An Edwardian Reconsidered

Sir Edward Lutyens' designs once again capture the architectural imagination.

Though the architect Edwin Lutyens was not a full-dress English eccentric in the sense proposed by Dame Edith Sitwell—he did not, for instance, commune with an Elizabethan ancestor or campaign for upright burial—he could certainly pass muster as a dictionary eccentric, an "irregular, odd, or whimsical person." Indeed he had whimsies to spare. The governess-dog Nana and the ticking crocodile in Peter Pan were his ideas, merrily presented to his friend J.M. Barrie. Irrepressibly playful, a compulsive punster on even the most solemn occasions, he was also an open sympathizer with the international revolutionary conspiracy known as childhood. He once proposed a circular nursery for a client's house because only such a shape, he asserted, could ensure that no child would ever be made to stand in the corner. This anecdote, commonly cited as an example of Lutyens' identification with children, is really something more. It suggests a striking sensitivity to the psychic dimension of interior space, the way space is dreamed or fantasized or remembered, and also an inclination to view geometry as a sort of social panacea, a cure-all for our moral perplexities. Circularity becomes the sign of equableness, the adult's restraint when confronted by childish misbehavior.

When he died, in 1944, his star already dimmed by the modern movement, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens was well on his way to irrelevancy. For a long time, roughly between the late forties and the mid-seventies, his work, though not discounted, got only the equivocal brand of respect that the public reserves for burnt-out tennis prodigies and ruined millionaires. He was variously seen as a scholarly old reactionary, an erudite wiseacre, or the last of the self-flaunting Victorian pseudogeniuses—there was something about him that drove the English crazy. It was, in fact, his Englishness. His saddened dismissal of modernism, his refusal to see that architecture might play a socially adversarial role, his effortless accommodation with a certain Anglo-Saxon gentility—such habits of mind irritated "progressive" Britons.

Yet it is now rather grudgingly admitted by many critics that Lutyens was the greatest architect of 20th-century Britain. We feel that it was a mistake to see him as a reactionary or a revivalist, if only because his ideas grew organically out of the vernacular building tradition in which he had grown up; he was a living link with the past rather than a throwback to it.

Lutyens was brought up by bohemian parents in a tucked-away, still-rustic corner of West Surrey. As an adolescent he frequented the builders and artisans of his village of Thursley, and, never doubting that he would become a successful architect, set up an independent practice in London in 1889, at the age of 20. A throng of admiring patrons soon gathered around him. Tall, lean, bespectacled, hardworking, he was naturally reticent but also affectionate and romantic. He spent a great deal of time designing picturesque houses for people who wanted a stake in the land, who craved a country house but couldn't afford a pedigreed estate; many of them had new money or tidy little legacies, and they usually took a shine to Lutyens and indulged his capricious tastes. Osbert Sitwell wrote that "an expression of mischievous benevolence was his distinguishing mark, as it was that of his work. He would sit, with his bald dome-like head lowered . . . as his very large, blue, reflective eyes contemplated . . . something particularly outrageous that he intended to say." Nobody doubted that he was out to get the world's goat. Once, at a convocation of the Roman Catholic clergy of Liverpool, Lutyens raised his glass to propose a toast: "Here's to the happiest hours of our life/Spent in the arms of another man's wife!" He meant, of course, our mothers.

Hundreds of Lutyens' resolutely unmodern buildings can be found throughout England; most are privately owned, and many, unhappily, have been remodeled. Last autumn, in a rain-lashed pilgrimage through London and West Surrey, I managed to see about 20 of them, and came away with the impression, bolstered by my reading, that we Americans tend to respond to them in peculiar ways. As it happens, Americans have played a signal role in Lutyens' gradual comeback, and the reason, one suspects, is that we've found something in his designs that we need: a childlike, let's-get-lost sense of fun. It's not surprising that the recent revival of Lutyens' furniture by his granddaughter and her American husband has found an especially responsive market in the United States.

