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‘A Matter of Practical Emergency’: Herbert Baker, Hope Bagenal, and the Acoustic Legacy of the Assembly Chamber in Imperial Delhi

  • Fiona Smyth

Abstract

In 1923, at the request of the government of India, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in Britain authorised a specialist research stream. Its purpose was to investigate problems in architectural acoustics specifically related to the new Assembly Chamber then under construction in Imperial Delhi. The design, by Sir Herbert Baker, was unusual for its era in that it was refined with recourse to measured data and calculations with a basis in modern physics. The acoustician, or ‘consulting architect’, was Hope Bagenal, and his appointment by Baker in 1922 marked the first international commission of a British acoustic consultant. This article examines the acoustic design of the Assembly Chamber in Delhi and identifies the inputs of the various individuals, both architects and scientists, involved. Drawing on the archives of Baker and Bagenal, the records of the DSIR and the Guastavino Company, as well as contemporaneous newspaper coverage, it also demonstrates the longer-term implications of the design and construction process at Delhi, including its role in stimulating subsequent government-funded research in architectural acoustics in Britain.

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1 ‘Opening of New Delhi’, Times, 19 January 1927, p. 14. ‘Viceroy Opens New Council House at New Delhi’, Times of India, 19 January 1927, p. 13.

2 ‘Accident or Design?’, Times of India, 20 January 1927, p. 11. ‘Indian Assembly’, Times, 20 January 1927, p. 11.

3 Examples of press coverage of the Delhi chamber cited above. For examples of press complaints of unfavourable acoustics, see ‘Bombay's Legislative Council Chamber’, Times of India, 16 February 1931, p. 8. For coverage of issues with ‘the bad acoustic properties’ at Lucknow, see ‘U. P. Council’, Times of India, 4 March 1929, p. 13; ‘U. P. Council's Demand’, Times of India, 16 December 1931, p. 13. See also letter from Herbert Baker to Henry Medd, 3 May 1927, London, Royal Institute of British Architects, Drawings and Archives Collection [hereafter RIBA DAC], BaH/61/1.

4 Letter from Herbert Baker to Hope Bagenal, 26 March 1929, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

5 The new council chamber in Bombay was a purpose-built circular building, discreetly located behind what had been the Royal Albert Sailors’ Home. It was completed at minimal cost: RS 259,889. While economy may have been the reason that the offer of acoustic consultancy was turned down, its designer did embrace technology in incorporating a dehumidifying air-cooling plant in the new chamber. See ‘Bombay's New Council Hall’, Times of India, 24 January 1929, p. 16. See also ‘Legislators Bid Farewell to Old Council Hall’, Times of India, 24 April 1981, p. 7.

6 Letter from Baker to Bagenal, 26 March 1929, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

7 Although evaluation of the relative successes or failures of the acoustics of a given building is notoriously subjective, the chamber at Delhi is notable for the number of positive reviews (and lack of negative reviews) in the press. For the positive reception, see newspaper coverage cited above. The acoustics were also lauded in Mitra's speech at the opening of the Legislative Building: Times of India, 19 January 1927, p. 13.

8 See, for example, Irving, Robert Grant, Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker, and Imperial Delhi (New Haven, CT, 1981); Volwahsen, Andreas, Imperial Delhi: The British Capital of the Indian Empire (Munich, 2002); Nath, Aman, Dome Over India: Rashtrapati Bhavan (Mumbai, 2002); and Hopkins, Andrew and Stamp, Gavin, eds, Lutyens Abroad (London, 2002). See also the numerous papers by Stamp, Gavin, in particular ‘The Tragedy and Triumph of Arthur Gordon Shoosmith’, Apollo, 183.643 (2016), pp. 3233. Also see Johnson, David A., New Delhi: The Last Imperial City (New York, 2015); Bremner, G.A., ed., Architecture and Urbanism in the British Empire (Oxford, 2016); and Butler, Richard, ‘The Anglo-Indian Architect Walter Sykes George (1881–1962): A Modernist Follower of Lutyens’, Architectural History, 55 (2012), pp. 237–68.

9 For an excellent discussion of the role of the engineer in British colonial architecture in India, see Chrimes, Michael Mark, ‘Architectural Dilettantes: Construction Professionals in British India 1600–1910. Part 1’, Construction History, 30.2 (2015), pp. 1544; and ‘Part 2’, Construction History, 31.1 (2016), pp. 99–139. See also Johnson, New Delhi, pp. 110–34.

10 Aside from initial reports of the acoustic consultant himself, the most comprehensive treatment is to be found in Irving, Indian Summer, p. 307.

11 Letter from Herbert Baker to Hugh Keeling, 8 May 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

12 Department of Scientific and Industrial Research [hereafter DSIR], Report of Building Research Board for the period ended 31st December 1926 (London, 1927) [hereafter BRB Report 1926].

13 Letter from Henry Owen Weller to the district engineer's surveyor, 28 May 1920, UK National Archives, Kew [hereafter TNA], DSIR4/62. Tenancy was officially obtained on 15 October 1920. Letter from W.A.M. Murray to W.T. Chard of the Government Property Department, 22 April 1922, TNA DSIR4/62.

14 Frederick M. Lea, Science and Building: A History of the Building Research Station (London, 1971); DSIR, BRB Report 1926.

15 DSIR, BRB Report 1926.

16 Lea, Science and Building, p. 15.

17 The board held its first meeting on 26 June 1920: Lea, Science and Building, p. 15. The site had been tentatively accepted the previous May: letter from Weller to the district engineer's surveyor, 28 May 1920, TNA DSIR4/62.

18 Swenarton, Mark, ‘Breeze Blocks and Bolshevism: Housing Policy and the Origins of the Building Research Station 1917–21’, Construction History, 21 (2005–06), pp. 6980.

19 Letter from Weller to G.W. Humphries, 5 April 1921, TNA, DSIR4/62.

20 ‘Brief Specification Re: Huts for proposed Building Research Experimental Station’, TNA, DSIR4/62.

21 The genesis of Baker's design, and adaptation of the plan to its circular form, is discussed in detail in Irving, Indian Summer, pp. 294–310.

22 Digital archive of Baker's drawings, Indian National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru. See also RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

23 Sabine, Wallace Clement, Collected Papers on Acoustics (Cambridge, MA, 1922); Thompson, Emily, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933 (Cambridge, MA, 2002).

24 Thompson, Soundscape of Modernity; Stebbins, Richard Poate, The Making of Symphony Hall, Boston: A History with Documents (Boston, MA, 2000).

25 Sabine, Wallace Clement, ‘Architectural Acoustics’, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects [hereafter JRIBA], 24.5 (1917), pp. 7077.

26 Thompson, Soundscape of Modernity; Orcutt, William Dana, Wallace Clement Sabine: A Study in Achievement (Boston, MA, 1933).

27 RIBA: Board of Architectural Education, ‘Revised Syllabus of the RIBA Examinations’, JRIBA, 18 (1911), pp. 769–70; Reginald Blomfield, ‘A Note on Recent Changes in the Examination Syllabus’, JRIBA, 18 (1911), pp. 767–69.

28 Smith, Thomas Roger, Acoustics in Relation to Architecture and Building: The Laws of Sound as Applied to the Arrangement of Buildings (London, 1895).

29 Gooday, Graeme, ‘Architectural Acoustics: Thomas Roger Smith and the Science of Hearing Buildings in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, in Experiencing Architecture in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Gillin, Edward and Joyce, H. Horatio (London, 2018), pp. 101–14.

30 Correspondence contained in Bagenal Family Archives and letter from Bagenal to Edward Dent, 25 May 1917, Cambridge, University Library, MS ADD 7973/B/3.

31 Hertford County Hall [hereafter HCH], AC4400.

32 Bagenal, Hope, Some Architectural Writings of Henry Martineau Fletcher: A Memory and a Portrait (St Albans, 1957).

33 Of note are Raymond Unwin, Alan Munby, Hope Bagenal. By this juncture, the committee was chaired by Henry William Burrows, who had petitioned for acoustic research at the RIBA some twenty-five years earlier. Bagenal was a member on a formal basis from 1923, having advised in an informal capacity for a number of years before then. See ‘The Annual Elections’ in JRIBA.

34 Research topics in JRIBA, 27.17 (1920), pp. 480–81.

35 The earlier petition, and its adoption some years later, is mentioned in 1928 in ‘Acoustic Research’, JRIBA, 35.5 (1928), p. 154, and ‘Report of the Science Standing Committee’, JRIBA, 35.12 (1928), pp. 402–04.

36 BRS and NPL files at TNA are clear on laboratory requirements for assessing construction materials. The lack of appropriate laboratory facilities is discussed in Tucker, William Sansome, ‘Acoustical Problems’, Nature, 114.2871 (1924), pp. 688709, and Bagenal, Hope, ‘Acoustics of Buildings: A Review and an Appeal’, JRIBA, 35.12 (1928), pp. 419–20.

37 Letter from Bagenal to Baker, 28 December 1922, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1. The assistance of Professor Dean Hawkes in identifying the site of the experiments is gratefully acknowledged.

38 Bagenal, Hope and Wood, Alex, Planning for Good Acoustics (London, 1931), chapter 11.

39 Munby, Alan, ‘American Research on Acoustics’, Nature, 110.2765 (1922), pp. 575–78; Kopec, John W., The Sabines at Riverbank: Their Role in the Science of Architectural Acoustics (Woodbury, 1997). US data used in Britain at that time are in TNA, DSIR4/139: sound absorption tests on building materials carried out by Building Research Board at request of government of India.

40 HCH, AC4044.

41 Tucker, ‘Acoustical Problems’, p. 688.

42 Sutherland, George Arthur, ‘Acoustics of the Auditorium’, JRIBA, 30 (1923), pp. 608–37.

43 Bagenal, Hope, ‘Musical Acoustics in the Three Cathedrals of London’, Architects’ and Builders’ Journal (1915), pp. 272–73.

44 Bagenal, Hope, ‘Acoustics of Churches: Reverberation’, Architects’ Journal, 49 (1919), pp. 1718; Bagenal, Hope, ‘Acoustics of Churches: Choral Music’, Architects’ Journal, 50 (1919), pp. 773–77; Bagenal, Hope, ‘Chart of Reverberations in Seconds’, The Builder, 119 (1920), pp. 142–43; Bagenal, Hope, ‘Notes on Auditoria for Large Choirs’, The Builder, 120 (1921), p. 8; Bagenal, Hope, ‘Acoustics as Applied to Buildings’, The Architect (1921), pp. 252–54, 313–17; Bagenal, Hope, ‘Acoustics and the Vatican Choir’, The Builder, 122 (1922), p. 841; Bagenal, Hope, ‘The Acoustics of Council Chambers’, The Builder, 123 (1922), p. 160; Bagenal, Hope, ‘Architectural Acoustics’, JRIBA, 29 (1922), pp. 573–75.

45 ‘Acoustic Properties of Partitions’, Architects’ Journal, 52 (1920), pp. 127–28; ‘Doors and Windows’, Architects’ Journal, 52 (1920), pp. 206–10; ‘The Science of Architectural Acoustics’, Architects’ Journal, 56 (1922), pp. 405–07.

46 Letter from Baker to Lionel Jacob, 20 June 1927, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

47 Bagenal's technique in this regard is described in Bagenal and Wood, Planning for Good Acoustics. Ray-tracing with respect to a semi-circular plan is described on pp. 54–58.

48 Hope Bagenal, ‘Acoustic Report on Designs for the Legislative Assembly Chamber, Delhi’, 2 October 1922, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

49 Letter from Baker to Keeling, 7 June 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

50 Bagenal, ‘Acoustic Report’, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

51 The strategy was used with particular frequency in churches. Examples include the chapel at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, the Church of Corpus Christi in Dublin and Guildford Cathedral.

52 See data in Bagenal, Hope, ‘The Acoustics of the New Legislative Chamber at Delhi’, Architect and Building News, 121 (1929), pp. 851–53.

53 For discussion of the criticism of rising costs and construction delays for the new imperial city, see Irving, Indian Summer, pp. 126–28; for criticism by the New Capital Enquiry Committee of the projected construction cost for the revised circular plan of the Legislative Building, see ibid., p. 302.

54 Letter from Baker to Bagenal, 1 January 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

55 See Moe, Kiel, Insulating Modernism (Basel, 2014).

56 See ‘Colonial Import Duties 1908’, in Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons and Command, 99 (London, 1908), p. 243. Attributes in terms of insect, rot and fire resistance are described in publications ranging from architectural and engineering periodicals to horticultural journals: ‘Cabot's Quilt’, Better Fruit, 13.2 (1918), p. 10.

57 ‘Colonial Import Duties 1908’.

58 ‘Acoustical Materials and Modern Architecture 1900–1930’, in Thompson, Soundscape of Modernity, pp. 169–228.

59 Letter from Bagenal to Baker, 8 November 1922, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

60 Letters from R. Guastavino Company to Bagenal, 29 October 1922, and to Baker, 27 November 1922, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

61 Wallace Clement Sabine and Rafael Guastavino, Patent No. 110,194, Sound Absorbing Material for Walls and Ceilings (London, 1917). Wallace Clement Sabine and Rafael Guastavino, US Patent No. 1,197, 956, Sound-Absorbing Material for Walls and Ceilings (Washington, 1916).

62 Sabine and Guastavino, Patent No. 110,194.

63 The other tile was marketed as Rumford.

64 Ochsendorf, John, Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile (New York, 2010).

65 Letter from Guastavino Company to Baker, 22 November 1922, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

66 Letter from MAPC to Baker, 9 December 1922, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

67 Ibid.

68 Letter from Baker to Keeling, 10 January 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

69 Ibid.

70 Ibid.

71 Letter from Bagenal to Baker, 28 December 1922, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

72 Letter from Baker to Bagenal, 1 January 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

73 Letters from Bagenal to Baker, 28 December 1922; Baker to Bagenal, 1 January 1923; Baker to Keeling, 10 January 1923; Baker to Keeling, 26 January 1923: RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1. On the invitation, see letters from Baker to Bagenal, 1 January 1923, and Baker to Keeling, 25 January 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

74 Letter from Weller to Baker, 25 January 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

75 Ibid.

76 Letter from Weller to Baker, 8 February 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

77 Letter from Baker to Weller, 9 February 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

78 Letter from Baker's secretary to Weller, 21 March 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

79 Letter from Paul Sabine to Bagenal, 27 January 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

80 Ibid.

81 Letter from Baker to Keeling, 7 February 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

82 Letters from Bagenal to Baker, 28 December 1922, and William Blodgett to Baker, 1 October 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

83 Letter from Baker to Keeling, 28 February 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

84 Ibid.

85 Letter from Baker to Bagenal, 23 February 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

86 Letter from Baker to Keeling, 29 March 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

87 Thompson, Soundscape of Modernity.

88 Letter from Bagenal to Baker, 18 April 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

89 Letter from Baker to Bagenal, 19 December 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

90 The Science Masters’ Conference was an annual event organised by the Science Masters’ Association. In January 1923 it was hosted at Cambridge. ‘Science Masters at Cambridge’, Times, 4 January 1923, p. 7.

91 ‘Microphones in London County Hall’, Evening Telegraph and Post, 2 February 1923, p. 3; ‘Listening-In at County Hall’, Times, 24 January 1923, p. 7.

92 For Major Isidore Salmon's comments on ‘the Sabine theory’, see ‘Listening-In at County Hall’.

93 Letter from Keeling to Baker, 19 May 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1. Published data for Akoustolith put its effectiveness at 38 per cent. From reference to Sabine's notes, Bagenal felt that performance was closer to 40 per cent (see letter from Baker to Keeling, 14 June 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1). Keeling calculated the effectiveness of Akoustolith using an assumed value of 20 per cent. The discrepancy of figures underscored the need for precise data, bench-marked against known values.

94 Letter from Keeling to Baker, 7 May 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

95 Letter from Bagenal to Baker, 25 April 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

96 Letter from Baker to Keeling, 7 June 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

97 Ibid.

98 ‘Memorandum from the Physics Research Board to the Building Research Board on the Acoustic Properties of Building Materials’, 30 May 1923, TNA, DSIR4/139.

99 Ibid.

100 Letter from Baker to Keeling, 7 June 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

101 A Helmholtz resonator absorbs sound through destructive interference. Sound enters an enclosed compartment through a narrow aperture and is dissipated within the air space. Attenuation within the air space of the jali at Delhi was increased by lining it with absorbing material.

102 Letter from William H. Bragg to Baker, 23 May 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

103 Ibid.

104 Ibid.

105 Letter from Baker to Keeling, 15 February 1923, RIBA, BaH/61/1.

106 Letter from Baker to Keeling, 18 April 1923, RIBA, BaH/61/1.

107 The adopted percentage was in keeping with the use of jali in other parts of the Legislative Building. Letter from Baker to Hope Bagenal and George Arthur Sutherland, 5 June 1923, RIBA, BaH/61/1.

108 Letter from Bagenal to Baker, 27 June 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

109 Letter from Keeling to Baker, 19 May 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

110 Letter from Weller to Baker, 22 June 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

111 DSIR Memorandum, 19 March 1924, TNA, DSIR4/139.

112 Clark, Sabine, ‘Pure Science with a Practical Aim: The Meanings of Fundamental Research in Britain, circa 1916–1950’, Isis, 101.2 (2010), pp. 285311.

113 Lea, Science and Building, and Stradling, Reginald, ‘Building Research: Paper Read Before the Institution of Structural Engineers’, Structural Engineer, 5.5 (1928), pp. 137–45.

114 DSIR, BRB Report 1926.

115 ‘Report on Acoustic Experiments Carried out for the Government of India. DSIR. Confidential Report No. 250 (1925)’, TNA, DSIR4/139.

116 Letter from Baker to Keeling, 14 June 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

117 Letter from William Blodgett to Baker, 1 October 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

118 Letter from Baker to Guastavino Company, 26 October 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

119 Letter from Guastavino Company to Baker, 13 October 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

120 Letter from Baker to Keeling, 25 October 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

121 Letter from P.W. Barnett to Baker, 8 December 1923, TNA DSIR4/139.

122 ‘Building Research Board Experiments’, 4 January 1924, TNA DSIR4/139.

123 Letter from Bagenal to Baker, 12 February 1924, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

124 ‘General Work on Sound Absorption by Building Materials’, Minutes of Meeting of the Building Research Board, 8 February 1924, TNA, DSIR4/139.

125 Acoustics Committee: Constitution, extract from Minutes of Meeting of the BRB, 25 July 1924, TNA DSIR4/26.

126 Letter from Baker to Bagenal, 26 March 1924, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

127 Letter from Keeling to Baker, 27 May 1924, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1. In fact the Guastavino Company absorbed the costs. The majority of shipments were insured, and just one left them at a loss. Details of breakages and insurance are to be found in New York, Columbia University, Avery Library, Guastavino Archive, NYDA.1963.002: 00697–00720, Factory Orders, September 1924–November 1925.

128 Letter from Keeling to Baker, 27 May 1924, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1; letter from R.O. Montgomery (Office of the High Commissioner for India) to DSIR, 21 May 1924, TNA, DSIR4/139.

129 ‘DSIR Advisory Council: Memorandum on Acoustics’, 9 April 1924, TNA, DSIR4/139.

130 Extract from Minutes of special meeting of the DSIR advisory council, 30 July 1924, TNA, DSIR4/26.

131 DSIR, Report of Building Research Board for the year 1930 (London, 1931).

132 Minutes of the Architectural Acoustics Committee of the Building Research Board, TNA, DSIR4/27.

133 League of Nations: Acoustic Qualities of Proposed Assembly Hall, letter from under secretary-general, Société des Nations, to DSIR, 3 May 1929, TNA, DSIR4/73.

134 Letter from Baker to Weller, 15 June 1923, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

135 See data contained in P.W. Barnett and W.H. Glanville on behalf of the DSIR, ‘Report on Acoustic Experiments Carried out for the Government on India’ (1925), TNA, DSIR4/139.

136 Bagenal, ‘Acoustics of New Legislative Chamber’.

137 ‘Vice-Roy Opens New Council House at New Delhi’, Times of India, 19 January 1927, p. 13.

138 Waterhouse, Paul, inaugural presidential address to the RIBA: ‘Some London — and other — Problems’, JRIBA, 30.1 (1922), p. 3.

139 Increased efficiency was obtained by the addition of lime and powdered aluminium as a catalyst to create a hydrogen-based froth, thereby increasing porosity. See ‘Report on Acoustic Experiments’, TNA, DSIR4/139.

140 DSIR, BRB Report 1926.

141 Brebner's report is contained in RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

142 Ibid.

143 Letter from Alexander Rouse to Baker, 7 April 1927, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

144 Ministry of Health, Construction of Flats for the Working Classes: Interim Report (London, 1935).

145 Letter from Bagenal to Baker, 4 April 1929, RIBA DAC, BaH/61/1.

‘A Matter of Practical Emergency’: Herbert Baker, Hope Bagenal, and the Acoustic Legacy of the Assembly Chamber in Imperial Delhi

  • Fiona Smyth

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