Had the British Embassy decided 10 years ago to honor its remarkable architect, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, the audience likely would have included politely interested socialites and canape'-conscious curiosity seekers. Serious architects would have avoided the affair.
Ah, but what a difference a decade makes. Last week's symposium at the embassy, "Lutyens Rediscovered," attracted an appreciative professional crowd, including not a few Washington architects whose principal commissions have been modern buildings of a distinctly un-Lutyensesque cast.
Hailed as a giant during his lifetime, Lutyens was pointedly ignored, or worse, after he died in 1944. The extraordinary range of his eclecticism, from the Victorian vernacular country cottages--what cottages!--of his early years in Surrey to the exaggerated neo-Georgian finery of his late buildings such as the British Embassy here, was precisely fitted to earn the white-hot scorn of triumphant modernism.
And it is precisely suited to attract the attention of new generations of architects searching for connections to the past. Lutyens again is a hot topic.
Participants in the symposium, sponsored jointly by the embassy and Glen-Gery Corp., may not have learned much new about Lutyens--the New Yorker's Brendan Gill, alone among the speakers, managed to address the announced subject--but they did get a rare chance to make a leisurely acquaintance with the building he designed for the long Massachusetts Avenue hill. As chronicler E.J. Applewhite observes in his book "Washington Itself," the embassy is "one of the capital's few buildings of genuine and unquestionable architectural distinction."
Lutyens was born in 1869 in London, the ninth of 14 children. A dreamy, shy child who suffered from rheumatic fever, he was the only one of the 10 Lutyens boys who did not attend boarding school. He spent his formative years in rural Surrey with his mother and sisters somewhat shielded from, but terribly affected by, the bankruptcy suffered late in his father's life.
These conditions produced the curious, complex personality sketched by Gill in his address to the symposium. Lutyens became, in Gill's description, "a perky, jolly, humorous, elfin man who lived in mortal terror of monetary failure," a "deeply romantic" soul and obsessive workaholic who remained attached to his wife and children though largely separated from them. Architecture was his passion and, in the main, he taught himself how to do it.
Seen as a whole, in retrospect, Lutyens' work follows a reasonably clear path from Surrey to New Delhi, the awesome imperial capital for which he designed the primary public monuments (and which served the empire fewer years, 16, than it took to plan and build). The main division, which becomes apparent in the early 1900s, is between the picturesque, rural, "native" style of his early work and the neoclassical vocabulary and enlarged scale of his maturity.
Lutyens was by no means a leader in this widespread shift toward classic revival architecture in the Western world. Nonetheless, the change came to him as something of a revelation. As he wrote to a friend in 1903: "In architecture Palladio is the game!! It is so big few appreciate it now and it requires considerable training to value and realize it."
Ironically, what seems important today is not the change itself--in many ways his early buildings are every bit as interesting as the later ones--but the manner in which Lutyens mastered the shift in styles. He so thoroughly imbibed the principles of Renaissance architecture, the art of subtle, interdependent balances and contrasts, that in his hands (and at his best) it became something fresh and infinitely malleable.
Early and late, Lutyens, a chronic sufferer from an overabundance of good ideas, would often pack too much into a single building. At Fulbrook House (1897) in Surrey, for instance, he built with so many different materials and textures--rubble stone walls and smooth ashlar ones combined with shingle gables, brick chimneys, clapboard siding, massive wooden beams, casement windows and turned wooden balusters--that even an admiring critic was moved to conclude, "as Samuel Pepys would say, 'a glut of pleasures.' "
Others have pointed out the sheer "naughtiness and willful originality" that runs like a leitmotif through his work. There is plenty of this--some would say too much--in the embassy building here, column capitals stuck into corners or atop pilasters (shallow columns attached to the wall) that don't exist, ceremonial hallways that end unceremoniously in a blank wall or (and you can almost hear Lutyens chuckle) in a bathroom.
Basically, though, the quality of the building cannot be gainsaid. This quality is not only, or even mainly, a question of ingenious mixing of the classical motifs, but rather a question of how the parts come together, of contrasting planes and volumes, walls and openings, lights and shadows. Critic Ada Louise Huxtable was hardly jesting when she wrote, "If Lutyens had clothed his buildings in banana peels, he would have done it with urbanity and style."
However playful he became, Lutyens concentrated on essentials. The building is a study in rational layout and massing, and yet it is full of surprises: The flanking, mirror-image chancery buildings on Massachusetts Avenue lead to the residence via a bridge atop which sits the ambassador's library, an attractive building in itself. The brick chimneys are like sculptures that belong exactly on those roofs--few architects could place chimneys with such downright authority as Lutyens. They make me think not so much of other conventional chimneys as of sculptural service towers or smokestacks of contemporary architecture--Arthur Cotton Moore at Canal Square, for example, or Hartman/Cox at Dodge Center--a free association on my part but possibly a telling one. Contemporary architects need not copy Lutyens to learn from him.
The stairwells alone make up a little essay about how to do the job with effortless wit, and how to do it right, from the graceful terracing leading to the main garden portico, to the platform (with tiny joking balustrade) in front of two cozy bedrooms, to a spellbinding double spiral within a two-story cubic room--on its own a lesson in basic architectural geometry. The main message, I suppose, is that the embassy, designed in 1928, is the only Lutyens building in the Western Hemisphere and we are lucky to have it.
Increased interest in Lutyens has led to a number of new books and an important reprint. "Edwin Lutyens," a 112-page monograph distributed by Rizzoli ($16.95), is a good introduction to the whole of his work. "Indian Summer," by Robert Grant Irving, tells the impressive tale of the planning and construction of New Delhi (Yale University Press, 406 pp., $39.95). "Sir Edwin Lutyens: Country Houses," by Daniel O'Neill (Whitney Library of Design, 167 pp., $19.95), introduces that fascinating and important phase of his work although the most thoroughly illustrated volume on the subject remains "Houses and Gardens by E.L. Lutyens," the 1925 book by Lawrence Weaver. Fortunately this has recently been reissued (Antique Collectors Club, London, 344 pp., $49.95).