A thesis popular among art historians holds that photography has changed our way of using the art of the past: It places so much of this material before our eyes simultaneously that we unabashedly mix and match styles from widely separated periods. A natural eclectic, Lutyens might have been born to prove this point. He built glorified Arts and Crafts-style cottages, great country houses, Georgian mansions, suburban developments, business blocks, government buildings, war memorials, a huge castle in Devon, and of course the Viceroy's House (now Government House) in New Delhi, with its attendant edifices and grounds. Scarcely had he introduced one style when another sprouted out of it, like a butterfly from a pupa.

But Lutyens' many manners were almost all hybrids—perceptive pairings, ingenious retrofittings. As Margaret Richardson, the architectural historian and curator of the Sir John Soane's Museum, has pointed out to me, he was one of the few architects in Britain to marry the picturesque Edwardian cottage to a powerful, wild geometry. Down in Surrey, in the district around Godalming, you can see, in turn-of-the-century houses like Orchards, Munstead Wood, and Tigbourne Court, how Lutyens drew sweeping, emotive shapes out of the local vernacular building type. As you drive along, the landscape dips and shies and curls back into itself, and amid the mysterious winding hollows and curtains of dark, glossy foliage a Lutyens "cottage" will now and then rise into view, vast as a manor house and vaguely Tudorish with its peaked and sometimes hipped gables, fanciful dormers, and soaring corbiestepped chimneys. At Tigbourne Court, which fronts on a road, I stood gaping, not daring to knock on the door. This building—a three-gabled composition of geometrical planes—swoops up out of a Doric loggia, which ought to look out of place but doesn't; the walls, irresistible to the touch, are made of sensuously alternating stone, redbrick, and mortar studded with black ironstone chips.

Tigbourne Court is symmetrical, but like many of Lutyens' houses, which often have roller-coaster-ish retaining walls or wings running off at raffish angles, it's difficult to frame in the lens of your mind. Down the road a bit a charming lady invited me into her beautiful early-Lutyens house, Wood End, which was for sale, and I "lived" in it, spiral pad in hand, for a few hours. The stairwell was oversized, affording curious vistas, yet the interior as a whole seemed like a maze leading to small, exotic destinations. The woman's brother, a high-spirited retired RAF officer, lamented the oddity of the layout, but the American in me was entranced by all the zigzagging, which felt leisurely and flirtatious.

Lutyens' London buildings are marked by the pervasive 20th-century British historicism. Yet their conservative nature is balanced by a deep-rooted ethical faith in abstract geometry harking back to Pythagoras, who is supposed to have built an ideal city based on mathematical progressions. Lutyens the eclectic juggler managed to get all his balls in the air at one time in the unsung Reuters and Press Associates Headquarters, on Fleet Street. Finished in 1935, it is the most surprisingly "contemporary" of his buildings, a blend of Cubism and stripped classicism that New York architects, who have been trying and failing to achieve a similar fusion for the past 20 years, might envy. Lutyens' chief problem here was how to stick an appropriately scaled classical portal onto an eight-story building: He wanted to give his slyly tapered office block an entrance that wouldn't be mean, like a comic-strip mousehole, but that wouldn't be pompous either. His typically humorous solution was to cut a deep arch into the base of the building and then stretch the arch's voussoirs way up the facade in a wedge-shaped pattern. The trick works because the depth of the arch seems to justify the height of the voussoirs.

Also in London, in Putney, near Wimbledon, Lutyens' granddaughter Candia Lutyens and her husband, Paul Peterson, an American architect, have for ten years been offering a line of Edwin Lutyens' furniture. Lutyens designed tables, chairs, sofas, lamps, and door hardware for his interiors, but they weren't reproduced or offered for sale during his lifetime. Wanting to own one of Lutyens' characteristically impish pieces, an asymmetrical club chair designed for those who like to fling one leg over an armrest, the pair found that it was more economical to produce a whole run of them than to commission a single example. To their surprise, they also discovered a contemporary interest in Lutyens furniture. After the first foray with the chair, Peterson went on to organize the reincarnation of many more designs, with Candia looking over his shoulder as keeper of the family flame; he produces both exact replications and responsible custom work: openly declared alterations of original proportions to suit a client's purposes.

