A London square lacking a soul and New Delhi

THE HIGHEST PLACE in north London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb (‘HGS’) is Central Square. Designed to be a focal point for people living in the Suburb, this often-windswept square is a dismal failure. Apart from the occasional communal fetes held on this large open space, this area is somewhere that people walk cross usually without stopping to linger. I was brought up in a house not far from the Square and rarely during the 30 or more years I lived in the area could this heart of the Suburb be described as a lively meeting place. Visits since leaving the area over 30 years ago, have never revealed much, if anything, going on in what might have been a wonderful heart for the local community.

Free Church, Central Square

HGS was created by Dame Henrietta Barnett (1851-1936), who was married to a cleric, Canon Samuel Augustus Barnett (1844-1913). The Barnetts lived close to the Spaniards Inn near Hampstead. The architect Raymond Unwin (1863-1940) was important in conceiving the layout and design for the Suburb. Another architect involved with the creation of HGS, especially the environs of Central Square was Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944).  Building commenced in about 1904/5. The plan for Central Square was finalised in 1911 after several changes in its design. These changes have been summarised as follows (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=BAR011):

“Raymond Unwin’s first design for the suburb (February 1905) had communal buildings including a church, chapel, hall, library and shops; the site of the square was to be levelled and extended to the north. Unwin and Edwin Lutyens, appointed architect in May 1906, proposed a more formal plan in 1906-7; this and a third scheme by Lutyens did not meet with Mrs Barnett’s approval. The final plan of 1911 of Central Square as built is a variant on Lutyens’ plan for a rectangle broken up into four clearly articulated spaces each defined by a double row of trees and a lily pond.” 

It was a shame that the shops and library never materialised. Had they been included in the final plan, the Square would have had a chance of becoming a vibrant communal centre and maybe the Suburb would not have developed into the staid and rather precious district that it has become. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who lived close to HGS in Hampstead’s North End, did not differ from my assessment of the Square:

“The omission of shops from Central Square has proved a disadvantage; the square has never become a real social centre. Not only shops, but also cinemas, pubs, and cafés have been refused admission. Institute education and divine worship have not proved to be as much of a lively attraction as the social reformers hoped for.” (“Buildings of England. London 4: North” by Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, published 1998)

As for the lily pond, if that ever existed, it had disappeared by the time I was a young child in the 1950s.

Apart from the four lawns separated by footpaths, the Square has the following notable features: a church on its south side; a church on its north side; tennis courts on its eastern edge and near them, a monument to the memory of Dame Henrietta Barnett; and on its east side a large building called ‘The Institute’, which houses Henrietta Barnett School. Central Square is flanked by two equally sterile rectangular open spaces: North and South Squares.

Lutyens was responsible for the design of many of the structures standing around Central Square: St Jude Church with its tall spire, constructed 1909-1911; the Free Church with its dome, begun 1911, but only competed in the 1960s; the Henrietta Barnett Memorial, completed about 1938; and the Institute’s design has some input from Lutyens. And that is not all. Lutyens also designed some of the houses in North Square and in Erskine Hill that leads north from it. Friends of mine lived in a pair of semi-detached houses designed by Lutyens on Erskine Hill. Externally, they were not unattractive buildings, but inside I was not impressed; the ground floor rooms were small and not well fed with daylight. Taken in isolation, one might forgive Lutyens for this defect in his design, but since first seeing my friends’ homes, I have discovered that Lutyens was prone to creating designs that were less than ideal.

When visiting Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed in the 13th century, we saw a couple of lodges that had been designed by Lutyens. A friend pointed out that he had omitted guttering in their design, which is a strange thing to miss out in a country where rain is not infrequent. The result is that over the years water running off the lodges’ roofs have damaged the brickwork of their external walls. The latest “National Trust Magazine” (Spring 2021) highlights a design failure at Castle Drogo near Dartmoor in Devon, designed by Lutyens and constructed between 1911 and 1930 for the founder of Home and Colonial Stores, Julius Drewe (1856-1931). Designed to look like a mediaeval fortress, the place was equipped with the latest of 20th century features including electricity generated by a ‘hydro-turbine’. Despite all of its up-to-date furnishings, it is prone to old-fashioned water leaks. This was largely due to Lutyens’ choice of asphalt, a relatively new material as far as roofing was concerned. In addition, the article in the magazine reveals:

“The windows were designed without windowsills …this leaves little protection from the Dartmoor elements…”

In 1897, Lutyens married Lady Emily Bulwer-Lytton (1874–1964), who was daughter of Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton (1831-1891), Viceroy of India between 1876 and 1880. In 1911, the capital of British India shifted from Calcutta to Delhi. And with this move, Lutyens was chosen to head an architectural team to design a new administrative complex in Delhi. His views on the kind of architecture that he considered suitable were disdainful of Indian architecture:

“Lutyens regarded Indian architectural interventions as mere ‘spurts by various mushroom dynasties with as much intellect as there is in any art nouveau’. Indian buildings, according to him, reflected a childish ignorance of even the basic principle of architecture. He also firmly believed that in countries outside of Europe ‘without a great architectural tradition of their own, it was even more essential to adhere strictly to the canons of the architectural style’.” (https://thewire.in/history/friendship-faltered-raisina-hill).

This patronising and denigrating view of traditional Indian architecture that includes treasures like the Taj Mahal and the great stepwells in Gujarat and elsewhere, along with his dogged adherence to certain aspects of European classical architecture, are a poor reflection of Lutyens’ own aesthetic sensibilities and help to explain why I do not rate him amongst the best of 20th century architects. However, many might disagree with my judgement: chacun à son gout, as they say across The English Channel.

Although Lutyens’ creations in New Delhi are much admired, one part of his design showed lack of planning. This is evident in the Viceroy’s House, which he designed. It stands in a complex of buildings on Raisina Hill. Lutyens had wanted the House to stand prominently, like St Judes in HGS, so that it could be seen from all around. Unfortunately, Lutyens:

“…had seen the perspective plan of the buildings earlier but had failed to take adequate notice of the gradient. When he discovered it finally, it was perhaps too late. Lutyens wrote to his wife Emily: ‘I am having difficulty with Baker. You remember the perspective showing the secretariats with Government House. Well, he has designed his levels so that you will never see Government House at all from the Great Place. You will [only] see the top of the dome.’” (https://thewire.in/history/friendship-faltered-raisina-hill)

Well, in my humble opinion, a top-rate architect should never have made such an error and even worse blamed it on his colleague, the eminent architect Herbert Baker (1862-1946). To some outcry in India, there are plans to replace some of Lutyens’ creations in Delhi (www.thehindu.com/news/national/what-is-the-project-to-redevelop-lutyens-delhi-all-about/article29865323.ece)

I have never visited Delhi, New or Old, but I hope that what Lutyens created there is more joyous than the sombre atmosphere that reigns in and around the soulless Central Square in the Hampstead Garden Suburb.

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