Celebrating a master builder


Laurie Baker’s people-centric design gave architecture a new idiom that was in sync with nature

A few years ago, a new building was proposed to be built to house the Kollam district panchayat office. Laurie Baker was approached to take up the job. As is his wont, the architect arrived at the site, for conducting reconnaissance. Almost to the centre of the plot was a pond which, the authorities suggested, can be filled and built over.

The architect would have none of it. He built two blocks on either side of the pond and put a nice little bridge over it. This refusal to alter the natural landscape, to not commit ‘violence’ on the environment has been a characteristic of the hundreds of remarkable buildings that he has built, each of which has unique features that gel with the place they are located.

As the joke goes, he would introduce a bend in the design to save a small tree or come up with a cascade-like plan when given a slanting plot. Only that, it was not a joke. Razing down hills, cutting down trees and reclaiming waterbodies were not part of Baker’s architectural lexicon.

That strong commitment to ‘non-violence’ can be traced back to his belonging to The Quakers faith, a Protestant group. It is that belief which made him refuse to join the British military during the Second World War. Instead, he chose to join the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, and spent four years at medical camps in China.

Meeting the Mahatma

On the way back home after the war, through India, he had a chance meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, and that became the biggest turning point in his life. In one of his writings, he recounts how someone on the street, in the spirit of those times, called out ‘Quit India’ to him, on the way back from meeting Mahatma Gandhi. That he didn’t pay heed to that call and returned to live and build here for the rest of his life was to the gain of Indian architecture, which learnt a new idiom that was in sync with nature.

It was from Mahatma Gandhi that he first heard the principle that would later inform his works — that houses should ideally be built using materials that are found within a five-mile radius of the house. A sceptic at first, he learnt that lesson first-hand over the many years he spent in remote villages in rural India, where he discovered such variety of building materials, from bamboo to palm fibres to cow dung and pig urine. Studying the people for whom he was building was thus as important as studying the topography, a quality which once made him build a roof tracing the arc of a dancer’s exquisite twirl, for a dancer client.

Former Chief Secretary S.M. Vijayanand, who has seen up close the master architect and the human being, recollects how the British man, with not much command of Malayalam, communicated with his clients through the rhythm of the language and through expressions.

“My first interaction with him was in Attappady, when he came there to design a tribal habitat in 1987. He always had a dialogue with the people first, especially the womenfolk. He wanted to know what they use the common space for, how they relate to their neighbours, their food habits, their cultural life, their storage practices, interrelationships. He keeps on sketching as he listens. All these things then get into the design,” says Mr. Vijayanand.

Study of movements

This way of people-centric designing is evident in many of his rough sketches, where you see residents involved in various activities. Mr. Vijayanand recollects the construction of a hospital at Perumon in Kollam, at a cost of ₹5 lakh in 1989. He had calculated the different movements of various kinds of people in the hospital — of the doctors, the people and the patients. He designed it in such a way that there was no possibility of their criss-crossing each other.

This careful study of movements is reflected in the spiral building of the Indian Coffee House in Thampanoor, with built-in seats and tables, which was designed originally for a fair price Maveli Café based on a buffet system. The arrival of suppliers complicated things a bit, later.

In the early 1970s, Baker built what would be considered one of the pinnacles of his architectural achievement — the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) campus in Thiruvananthapuram. Right from those days, there has been negative propaganda against Baker architecture, especially around its longevity. The earlier predictions of ‘maximum five years’ was later upgraded to 25 years. The CDS campus has now completed 45 years, with the buildings still looking new and contemporary.

“Low-cost or cost-effective construction does not mean low quality or less beauty. That is a misunderstanding. With unplastered wall, you need more precision, as the pattern of the bricks needs to be uniform. The reduction in cost comes from choosing the right material, and cutting down on unnecessary construction,” says architect P.B. Sajan, Joint Director of Centre of Science and Technology For Rural Development (COSTFORD), which was co-founded by Baker.

Some of the questions on stability were put to rest in 1992 following a study funded by the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO). “An expert team from the College of Engineering, Guindy, conducted a year-long study on walling using rat-trap bonds (with vertically placed bricks and cavities) and filler slab roofing, both key elements of Baker model. It proved beyond doubt the stability of Baker buildings. These design elements are now part of the National Building Code,” says V. Suresh, former Chairman and Managing Director of HUDCO, whose four-storey house on four levels with a common helical spring-like roof is another Baker marvel.

Many governments have tried to mainstream the Baker model, but there has been much opposition from vested interests.

The precision work did not leave much room for corruption, as there were chances of the building collapsing, even if you steal a bit. But even some of the non-corrupt contractors and engineers were prejudiced against it, says Mr. Vijayanand, as it required much close supervision.

The most important attempt at mainstreaming the model was made as part of the People’s Plan Campaign in 1996, when a Technical Committee for Cost Effective Technology was appointed to approve works under local governments. Using this creative way to circumvent opposition from entrenched elements, quite a few public buildings and social housing projects were taken up. The committee became defunct in 2011.

Reimagining slum development

Although it is his bigger projects that are talked about more, Baker’s lasting contribution has been in reimagining slum development and in social housing. He was against the idea of clearing a slum and rebuilding the same number of separate houses or large housing blocks. As he notes in his book Are slums inevitable?, it should be done in smaller three or four-tiered blocks, with the retrieved open land used for recreation, gardens, schools or clinics, and not for commercial purposes.

One of those earlier sketches of a redeveloped slum became a reality after his passing away, when the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation took up a housing project in the capital city’s biggest slum - Karimadom. In 2013, under the then Union Minister for Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh, it was stipulated that local building technologies should be used for construction under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), paving the way for the spreading of the Baker model to other States too.

This year, the Kerala Governor’s address to the Assembly hinted at a policy change that would see at least 30% of works under the PWD being done using cost-effective methods.

Architect of the poor

“Baker was an architect of the poor. This was not just by building houses for the poor. He ensured that the beneficiary of all your activities should in the end be a poor person. This was reflected in his usage of materials and methods. The construction industry in its present form, with its overuse of steel and cement, cannot continue beyond a decade. We are already facing a huge shortage of materials and the costs have also shot up. The occurrence of major climatic events such as Cyclone Ockhi points to the fact that we are moving along an unsustainable path. A shift has to be made,” says Mr. Sajan.

In a way, Baker was an anti-thesis to that most famous fictional architect – Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, who revelled in making massive steel skyscrapers, as monuments of human achievement.

In Baker’s own words from his book ‘What is an architect?’ – “It is in bad taste to flaunt wealth – expensive veneers and polished marble and so on where ordinary people live and have had to build as economically as possible. Our buildings should not be obtrusive and show off. They should be in harmony with their surroundings and give pleasure, not shock.”

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 5:18:25 PM |

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