The couple have turned their house into a showroom for their firm, Lutyens Design Associates, and when I dropped by I was surprised by what I saw. I'd already scrutinized some promotional photography, and recognized as I looked around that it had captured the large-limbed, formal, geometrically precise nature of the pieces; what it couldn't capture was the subtlety of their shallow curves and mathematical progressions. I found myself unexpectedly moved by Lutyens' evident belief in the mathematical interval as a source of beauty. Peterson showed me a chair whose back consisted of a stack of four circles that progressively decreased in diameter while losing 1/16 of an inch in thickness. The piece reminded me of the more minimalist sort of ancient Greek decoration, yet it also seemed strangely timeless.

Peterson's resurrection of these designs has led him to reflect on some social aspects of the Lutyens revival. "I think," he told me, with a little smile, "that something is happening at the turn of this century that echoes what happened around 1900. A lot of Lutyens' clients were people in retail, coal, and textiles, or the second sons of peers. Today the people who buy Lutyens furniture tend to be those who have made fortunes in tech stocks, or in the entertainment world—eighty percent of our clientele is American. My guess is that there is something in our period, as there was a century ago, that awakens a need for rootedness, for an intelligent connection to the past. And that is what Lutyens in many ways provides."

Until about 1975 the British turned a deaf ear to those architectural critics and others who insisted there was something genuinely great about Lutyens. The repeated attempts of Margaret Richardson and her colleagues to mount a comprehensive Lutyens show in the sixties met with little interest in the museum world. At the close of the sixties however, several American architects, including Robert Venturi, Allan Greenberg, and, reportedly, Philip Johnson, Robert A.M. Stern, and Michael Graves, began to see Lutyens from a new and more flattering angle. The Americans, unlike the English, weren't terribly interested in the grace or clumsiness of Lutyens' elevations, his orders, his borrowings from Palladio or Christopher Wren; they were interested in his plans. This curious American fascination with the floor plans of a long-deceased Englishman remains an unwritten chapter in the history of our own taste.

About this time, Robert Venturi was thinking a lot about how you could create buildings and public spaces that were less utopian and more socially realistic than conventional modernist urban-design projects. He had toured Britain in 1966, looking at Lutyens country houses, and many of his observations turned up in the architectural criticism that he and his wife, Denise Scott Brown, were then beginning to publish. In Lutyens' houses Venturi found a delightful accumulation of ambiguities, tensions, and dualities. The facade of a house, he noted, might willfully deceive you as to its inner arrangement; enfilades of archways directed you to a blank wall; outlandishly tall chimneys, twisted through 90 degrees, doubled as entrance markers; abrupt shifts in scale were used to symbolic or scenographic effect. Though Venturi never said as much, his response to Lutyens was essentially kinetic, and in tracing his passage through these eccentric spaces he got excited by the architecture as itinerary or trajectory. This interest in physical circulation, in the Lutyens house as a kind of mini theme park or fantasy board game, remains typical of American spectators, and I confess that I've felt it myself.

Around the same time, the South African-trained Allan Greenberg, who was then practicing in Connecticut, wrote an article about Lutyens for an architectural review, and he too attended chiefly to the master's plans, which he reproduced in abundance. Greenberg noticed that in these plans the visitor was continuously "deflected off-axis, often in seemingly arbitrary fashion. . . . The spectator walking through a Lutyens house finds his senses held in a constant state of flux, and surprise, wit, anti-climax, conflict, ambiguity or sheer delight wait at the end of each turn." Greenberg's writing, like Venturi's, was highly evocative; and it was, finally, the cumulative impact of this transatlantic criticism that helped persuade British museum directors to pay heed to the case for a Lutyens revival. In 1980-81 the Hayward Gallery, a large public exhibition space in London, devoted a major show to his work.

