are palaces of commerce, and they are built in a style of exuberant classicism.

Take the massive Britannic House, which Lutyens designed in 1920 for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, later British Petroleum. By now Lutyens had learned how to handle classical forms with assurance and wit. He had reached full mastery of it building New Delhi, the classical imperial capital city he designed in 1912 for Britain's Indian empire. Vice-roy's House, with its huge dome and Mogul pavilions in cream and rhubarb sandstone, is his masterpiece, a grand synthesis of West and East.Anglo-Iranian Oil had a wonderfully invigorating effect upon Lutyens. He enjoyed the company of tycoons; and after the endless bickering over government budgets, which he found so soul-destroying in Delhi, the lavishness of his patrons at Anglo-Iranian came as a tonic—the more so as his personal finances fell into deficit. "I feel as if I had been modelled by Epstein," he wrote after paying a savage tax bill, invoking the broken, pummeled surfaces of the modern sculptor. "Tax vobiscum," he punned.

From the start, he was in no doubt that the style should be full-blooded Roman classicism. His rejected first plan for a classical tower 221 feet high collided with the London building regulations, which banned buildings over 100 feet high. But the design he finally produced for the seven-floor Portland stone building was bold enough. Christopher Hus-sey described it as "that Edwardian cynosure, `a raging beauty,' decked, though with a new look, in all the armoury of classical opera." It's a Dame Nellie Melba of a building, and it lifts the heart when first glimpsed next to its drab plateglass neighbors on the busy city thoroughfare of Moorgate. Its sheer size is very striking. It occupies what was then the biggest commercial site in the city—about 28,750 square feet—but the building is 97 feet high, making cost-efficient use of the real estate it occupies.

Lutyens gave his neo-Roman elevation Corinthian pillars and swags and triumphal arches far, far above street level on a fourth-floor piano nobile. "There is no excuse," wrote Pevsner sourly, "for the wretched American vice of breaking out into grand columniation on the top floors." American it may be, but Britannic House is buoyant, curvaceous, brimming with charm and brio. Lutyens had not yet visited America, though. When he did, he thought it a wonderful place: "alive, keen friendly. . . . The scale they can adopt is splendid—the skyscrapers growing from monstrosities to erections of real beauty and the general character of the work is of a very high standard indeed—far higher than anything on the continent or in England."

Britannic House occupies an awkward site, one front facing George Dance's curving Finsbury Circus of 1802, the other facing onto Moorgate, a main thoroughfare. Lutyens decided to use the Finsbury Circus front for the main entrance, giving him a challenging concave facade. Inside, he designed a richly curving marble hall and punched massive marble corridors deep into the building's interior. These culminate in a magnificent marble staircase, ascending to the power center of the building, the boardroom on the fourth floor.

To walk from the entrance hall, with its arches of Brescia marble, through the corridor and massive barrel vaults, to climb the steps of Lutyens's white, pink, and gray marble staircase, is to experience one of the great architectural sensations of London. It's a processional space, like something from the baroque palaces of Rome or Genoa. This is princely architecture, celebrating the power of commerce, just as the architects of the Italian Renaissance had celebrated their princes' power. When he visited Genoa, Lutyens had noted with envy the lavish use of marble and the space thrown away inside buildings on stairs. Here in the 1920s, British Petroleum played the part of Renaissance patron, giving Lutyens the chance to play the Renaissance game in London.

Architectonic drama is all very well, but is it functional in today's city? Britannic House suggests that the answer is yes. Today the Portland stone is clean, and the marble halls are every bit as impressive as they look in original photographs. The developer Greycoat and the architects Peter Inskip and Peter Jenkins restored and modernized the building in 1987-9. Sixty years of London grime and a succession of corporate tenants had left the building shabby, its marble staircase coated in 68 layers of paint. Inskip, himself a Lutyens scholar and author of a monograph on the architect, restored the interiors to their original pristine marble. The Portland stone facades received a careful cleaning. Within the Lutyens shell, Inskip and Jenkins inserted a modern office building complete with the air conditioning, high-speed elevators, and high-performance windows that a 1920s building lacks. This they lit from above by means of an atrium, designed with reference to Lutyens's classical design. To achieve space for the atrium, they removed Lutyens's fourth-floor boardroom from the head of the stairs and reconstructed it in the basement, an unfortunate but necessary compromise.

