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A trip to Delhi is incomplete without viewing the Government Precinct at Raisina Hill. Past the Martyrs Wall, you look across to Parliament, the Lok Sarbha. There stands, the Viceroy’s House, designed by Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869-1944), a landmark of “Imperial resolve” that has been “redeemed” as the Rashtrapati Bhavan, or President’s House.

“In 20,000 years” boasted Edward Baker, “there will be an imperial Lutyens tradition in Indian architecture as there now clings a memory of Alexander.”

Lutyen’s set out to create the greatest city the world had ever known.; a symbol of the precise running of empire against the chaos of India. But like the sinking Titanic, lost the same year Lutyens began his two decades of construction, the Empire would be lost. The Titanic’s claim of unsinkability matched the realities of history. Societies boast in pomp as they begin to decline. The USA economy had already surpassed Britain’s.

Lutyens resolve mirrored a scientific idea that drove a civilisation. So grand was the original scheme, that Lutyens was forced by Lord Harding to reduce the building from 370,000m3 to 240,000 m3.

Yet it remains “the grandest of all the residences that the British built in India, for a brand new capital had 340 rooms, covered four and a half acres and included twelve separate internal courtyards, making it probably the last of the great royal palaces of history” [1].

Perspective View of the South Elevation of the Viceroy's House ( ByWilliam Walcot, 1914

Perspective View of the South Elevation of the Viceroy’s House ( ByWilliam Walcot, 1914

Located for the “road system based on two great roads”, claimed colleague Herbert Baker [2](1862-1946), Satish Sharma[3]  more cynically describes it “an act of imperial cartography”.

“Whether accidentally or by design, Lutyens created the new capital in the exact shape of the traditional Vastu Purusha [the god of construction, whose supine form determines the best metaphysical plan of a building site], whose head is on Raisina Hill and whose feet rest at the Purana Quila [the oldest fort in Delhi][4]

Imperial order sits above the chaotic mass of the Old City.

Meanwhile, delicate India designs hide an Imperial skeleton.

Built of “the same red sandstone that the Moghuls had used at Fatehpur Sikr [the ancient fortified city close to Agra] interspersed with cream stone from Dholpur, Bharatpur and Agra, in brilliant horizontal bands of colour accentuating the horizontal emphasis of the whole edifice” wrote Davies[5]. But the sandstone was reinforced by the fruits of British iron, steel and concrete which Scriver[6] describes as “the utlimate ossification of the provisional ‘scaffolding’ with which the colonial polity had been assembled.”

He adds: “What remained of the aborted project of colonial social engineering was only the hollow facade of imperial authority and system, propped up by the skeletal cage of its own technical superstructure.”

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From Alexander onwards, India has always mollified her conquerors.

The capitals look like Corinthian, but closer they are carved with acanthus leaves and small hanging Indian bells, like temple bells.

Lutyens who never liked Oriental Classicism never admitted that the Byzantine raised copper-clad central dome, with its octagonal turrets encircling a pierced stone drum , had an Indian motif. But look again and see the 3rd century BCE Buddhist stupa of Sanchi that Britain restored from1912 to 1919.

As Thomas Metcalf suggests ,this symbolically “provided a way of evading the communal tangle of Hindu and Muslim[7]

It’s endless arched corridors “seemed to run through the house like sumptuous warrens” wrote Jan Morris . I remember the Mughal designed chuja inlayed in red, that shades a colonnade from sun and monsoon, loggias and jail shade the north east wing.

But the basement floor plan, projected onto a screen as I listened to Francesca Hughes during a visit to Brisbane, that inspired this article. The floor plan revealed precise planning for all culinary contingencies. Ms Hughes was promoting her book, The Architecture of Error[8], to illustrate how the pursuit of precision drove Western science.

Viceroys Floorplan

“Architecture’s already precocious tools “ Hughes said, were used “for managing its unique fear of physical error would redefine precisions relations to the truthfulness.” “These tools, and the fears they barely conceal, intersect in the seminal technological and cultural crises that mark architecture’s twentieth-century and the exponential rise in redundant precision that it witnessed. “

I was immediately reminded that Britain’s imperialism was driven by the Enlightenment. The technology of the sailing ship released men from oars to guns when Muslim ad Chinese ships still rowed.

The question of precision and error has colonised our pursuit of knowledge as a science helped colonise a world periphery to Europe. Joseph Banks, the botanist on Cooks voyage that charted the transit of Venus across the sun, had returned to Britain with unique plant specimens. He would go on to lead the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and Britain’s pursuit of new resources like rubber, and Indigo. He suggested New Holland be colonised and the Aboriginal natives would welcome Britain’s ways to improve their life. He also took Indigo from the Americas because it would be cheaper to produce in India.

As we discuss in the next article, Empire was an idea, not a geography.

[1] Morris, Jan, with Simon Winchester. Stones of Empire: The buildings of the Raj. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
[2] Baker, Herbert. “The New Delhi.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts. Vol. 74, No. 3841 (2 July 1926): 773-793
[3] Sharma, Satish. “Imperial Delhi: Imagined, Imaged, Iconized.” Indian International Centre Quarterly. Vol. 33, No. 2 (Autumn 2006): 27-32.
[4] Buch, M. N. “Lutyen’s New Delhi: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” Indian International centre Quarterly. Vol. 30, No. 2 (Monsoon 2003).29-40
[5] Davies, Philip. Splendours of the Raj: British Architecture in India 1660-1947. London: Penguin, 1987.
[6] Scriver, Peter. “Empire-Building and Thinking in the Public Works Department of British India.” In Colonial Modernities: Building , Dwelling and Architecture in British India and Ceylon. Eds. Peter Scriver and Vikramaditya Prakash. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, 2007. 69-92.

[7] Metcalf, Thomas R. An Imperial Vision: India’s Architecture and Britain’s Raj. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[8] Francesca Hughes, The Architecture of Error: Matter, Measure, and the Misadventures of Precision, MIT Press, 2014.