At the beginning of the 20th century, Sir Edwin Lutyens’s work began to turn from the picturesque romanticism of his country houses towards the grand manner of the self-described “Wrennaissance.” While he had used classical elements throughout his career and there was not a steady progression away from the vernacular, there came to be a more austere, geometric aspect to his work. For example, there is the Johannesburg Art Gallery (begun in 1911, finally completed in 1940) with a portico from a recessed front. It was also in South Africa that he designed, with a monumental arch, the first of many war memorials, the Rand Regiments’ Memorial (1911). During this time, the British government appointed him as architect for the new capital of India in New Delhi where he was responsible for the Viceroy’s House (1912-30).
While the architect focused on public buildings and memorials, there were a handful of domestic commissions. One of the few country houses to be built in the interwar period was the large-scale Gledstone Hall (which included lodges, cottages, and forecourt) in Yorkshire (1922-26). Working with local architect Richard Jacques, Lutyens created here a porte-cochere with a portico–the only one in his English country houses (although another portico appears in an un-built 1916 plan) and a black-and-white marble stair–features that were to reappear at the British Embassy. In Yorkshire, as he was to find in Washington, there was a sloping site; Lutyens created a strong axis with a 140-foot-long canal ending with a semi-circular pool, paths alongside leading to a pergola. In designing the Embassy, Lutyens drew on elements he used in the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi, with its combination of chancery and residence, formal and public areas with private living space, and Gledstone Hall, with its imposing approach and monumental scale.
The strong verticality of the linked Chancery and Ambassador’s Residence is emphasized by Wren’s Chelsea Hospital-inspired chimneys. Lutyens’s Washington plans took into account the climate of course (as he had done in India) with the porte-cochere for the Residence providing not only privacy but protection from the elements. The front portico of Ionic columns (for which is designed a new capital also used in New Delhi) in double rows not only provides a grand stage for leading into the gardens but a sheltered place for formal entertaining out-of-doors.
The house, set at the higher ground and at right angles to the Chancery, faces southeast overlooking an expanse of lawn and the sweep of the city. The mass of the Embassy sits on the northwest part of the property, providing for the maximum use of space for gardens, and significant symbolically, taking in the view of the capital city. The median axis of the Residence is of the terrace, ballroom, to the cloistered kitchen court, bringing the outside in once again. Stairs from the corridor running the length of the house extend outwards to another higher level on the southwest to the swimming pool (in an earlier plan this appears as a small, round temple). The pool, at a far reach of the property, terminates this main axis, uniting all parts of the Embassy: the forecourt of the entrance, Chancery, Ambassador’s study (over the porte-cochere), Residence, gardens. The bi-axial symmetry ingeniously anchors the entire irregularly shaped site and its various levels.
The geometry of the interior of the house plays out in the axes of the garden walls, paths, steps, and terraces. There are the simple 1-¾ inch, hand-finished brick closures (made in Virginia), typical of the 17th century, Indiana limestone and other traditional material of the house that is also extended into the garden. The walkways are limestone sheltered by brick retaining walls. The sharp masonry details of these elements in the Embassy gardens are one of the hallmarks of Lutyens’s work. The polish of the black and white marble from the ballroom is wittily echoed in the surprisingly rusticated slates-on-edge and limestone of the terrace in front of the portico, further reflected in the alternating rose parterres and grass squares set in eight limestone risers. These and the repeating detail of circle within a square are an imaginative use of Art Deco details in a Palladian classical design, an abstraction of forms of the architect’s later work. The limestone arch in a brick wall surrounding the typical Lutyens’s wooden green gate is another transition, but domestic and intimate, from the public Chancery and Residence driveway up the stairs leading to the secluded gardens. Here and at other points, highly placed urns mark garden entrances, features often found in his frequent collaborator Gertrude Jekyll’s work.
Even before they were anywhere near complete, the prominence given to the grounds was noted in the early press of the new Embassy complex. Soon after the commission was announced The Washington Star reported that “gardens are planned to surround the new embassy site, to be used for formal garden parties and other social functions” (7 June 1925). The sub-headline of a December 1929 Washington Post story, “Britain adorns our capital city,” declared that “landscaping to play important part in completed property.” The Washington Star observed in 1930 that:
The whole development was planned with an eye to the entertainment and social functions which adhere to the life of the diplomatic corps. This is evident in both the buildings and the grounds. The site contains 185,000 square feet of area where landscaping has been planned for use for formal occasions, with gardens, walks, terraces and other beautifying treatment.