Kerala

Legacy of Baker ‘The Quaker’

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In 1973, after completing my studies in Economics at the University of Bombay, I was excited to leave that megacity because I was going to join ‘K.N. Raj’s Institute’ in Thiruvananthapuram. When I reached the campus of the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), I was mesmerised by its red-brick buildings which, I was told, were built by Baker. Over the years, I had several opportunities to interact with Baker closely, both in terms of his professional work but more importantly at a personal level where he was more than just an unconventional architect and builder. His association with the CDS was also as a teacher for he was an Honorary Associate Fellow of the institution till his end.

That we in Kerala are commemorating the completion of the 100th birth anniversary of Laurie Wilfred Baker, popularly known as Laurie Baker, who was born in Birmingham in England on March 2, 1917, is testimony to this man’s essential humanity that found expression in myriad ways but mostly through his environmentally sustainable, cost-effective, and aesthetically appealing architecture and buildings that he presented to Kerala. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, immediately after his graduation, he chose not to participate in the war, but join the Society of Friends, otherwise known as ‘The Quakers’, who believed in lifelong service to humanity as service to God. Young Laurie Baker’s meeting with Gandhiji in Bombay in early 1945 reinforced his sense of service for which he chose India as his terrain.

Of the several historical accidents, the most important from a Kerala perspective was his marriage in 1948 to a young doctor named Elizabeth Chandy, who shared and practised the same philosophy of service but in the field of health care, and finally settling down in Kerala after spending several years in a remote village in Uttar Pradesh. Laurie Baker lived the life of what I would like to call a radical Gandhian. He demonstrated this through his work and life: as an environmentalist which was the hallmark of his architecture and building construction, a social critic that showed through his cartoons, and an artist that manifested his aesthetics through his paintings, a satirist par excellence and a social activist for causes that he believed in.

More than an architect

His contributions to an alternative approach to building construction have been often widely recognised and discussed. His approach to and work in building construction gave rise to a band of youngsters and others, both in Kerala and outside, to follow his legacy by taking it forward with further innovations. Despite the thousands of houses and public/private institutional buildings that he built, I must admit that his important contribution was not adequately appreciated or recognised in mainstream society of Kerala where he lived and worked tirelessly for the last four decades of his life, i.e. from 1963 until his death in 2007. In general, most people view his buildings something as a curiosity although there is a small minority who value his approach for the message it conveys.

While most people refer to his building construction as ‘low cost’, I think this is an inadequate understanding of what he tried to convey. He certainly laid stress on reducing costs but through reducing waste, appropriate designing in terms of ventilation and light, creative use of space, use of locally available materials that are less energy-intensive in their production and a variety of other means that would be compatible with the climatic and other environmental conditions of the region. It is this larger message that the followers of Laurie Baker are trying to convey to the larger public as well as the public works and private construction sectors. If that is done, then the equation of ‘Baker Buildings’ as ‘Bare Brick Buildings’ will go away and a more healthy approach and attitude to building construction will, in my opinion, emerge.

The Baker legacy

There is no doubt that C. Achutha Menon, a rare visionary in the annals of Kerala’s contemporary political history, and K.N. Raj, a developmental visionary with an extraordinary concern for social equity, were instrumental in catapulting Laurie Baker into the national limelight. And yet the capability of Baker’s approach to fulfil the national need for providing affordable houses to all Indians has not been sufficiently explored, let alone adopted. The rise of the ‘Baker school’ of architecture in Kerala coincided with the boom in construction activity arising out of the remittances from Gulf countries. Concrete-intensive building construction became the symbol of status and prosperity despite its high carbon emission, climatic incompatibility and high unit cost.

The rise of a real estate-cum-construction lobby not only knocked down Kerala’s traditional and climatically compatible as well as sustainable architecture, but also prevented the much needed space for the emergence of a new knowledge-based sustainable architecture that could draw immensely from indigenous traditions. Malayalis easily forget the fact that the cement- and steel- based concrete culture is of recent origin and that several buildings, big and small, palaces and nalukketus, were built with natural resources of low energy intensity in the past. That we still have dams built by mud — earthen dams — as for example the one in Banasurasagar, are easily forgotten. Architecture as a living expression of a people’s culture and civilization has been given the go-by.

However, some efforts continue. The triumvirate of Achutha Menon-Raj-Baker gave shape to a small initiative in the form of a collective called Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development, popularly known as COSTFORD with sub-centres in most of the districts. It has had the benefit of being led by all these three stalwarts till their end. Baker trained a large of number of young architects, engineers and workers, many of whom are now spread in several parts of the country. COSTFORD participated in the housing projects for the poorer sections floated by the State and local governments in ways that are a far cry from the ‘match-box models’ built of cement-concrete. A shining example, in my view, is the ongoing ‘slum rehabilitation’ of the Karimadom colony in Thiruvananthapuram.

The establishment of the Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies (LBC) at Vilappilsala in Thiruvananthapuram in 2009 is another major initiative to take the legacy of Laurie Baker forward. Several hundred students from different colleges and departments of architecture undergo short-term courses in what we call an alternative approach to architecture and building construction in which ‘Green Habitat’ is placed as the objective. Research and extension work carried out in collaboration with COSTFORD have enabled the younger generation to experiment with bamboo, mud, random rubbles, and recyclable materials in new construction. That there is a willing clientèle to experiment with these ‘new’ methods offers some hope for moving towards a sustainable habitat in this fast unfolding concrete jungle scenario.

When two police officers — Ullas and Brijith Lal — sought COSTFORD’s help to build their houses on their four cents of land each, they enthusiastically endorsed the idea of using mud, bamboo and used building materials. When completed, their two-storeyed buildings became an instant hit with visitors from places far and near. But we also need people who are in a position to set examples so that poorer sections will not be led to believe that such houses are only for those with limited financial resources.

In all these, there is also a larger message: that is, we can no longer ignore the environmental dimension in the life of not just the present generation but those that are yet to come. This we owe to our children.

The author is Chairman, Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies and Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development (COSTFORD).

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 12:26:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/legacy-of-baker-the-quaker/article22920844.ece

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