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Empire Builders, 1750-1950 at the V&A

May 12, 2014
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Design for St Martin’s Garrison Church, New Delhi, India, Arthur Shoosmith, 1930, pencil and watercolour. Copyright RIBA Library

New Delhi is home to Arthur Shoosmith’s superb St Martin’s Garrison Church (1930). This austere looking building is both aesthetically pleasing and practical. Made of an impressive three and a half million bricks, the small windows and dense walls protect the interior from the withering Indian heat. Many architectural critics consider it one of the best buildings of the last century. Writer Jonathan Glancy says this “is architecture at its most powerful and elemental”. Architectural historian Gavin Stamp declares it “not only one of the most brilliant examples of British colonial architecture but also one of the finest buildings of the Twentieth Century”.

It’s a rare treat indeed to see a watercolour of Shoosmith’s church, which is currently on display in Empire Builders, 1750-1950  at the V&A. The exhibition shows a selection of illustrations and models of British colonial architecture from the collections of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Other works include a watercolour of Lutyen’s (unbuilt) design for a house on the Hudson River  for E. H. Harriman (1903),  Oliver Hill’s Lutyenesque house for English missionary doctors in China (1921) and a photograph of a CFA Voysey designed house (1905) in the Aswan Desert (although apparently Voysey never actually travelled to Egypt to see the house). Perhaps my favourite piece, after Shoosmith’s church, is the humorous bust of Sir Edwin Lutyens made by his New Delhi office in the form of an Indian chattri (dome-shaped pavilion used as an element in Indian architecture). This stood above a doorway in Lutyens London office for many years.

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Design for a house on the Hudson River, Edwin Lutyens, pen and wash, 1903. Copyright RIBA Library

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House in Aswan, Egypt, CFA Voysey, 1905. Copyright RIBA Library

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Bust of Sir Edward Lutyens, 1917. Copyright RIBA Library

These buildings and the RIBA Library and Drawings collection deserve to be better known. This show is a quiet, studious counterpoint to the recent “interactive” Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined exhibition at the Royal Academy (see my review). If I have one criticism, it’s that there appears little attempt to set the buildings critically within the context of colonialism (as has often been done with non-Western artefacts in ethnographic museums). Masterpieces such as Shoosmith’s church are not only examples of brilliant architecture but also symbols of Britain’s long and often bloody exploitation of foreign cultures under colonial rule.

Empire Builders, 1750-1950 at the V&A Museum until 15 June

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