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Imperial Delhi. (Delhi Described).

By Andreas Volwahsen. London: Prestel. 2002. [pounds sterling]45


By Aman Nath. New Delhi: President's Secretariat, Rashtrapati Bhavan, in association with India Book House, Mumbai. Distributed by Antique Collectors' Club. 2002. [pounds sterling]50

On the dustjacket of the lavishly illustrated book from Prestel is printed the claim that it 'presents the most comprehensive examination to date of how New Delhi was planned and built'. It does no such thing, and it certainly does not supersede Robert Grant Irving's authoritative Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker and Imperial Delhi (1981). The text is heavily dependent on long quotes from Irving, and from Christopher Hussey's and A. S. G. Butler's Lutyens Memorial volumes (1950) as well as Robert Byron's marvellous special number of the AR for January 1931. Despite this heavy dependence on secondary sources, the author seems unaware of much that has been published on the work of Lutyens and his disciples in New Delhi (such as my own article in the AR for June 1976 on Medd and Shoosmith, the latter the architect of the amazing Garrison Church, for which Volwahsen gives an inadequate account), although perhaps he could not be expected to be aware of either Jane Ridley's The Architect and His Wife nor the collectio n of essays on Lutyens Abroad edited by Andrew Hopkins and myself, both of which were published last year.

There are some useful observations in this hook, including pertinent comparisons with L'Enfant's plan for Washington D.C. and Speer's for Berlin, and there is an analysis of Lutyens's interest in pure geometry and rigorous use of triangulation, although a laboured red herring about Masonry and the 'English educated upper classes' seems pointless when the author concedes that 'if Mughal architecture was hardly used as a direct model for the absolutely hexagonal plan of New Delhi, just as hexagonal symbolism of Hinduism or the geometry of contemporary freemasons' lodges, then there is little room to make plausible lateral connections to any of these traditions'. More useful are sketch diagrams illustrating the evolution of the plan of the city. Indeed, the illustrations are tantalizing and would seem to be the work of a resourceful picture researcher. The result, however, is spoiled by inaccurate captions and inadequate credits, just as the text is undermined by spelling mistakes, errors (Soane muddled with Ad am, for instance) and misleading references.

Very different and much more interesting as well as better informed is Aman Nath's book. 'Perhaps too much has already been written on New Delhi and on Edwin Lutyens,' he begins, but this is a valuable addition to the literature by presenting a modern Indian view of British imperialist architecture while being impressively fair-minded. 'England may have cleared its conscience,' he notes, 'but in India Lutyens's work has still not shed its colonial overtones. Perhaps it never will, although Indians well know that in New Delhi they have one of the best and most impressive centres of government in the world. And, after all, the British were not the first conquerors to leave India with magnificent buildings. The author is perhaps a little starry-eyed about the progressive virtues of Modernism, but it is clear that he would not want to swap Chandigarh for Lutyens's city.

Aman Nath's Oriental perspective enhances his account of the political and aesthetic debate about style - should the new capital look Western or Indian? - which so exercised Lutyens's contemporaries. And, to Lut's modern fans, his justified conclusion must hurt: 'how could his impossible insistence on an outdated classicism hope to control India any less? Can the cultural chauvinist be separated from the imperialist? This is not to deny Lutyens his aesthetic preferences, but it is to point out that preferences cannot legitimize or wipe out a record of nescience and disdain, and of taking the credit without taking any of the blame.' While cataloguing the arrogance and racism of Lutyens, Baker and their contemporaries, Nath demonstrates a subtle historical understanding of their achievement. 'New Delhi is the megalomania of Fax Britannica to outdo America, France, South Africa--and indeed the capital of Empire, its very own London. If this is cultural arrogance, it has perhaps some of its roots in insecurity a nd takes a tangible form in architectural monumentalism.'

This book is superbly illustrated, contains the best images of the interior of Viceroy's House yet published, and is full of tantalizing anecdotes and historical parallels. Very properly, it also covers the history since Independence of what is now called Rashtrapati Bhavan. That such a publication should emanate from the President of India's Secretariat speaks volumes about the wisdom and civilization of India. Could we imagine a book about the history and architecture of, say, Downing Street being published at the behest of Tony Blair? Enough said.
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Author:Stamp, Gavin
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2003
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