English critics naturally tend to focus on Lutyens' use of the vernacular building types and Palladian syntax they see all around them; the less sympathetic are disconcerted by his academic form-vocabulary, his mannerist pranks, and the inner gloom of houses with huge gables and little windows tucked under the eaves. For us colonials, however, there is something wonderfully dreamy—and, yes, almost surreal—about these buildings. Of course Venturi and Greenberg had sophisticated reasons for liking Lutyens, but one senses a strong emotional fascination coursing beneath their arguments. Lutyens' houses are like the scenery of an imaginary childhood, a sort of architecture of delay in which one is encouraged to get lost and revel in it—very much what one might expect from the man who designed the first sets for Peter Pan.

There is often a sense of contradiction in Lutyens: By making something new he would retrieve something lost in the past. It is noteworthy that he had an almost Tourette's Syndrome-like inability to stop punning—it was as if, for him, words had to be shorn of some hidden menace by being cut down to mere sound, to baby talk. Once he spied an "Ave Ave Sanctus" on the wall of a church, and turning to a priest asked, in a put-on Cockney accent, "Do two 'Aves make an 'Oly?" Beginning a speech to the Owls' Club, in Cape Town, he blurted out "I wish I had t'wit t'woo you." Yet when confined to declarative sentences he often became inarticulate. Paul Peterson has given me a copy of a talk on Edwin Lutyens by Robert Lutyens, the master's son and Candia's father, that may be the most penetrating thing ever written about him. Here the son considers the father's personal style not only as imaginative or poetic but also as symptomatic. "Whereas he grew up as an artist," Robert Lutyens writes, "he never quite grew up as a man. I should feel . . . tempted to elaborate on my father's curiously un-submerged unconscious . . . he continued through his life to perpetuate the irresponsibilities of childhood. . . . He never really knew anybody. And yet he knew something that he was himself hardly aware of. He knew how to observe. . . ."

In the American imagination, Edwin Lutyens, whatever else he did, figures as the inventor par excellence of the great rambling Edwardian house, the house you wish you'd grown up in. Yet the Edwardian period is more than a historical era for us, it is also a vision (though doubtless a false one) of genteel innocence, of boating parties and beribboned bonnets and touchingly funny automobiles. So whatever strictures we may impose upon other architects—that they take a hard look at what things cost, for instance, or that they refrain from raiding classical models—we waive in the case of Sir Edwin. One of the characteristics of English upper-class life is a certain jolly infantilism, a partiality to nursery food, ponies in paddocks, "my old nanny," rooms adorned with cricket regalia, and old boys' reunions at public schools. Of course we Americans have our own brand of infantilism, which may be every bit as ludicrous; but the point is that since we are culturally descended from the English, this sort of English childhood is something primordial for us, something sacred and romantic, like childhood raised to a higher power. It is the life an American child might dream of, especially if he or she is one of those kids nurtured on English juvenile literature like The Secret Garden or The Borrowers, tales set largely in mansions. Americans want the English living in big old irrational piles, even if very few of them do, or ever did. Hence our bemused indulgence when we enter a Lutyens house. It is, above all, a trick played on time—perhaps the farthest we will ever get in our flight from that ticking crocodile.

Lutyens Design Associates makes furniture to order from the original Lutyens designs. Pieces include chairs, sofas, and dining, side, and coffee tables. The company also collaborates with the British firm Matthew Eden in producing Lutyens garden furniture. Lutyens Design Associates, 61 St. John's Avenue, London SW15 6AL. 44-208-780-5977; fax 44-208-780-5966; www.lutyens-furniture.com.

The Lutyens Trust, dedicated to preserving Lutyens' buildings, provides information on his life and career and publishes a regular newsletter. Goddards, Abinger Lane, Dorking, Surrey RH5 6JH; 44-130-673-0487.

Dan Hofstadter wrote about the Lobkowicz Collection in Departures' March/April 2001 issue.