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Designs for Power

Three Western visions on the Indian subcontinent

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By PAULA DEITZ
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Soon after landing in Delhi, one experiences the effects of the plans laid down by Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944)—tree-lined streets shielding white bungalows set back in luxuriant grounds. George V proclaimed Delhi the new capital at his Indian coronation in 1911, in order to remove the government from escalating religious strife in Calcutta. In 1912, Lutyens arrived with a planning commission to design New Delhi, succeeding the seven sequential historic cities, now mostly ruins, that comprised Old Delhi. One is reminded that, in the earlier Mughal period, Shah Jahan gave up Agra for Delhi when he built the Red Fort (1638-48) as the centerpiece of his empire. He lost Shahjahanabad, as it was called, only 10 years later when his son imprisoned him. The British retained New Delhi for only 16 years after completing it in 1931.

By 1920, the story goes, the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, and French prime minister Georges Clemenceau were looking up King’s Way (now Rajpath) to the dome of the Lutyens-designed Viceroy’s House when Chelmsford asked Clemenceau what he thought of the structure. “This will be the finest ruin of them all,” Clemenceau replied. But to the contrary, the house (as well as Herbert Baker’s twin Secretariat buildings and Parliament) are flourishing in use under the Indian government, even as they show their age. 

I stood in the parliamentary chamber where, at midnight on August 15, 1947, Lord Mountbatten handed over the government of India to Jawaharlal Nehru. Then, as I walked up Rajpath to the Viceroy’s House, as if in celebration, two military marching bands passed by in preparation for Republic Day.

Having already visited several ancient ruins in India—many of which, like Fatehpur Sikri, had been seen by Lutyens himself—I found the two-tone sandstone exterior of the Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) a tailored and not-too-exuberant mixture of motifs of the embellished Palladian style. Not obvious from photographs is the shadow effect of the chajja, a thin, projecting stone cornice that overhangs the entire structure. I had just noted one on the small, elegant 16th-century tomb of Imam Zamin at the Qutb Complex in Delhi; the Mughal pavilions or chattris at either end of the roof were in perfect harmony with the dome based on the Great Stupa at Sanchi. The stone Hindu bells decorating the Corinthian-inspired capitals of the central colonnade drew on yet another culture.

Inside, the reception rooms for dining and entertaining had conserved all their refinements with marble patterned floors and long windows and mirrors. And then there are surprises, such as the staircase that takes visitors suddenly outside to a high loggia under an open sky. The best surprise of all, however, is the 10-acre Mughal garden beautifully maintained behind the house. Designed in the traditional four-rivers style, the garden’s rectangular greenswards, including floral parterres and rose gardens, appear to float on the waterways. With fountains of tiered, sandstone lotus leaves, pergolas, and clipped maulsari trees, the structures bring a fantasy element to abundant seasonal plantings. 

Following partition, the northern Indian state of Punjab lost its capital, the great cultural center Lahore, to Pakistan and subsequently founded at the foothills of the Himalayas the first new city in India since Jaipur in 1728. Where once only scattered villages existed is now the thriving garden city of Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab and Haryana, 180 miles north of Delhi. While some preliminary plans had existed, Le Corbusier (1887-1965) was finally selected as the chief designer on a team that included his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and the British architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, who brought an eclectic Modernism to the city’s residential and public buildings. 

Shiv Datt Sharma, now 82, was a young architect when he was engaged to work locally with Le Corbusier, and he recalls how he would transpose the metric drawings into inches: “Le Corbusier taught us that architecture serves society,” he reminisced, “and he sought, through his mathematical Modular system, to maintain the human scale everywhere in creating Chandigarh as a city that enhanced the quality of life even for the poorest of the poor.” 

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