This massive, award-winning project cost some $60 million. The result is a building that combines the classical grandeur of a Lutyens palace with the convenience of a modern office, which pleases both the preservationists and BP. It is an imaginative and successful compromise.

Down the road from Britannic House stands an even grander Lutyens building: the Midland Bank in Poultry, designed in 1924 and finished in 1939. Lutyens owed his appointment as architect for the Midland Bank to his friend Reginald McKenna, the Liberal politician who was chairman of the bank from 1919 to 1943. McKenna commissioned several country houses from Lutyens, and he did the bank a favor by choosing him. Inspired and cultured commercial patrons are few and far between in Britain, and not many British banks can boast so valuable or prestigious an architectural heritage as the Midland. Lutyens designed four important buildings for the bank: in Manchester; in Pic-cadilly; in Leadenhall Street, London; and, most important, the bank's headquarters in Poultry. McKenna knew just what he wanted from his architect: "We all aim at getting something that is a credit to the City. We are all anxious not to disfigure the City of London by putting up buildings that are unworthy of the positions that they are to occupy."

The Poultry head office occupies a high-prestige site, facing the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange, flanked by the headquarters of the great banks. It's a difficult site, too. The building has two fronts. One faces the long, forbidding screen wall that encloses the Bank of England. The other is on Poultry itself, a narrow street with no vistas. How do you make a building seem tall and impressive when the spectator is just beneath it and cannot gain a perspective on it? The problem of narrow streets and grand buildings was one that Lutyens had noticed in Italy. Here at Poultry he adopted his own ingenious solution.

When he made perspective drawings of his projects, Lutyens often chose to represent them from what he called the "worm's eye" view—that is, as they appeared when viewed lying on your back on ground level and looking up. At Poultry he did this to the building itself, creating a brilliant optical illusion. At intervals the vertical plane recedes an inch, giving an impression of steeply increasing height. The entire six-story elevation is rusticated, or rough, and each course of stone is one-eighth of an inch less in height than the course below. The result is a kind of exaggerated foreshortening, rather like a Renaissance painting. Architects love it, because Lutyens is playing here with the most basic building form of all, the wall, and making it stand on tiptoe. I'm sure he took his idea from that grim, blank screen wall that is all that remains of Sir John Soane's magnificent Bank of England (1788-1808); but where Soane's wall is masculine and fortresslike, the Midland is gentle, feminine, and almost seems to float, it's so light.

Inside, Lutyens designed a massive banking hall, which occupies the entire ground floor. Its exotic African green marble columns with Corinthian capitals are outrageously classical. But by making them square, not round, and by filling the aisles with acres of polished teak counters, Lutyens succeeded in creating a space that combines the authority of a temple of finance with the busy modernity of a railway station. Below, in the safe deposit in the basement, he designed a space resembling a Titanic-like ocean liner. The grander the function, the more classical the design: the boardroom on the fifth floor is pure classicism, with tall coved ceilings, Corinthian columns, and paneling.

Poultry has weathered the twentieth century better than Britannic House. After a series of unhappy "redecorations" in the 1960s and 1970s, the bank had the fifth floor sensitively restored in 1989. The banking hall was once a cacophony of clattering machines. Today, the electronic revolution has brought a smooth quiet that is almost serene, and the bank feels privileged to occupy such famous spaces.

Great commercial or financial institutions like BP and the Midland Bank cannot afford the luxury of sentimental conservation. They value Lutyens's buildings because they project an aura of grandeur, solidity, and worldliness that enhances their corporate identity. And remember that these supremely confident, utterly convincing, consummately metropolitan buildings are twentieth-century structures, not artifacts of some long-vanished past. Given an architect of genius, we could build their like today.

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