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Impact and Legacy – the Architectural Styles of the British in India – five online talks by Anthony Peers

posted on 02/05/24


Independence came to India over 75 years ago but the physical evidence of the British presence survives, not least in Kolkata, ‘the city of palaces’, with its wealth of classical buildings and equally in Gothic Revival Mumbai, recently recognised through UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. Architecturally, and in terms of urban planning, Lutyens and Baker’s hugely ambitious New Delhi proved the culmination of British architectural endeavours in India.

From the architecture of conquerors, wishing to ‘civilise’ or impose their sense of order, to the buildings of those anxious for a degree of integration, this series spanning the mid-17th to mid-20th centuries explores evolving architectural style and how this reflects subtle changes in the aspirations of the British in India. What was it that motivated the military engineers and amateur architects of the East India Company to design their buildings in the classical style of the Greeks and the Romans? To what extent was this style choice merely the following of convention, or did the East India Company consciously look to architecture as a means by which to convey messages, not least of hegemony?

Early in the reign of Victoria, the Cambridge Camden Society paved the way in trying to establish architectural styles that might prove a better fit than the East India Company classical. We will follow the increasingly fierce debates centred on the quest to secure an appropriate colonial building style and look at the sometimes baffling efforts by the British to create buildings that worked with, or responded to, the architectural traditions of India.

From the outset the British had looked with envy and a growing sense of inadequacy at the architecture of the Mughals: With seeming effortlessness, these Muslims from the west had given life to a fitting, new and hugely alluring style for the buildings of their empire. Only a couple of decades before Britain’s imperial ties were severed, Lutyens succeeded where the Mughals had succeeded, in creating a singular, distinctive and fitting empire style.

What of this rich and remarkable legacy? What do Indians think of these buildings, these tangible reminders of the British empire? How do they fit into architectural history? The series closes with a consideration of these key questions, and looks at how the buildings are being treated today, providing insights into the endeavours of India’s burgeoning building conservation community..

They take place every Tuesday from 2nd–30th July at 4.30pm (GMT +1) and, including Q&A, will probably last just under an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (24th September 2024).

Register for the webinar series for £65

The talks

1. Strictly Classical: the East India Company makes its mark (2nd July 2024)

The military engineers and amateur architects employed by the East India Company were clearly required to design buildings that stylistically served in the conveyance of the EIC’s ‘civilising’ goals. Classicism, was the style to which they gravitated, honed and perfected by history’s ultimate high achievers in civilisation – the Greeks and the Romans. However, just as the centuries of traditional craftsmanship wrought jaunty and delightful character upon the Elizabethan efforts at creating classical buildings, so the East India Company’s ‘spiced’ classical rarely conforms to the strictures of classical architecture’s order and proportion.

2. The Joy of Mumbai Gothic (9th July 2024)

The Indian Mutiny of 1857 proved a key hinge point in the history of India. In the immediate aftermath of this, the bloodiest of insurrections, the running of British interests in India was transferred from the East India Company to the Crown. The buildings constructed by the British in the aftermath of the conflict show how the evaporation of the East India Company’s hegemony was coupled with a severing from its architectural tradition. In terms of style, it almost seems as though there was a concerted effort to break with the past. Was architecture a vehicle through which to convey messages along the lines of ‘we’re making a new start’? Between the 1860s and 1880s, as it flourished economically and became ‘The Gateway of India’, Mumbai found itself home to a late but quite remarkable flowering of the Gothic Revival.

3. The Indo Saracenic – stylistic battles of the late 19th century (16th July 2024)

What was it that drove the British to quest for a ‘fitting’ British architectural style with which to build in India? The longstanding and sometimes fractious debate over how British designed buildings might best respond to Indian architecture is the subject of the third talk, which will consider Buddhist, Hindu, Jain and above all Mughal architecture. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in both Britain and India, the matter of securing an appropriate style came increasingly to the fore. This talk will follow the debate and look at the efforts made, by the British, to ensure that their buildings sat well in the Indian context. By the time Lutyens was tasked with designing New Delhi: the relationship of the buildings with the stylistic traditions of India, were key considerations.

4. Lutyens and the triumph of New Delhi (23rd July 2024)

In the history of architecture there are very few building designers of whom it can be said ‘they were truly innovative’. Edwin Lutyens was a man of brilliance – he deserves a place in the pantheon of world greats. This talk considers his remarkable achievement. In New Delhi Edwin Lutyens designed buildings in a genuinely new style. This was rare building design for it responded to the architectural traditions of the locality while rising above eclecticism and stylistic borrowing. It is no small irony that, having quested for centuries to identify an appropriate architectural style with which to build in India, within a few years of having at last found one – it was time for the British to leave.

5. The Buildings Today: evolving attitudes and conservation (30th July 2024)

This final talk will start with a brief look beyond New Delhi, to other buildings designed by the British in India in the 20th century. The lecturer will then talk of his experiences in the 1990s of setting up and running a British Government led building conservation project in Mumbai. He will consider perceptions at that time of India’s colonial built heritage, and look at evolving post-colonial thinking and attitudes to the British built legacy both within India and more widely. The recent concealment of Thomas Brock’s marble statue of Queen Victoria in Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial Hall will be discussed, along with Narendra Modi’s Central Vista Redevelopment Project in New Delhi. This talk will end with positive reflections on shared heritage, highlighting recently undertaken works of exemplary conservation.

Image: Bombay High Court (Victorian Gothic), A.Savin.

The speaker

Anthony Peers

Educated as an architectural historian and trained in building conservation, Anthony works as a consultant providing guidance to those planning the repair, alteration and extension of historic buildings. He has worked with English Heritage’s Listing Division and then with the DTI in Mumbai, where he set up and ran a UNESCO award-winning project to repair George Gilbert Scott’s University buildings whilst training local architects and craftsmen in traditional repair techniques and conservation philosophy. His history reports and conservation guidance has served to inform works at sites such as The Workhouse, Southwell; Aston Hall, Birmingham; The Royal Institution, London; Winchester Cathedral and Birmingham Town Hall.

Register for the webinar series for £65

Frequently asked questions

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An electronic invoice will be sent to your e-mail address 1–3 working days after you have completed our registration form. Payment can be made online using AMEX, Apple Pay, Google Pay, MasterCard or Visa.

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No, unfortunately not. The series must be purchased in full.

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A recording will be uploaded to a dedicated webpage approximately two hours after the live broadcast. For copyright reasons, these recordings cannot be made available indefinitely; access is granted for eight weeks after the final live broadcast of the series.

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