Looking up at the Raisina Hill from Vijay Chowk, one can’t help but be reminded of a famous controversy that surrounded the construction of the capitol complex that stands there. From this vantage point, while the North and South blocks of the Secretariat loom large, Rashtrapati Bhavan is almost totally obscured, except for its dome, an effect created by the sharp gradient leading up to top of the hill. It was this slope that wrecked the friendship between two architects, as it favoured Herbert Baker’s Secretariat buildings at the cost of Edwin Lutyens’s masterpiece of the Government House, which we now know as Rashtrapati Bhavan. Though the story of this quarrel is oft-repeated, one is usually left asking — why exactly did Baker’s view prevail over Lutyens’s in this matter?
The story needs to be followed from the inception of the New Delhi project. A Town Planning Committee had been set up in 1912 to choose an appropriate site for the new capital, and to design a layout plan for it. It consisted of three members — Lutyens, J A Brodie (an engineer) and George Swinton (Vice-Chairman of the London County Council).
Speaking of this in 1933, Lutyens recalled, “In the following year the Government gave as a help Sir Herbert Baker”, suggesting that this was almost an afterthought. Was Lutyens being genuinely forgetful about the history of Baker’s involvement in New Delhi, or do we have here the shadow of a rivalry that probably had deeper roots?
A close look at the official correspondence of the time reveals that even in the early stages, when the composition of the Town Planning Committee was first being contemplated, Baker’s name had been the first to be suggested as the architect member. This was not surprising, as Baker, having designed the main government buildings at Pretoria, was a much better-known architect than Lutyens. Lutyens’s name was only accepted later, after some initial misgivings about his lack of experience with important public buildings. He did have some important backers however, including those in professional circles who had faith in his capabilities, and he eventually came on board as the architectural member of the Town Planning Committee.
The Committee, however, had no role to play in the design of the buildings of the new capital, and for these, architects had to be engaged. Lutyens, who had his heart set on the job, had more of a struggle in this. He informally worked on a design for the Government House, and Lord Hardinge, then Governor General of India, when he was shown this, was favourably impressed.
There were however, concerns about his suitability for taking on the task, particularly as the entire project was a large one. It was in these circumstances that Baker’s name was suggested again, and Lutyens’s appointment was confirmed only by early 1913, on the condition that Baker would be his partner in the project. Thus it was that Lutyens was entrusted with the design of the Government House, the War Memorial Arch (India Gate) and the Public Records Office (National Archives); and Baker with the Secretariats and Council House (Parliament).
Lutyens knew Baker well, and had even worked in collaboration with him, but may have felt in this case that Baker was being thrust upon him. On the other hand, when it came to the matter of the slope up to the Government House, Lutyens had in fact willingly given his assent to the plan which eventually led to its construction. While the Town Planning Committee had initially placed the secretariat buildings on the ground below Raisina Hill, Baker had persuaded them, including Lutyens and Hardinge, that the Secretariat buildings too should be placed on Raisina Hill.
Moreover, in early 1914, when work began on levelling and preparing the hill for the foundations of the buildings, Lutyens signed off on detailed plans showing the position, dimensions and gradient of the road which would pass between the Secretariat blocks to come up to the Government House.
The problem was that Lutyens himself did not appreciate, until almost two years later, when work on the buildings was well underway, the implications of what he had agreed to. It was then that he realised that the view of the Government House would be seriously affected, and objected to the plan. By this time work was so advanced that an adjustment of the gradient would entail a serious expense, to say nothing of the impact it would have on the functionality of the Secretariat blocks — as they would be separated from each other by a sloping road.
The government rejected his pleas for an alteration, with Hardinge saying that it was “little short of a scandal” that Lutyens should raise this point at this late date, particularly as the question of views of the Government House should have been obvious to him from the very beginning.
Lutyens rather unfairly blamed Baker for the outcome, and it soured their relationship forever. It is probably testament to Lutyens’s more enduring legacy that it is his version of events which has come down to us in most of the histories that have been written.
(Liddle is the author of Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi)