An architect's dreams

Birth Centenary
Last Updated 27 March 2017, 14:44 IST

Laurie Baker writes in a 20-point note on architectural principles — he simply states them as “feelings” about being an architect — on the importance of being honest and truthful. “Avoid opulence and showing-off”; “Discourage extravagance and snobbery,” he says, underscoring words like conscience, convictions, faith, common sense and local materials. The handwritten note, uploaded on a website managed by Baker’s grandson Vineet Radhakrishnan — www.lauriebaker.net — outlines the work ethic of a master architect who brought his work to the common man.

Baker died on April 1, 2007, aged 90 years. As his friends, family and students reach the last leg of events held as part of his birth centenary year, work of the British architect who made India his home for six decades continues to inspire new practitioners with its inherent theme of sustainability and its socialist undertones.

On the 4.5-acre campus of the Laurie Baker Centre (LBC) for Habitat Studies in Vilappilsala, about 15 km from Thiruvananthapuram city, brick structures blend into the green of trees — the LBC was Baker’s last project. Labourers are at work on a construction site — a documentation centre is coming up, as part of efforts to organise Baker’s largely non-codified work; its walls and slabs are made of mud and bamboo. Baker always factored in geological and topographical features of sites, cultural aspects of their inhabitants, local climate and vegetation, and the availability of local building materials. He encouraged the use of lime and bamboo in construction as they don’t use up energy like cement and steel.

Baker’s vision for sustainable habitats is being followed up by COSTFORD (Centre for Science and Technology for Rural Development), a non-profit organisation he formed in association with late former chief minister C Achutha Menon and others. P B Sajan, Baker’s disciple, is chief architect and joint director at COSTFORD. Sajan’s recent work is also pegged to research on use of mud and bamboo as an alternative to energy-intensive building materials. Baker had, over four decades ago, talked about the need to shift to energy-efficient architecture.

Go local
It was a time when green architecture was not a mere brochure punchline builders used for star ratings. “He insisted on the use of local materials and never compromised on quality of the construction. His work highlighted local workmanship, an aspect that also led to propaganda that his constructions are too labour-intensive,” says Sajan, who is also member-secretary of LBC’s Board of Governors.

Born Laurence Wilfred Baker in 1917, into a Methodist family in Birmingham, Baker worked in a leper colony in China for four years before he arrived in India, in 1945, as part of a mission to build hospitals. In Faizabad, he met Elizabeth, a doctor, whom he married in 1948. The couple set up a hospital and home in Pithoragarh (now, a district in Uttarakhand).

In 1963, the Bakers moved to Vagamon in Kerala; their life in Pithoragarh and Vagamon also provided opportunities for Baker to build homes and schools on diverse terrains and for varied climates, employing local techniques and practices.

Six years later, the Bakers and their children — son Tilak and daughters Vidya and Heidi — moved to Thiruvananthapuram where he built hundreds of homes, chapels and other structures that, with their jaalis, red-oxide flooring and sloping roofs, would shape the Baker Style in popular imagination.

Apart from the residences, his work on public buildings like the ones at the Centre for Development Studies and the Indian Coffee House outlet near the KSRTC bus station — a spiralling structure with built-in tables — has become reference material for architects.

Sajan, who worked with Baker for 20 years, remembers him as “a great human being” who always maintained a warm relationship with the masons and carpenters. “In the late 1980s, he was hospitalised after sustaining some internal injuries. When some of us visited him, he had lost some blood, and was recuperating. He had taken an Indian citizenship around that time. What he told us, as an apparent joke, was significant — ‘There was some British blood left in me, now that’s gone too’,” says Sajan. “He fascinates me with his integrity, in his life and his craft. He moulded his life around his work which itself was marked by the honesty of its expression,” says Dinesh Jeyachandran, academic coordinator at the LBC.

People who worked closely with Baker believe that a diversity in styles that could have influenced his work was never an impediment. The synthesis, or re-imagining, of seemingly diverse aesthetics appears seamless and non-intrusive.

Sajan remembers how the iconic architect could look beyond his English roots and training, and revisit the 16th Century Padmanabhapuram Palace — in the neighbouring Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu — and admire the intricacies of its indigenous architecture.

The exposed red brick has become so integral to Baker’s work aesthetic that in Kerala, any non-plastered construction is identified with the Baker Style. “Bricks to me are like faces. All of them are made of burnt mud, but they vary slightly in shape and colour,” Baker said, explaining why he didn’t want to cover them with “dull and characterless” plaster. The style, however, also drew from concerns over energy-intensive architecture — non-plastered walls meant conservation of energy typically exhausted on building materials.

Fond remembrance
Baker’s disciples recall him feeling more gratified with initiatives of social import, like a group housing project he helmed for fisherfolk. They believe that Baker’s practices in sustainable-building architecture and his housing-for-all advocacy would define his legacy.

Sajan traces Baker’s relevance to the Kerala example — the state reportedly has over 10 lakh additional homes when over four lakh families are homeless. He points to how, for example, a shift from cement to lime could boost local economies. “The use of local materials shifts focus from high energy-consuming manufacturing processes to manpower. The Baker model is labour-intensive and that, in a sense, is also a socialist model,” he says.

Interview with gradson

Vineet Radhakrishnan, Laurie Baker's grandson, has directed Uncommon Sense: The Life and Architecture of Laurie Baker, a documentary which was premiered in February at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi.

The Bengaluru-based filmmaker spoke with Sunday Herald on the master builder’s work principles, what constituted Baker's idea of a good design and the film which also had him reconnect with and revisit the iconic architect.

Laurie Baker meant different things to different people – a builder celebrated for his personal and professional integrity, a people’s architect who endorsed sustainable practices, a socialist in his approach.
Many people think of him as a great designer and artist. Others see him as someone who brought us innovative building techniques; some others see him as a passionate environmentalist and yet others feel he is a humanitarian and built for poor people.

However, you need to look at all these aspects in a holistic manner to really understand him. Often people get caught up in technology, materials, techniques and aesthetic superficialities when it comes to Laurie Baker. I feel that is a very limiting approach.

What do you reckon would define his legacy?
What is appropriate will change as the world changes. To me, what is important are his ideas and approach – of constantly questioning the way things are done, of respecting our planet and fellow beings, of understanding that architecture has societal obligations and that the benefits of good design should not be just for a few rich people, and of re-imagining our traditional architecture in practical ways that minimise waste and are aesthetically pleasing. Laurie Baker’s message to architects today, I feel, is ultimately to use their “uncommon sense”, to not accept things just because “they are so” and fearlessly fight for the present and the future they desire and believe in.

There's a contention that it’s difficult to bring on paper the essence of his work because a lot of it was improvised and didn’t quite follow rigid plans. How do you look at his influences and this disruptive (?) aspect of his craft, also considering his take on building codes?
Any building can only be truly understood by experiencing it. No plan, however detailed, can replace feeling the breeze, seeing the sun stream in through a jaali or the tangible experience of walking through flowing spaces. Therefore, I feel it is critical to not just document work on paper but to preserve and protect buildings – especially iconic ones such as the Coffee House, Loyola Chapel and unique residences such as the six-bedroom Namboothiri house at Kesavadasapuram which is a master-class on space utilisation and incredibly, was built for only Rs 10,000 in 1973 – at 1/5th the cost of a comparable conventional house of that size!

I personally know over a dozen people who went into architecture purely based on the one-time experience of seeing that house. Such is the impact a well-designed building can have on us. So preserving the actual buildings (at least the iconic ones) is probably more important. Also, of course, he never compromised on the safety of any building and all his design decisions were based on sound understanding of structural engineering and scientific fact. In fact, many elements he used such as the rat-trap bond and filler slabs were validated by Anna University in 1995 during a year-long study and shown to be perfectly safe and have insulation and cost advantages over conventional methods.

What was the biggest challenge for you as you set out to make Uncommon Sense?
Putting together all the different layers of his story in a coherent fashion was challenging: his rather remarkable personal life story spanning China, meeting Gandhiji, his life with my grandmother in the Himalayas, the tribal forests of Kerala, tracing the origins and evolution of his work and examining how his life and work influenced each other, was the big challenge. Also, of course, trying to balance the needs of two very different audience groups: architects and design folk who want to know technical building related information with the needs of the general audience for whom architecture is just the backdrop and for whom the story of his life is more important.

How personal has been this journey through film?
This has also been a personal journey for me of re-discovering my grandfather. To me, he was always Granddad. He was so laid-back with the family it was easy to forget who he was to others. Also almost every building has a story – of overcoming odds – there is either a financial constraint, or insufficient land, poor terrain, lack of water, etc. So understanding each client’s story was like finding a jigsaw piece to understanding Laurie Baker the architect and the journey of three years travelling through India was almost like a treasure hunt of sorts for me.

(Published 25 March 2017, 16:29 IST)

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