The common man’s architect

Vineet Radhakrishnan, director of ‘Uncommon Sense’, a feature film on his grandfather Laurie Baker, writes about the Gandhian architect, his work and the impact it has had on him and why he made the film, even as Kerala celebrates 100 years of Baker

March 01, 2017 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

Laurie Baker

Laurie Baker

As a child I thought that all architects worked the way my grandfather did. He would leave around 7 am after having made the morning tea (and often breakfast) for the family, an unfailing daily routine of his. ‘The Hamlet’, the Baker family home in Thiruvananthapuram, would always be buzzing with activity in the mornings. There was a carpenter shed at the bottom of the house and typically there was something, either a window or door frame, or some support trusses that would have to be taken to one of the 20-odd work sites that would be going on simultaneously at any given moment in time. My grandfather, the driver and, sometimes, some workers would hurriedly tie the wood to the carrier of his old Ambassador car and they would speed off, stopping along the way for a sack of cement or some extra light fittings or whatever else was needed that day.

Art of communication

Often he picked up his clients and would be furiously drawing up four different options for a living room layout or be trying to explain some nuance, for instance, that the kitchen door and window latches needed to be lower because the client’s wife wasn’t very tall or he’d be explaining how he had noticed, while at the site, how the wonderful sunrise could be seen if he put in a window at a certain angle on the upper floor. Once at the site, he’d whip out his chalk and start drawing on the floor and on the half-constructed brick walls and gesticulate vigorously to explain something to his masons.

It amazed me how, though he never spoke more than a smattering of Malayalam, he still managed to communicate the most complex designs to his workers. It did help of course that most of his carpenters and masons had worked with him for several decades and were intimately familiar with his work style. And so he would go on from site to site, constantly modifying each design on the go, based on his frequent conversations with his clients about their specific needs, or when he noticed some way, as the building went up, to take advantage of wind, light, tree cover, a way to harvest rain water...

He could often be found pacing around the site. He never used a tape or ruler and needed just his stride to take terrain measurements. Decisions were quick and instinctive yet shoddy work was never tolerated. His workers and many clients used to call him ‘Daddy’, even though he wasn’t much older than many of them.

At lunch, after almost five hours of such strenuous work at his building sites, he’d be back home for lunch with the family. He did most of his plans and sketching from 4 am to 6 am in the morning and then for a while in the afternoon after lunch. By late afternoon, after a short rest, invariably there would be visitors coming home, either wanting him to build them a house, or young architects or students who wanted to meet him or some government officials seeking to involve him in some building project. Between all of this he found time to do his writing, attend talks and teaching sessions, travel to distant work sites and spend time with the family.

I hardly realised he was this busy because he never took himself seriously. His self-deprecating sense of humour and unassuming laid-back attitude at home made it easy for the family to forget what he meant to the outside world.

Vineet Radhakrishnan with his grandparents Laurie Baker and Dr Elizabeth Baker

Vineet Radhakrishnan with his grandparents Laurie Baker and Dr Elizabeth Baker

Looking back now, to me, this is a stark and striking contrast to how firm, unwavering and absolute he was when standing by his principles and beliefs when it came to his work and the environmental and social housing causes he believed in.

There was absolutely no pretence to his ideas. His architecture was the same whether he was building for a poor man or a rich man. He didn’t behave one way in public and then come home and become a different person. For instance, not wasting resources translated into not wasting water, electricity, paper, etc. around the house. The extra effort of redesigning a building to save a few trees was worth it because he truly believed in it. Almost 80% of The Hamlet is built using recycled materials.

Belief in the joy and beauty of simple building also meant living a simple life, wearing simple clothes, respecting nature and people irrespective of social class. I recollect instances he did not hesitate to chide or admonish an important dignitary when he felt it was required and also equally can remember numerous instances where he would treat someone from what he called “economically weaker sections of society” with the utmost respect and consideration. What impressed me were not the acts themselves but the fact that none of this was done for recognition or reward. He has built numerous houses for free for tribal people, fishermen and labourers, all away from the public eye.

Vineet Radhakrishnan, director of Uncommon Sense, a film on his grandfather Laurie Baker’s work and philosophy

Vineet Radhakrishnan, director of Uncommon Sense, a film on his grandfather Laurie Baker’s work and philosophy

Praise did not affect him, neither did the setbacks. He bore all the failures and pain, every time a client cheated him, or attempted to malign his reputation. Threats and physical attack were borne stoically without complaint. The many lucrative projects he refused in many ways are more telling than the ones he did. This way of living of course had consequences. He hardly made any money in his life, he didn’t document most of his work and he stayed on the fringes of the architectural profession for a large part of his career.

Some might call his approach to his profession idealistic, impractical, non-scalable or even wrong, pointing to how it still has not caught on in the mainstream construction industry. Ironically, almost all his ideas were based on common sense, and were always practical and implementable without the need for huge amounts of money or complex infrastructure.

Website on Baker’s legacy

After my grandfather passed away in 2007 I started a website to share some of his writing and photos of his work. This in many ways is what led me to making the film Uncommon Sense on him.

Normally, when a person is no more, their significance and relevance and of their ideas and work diminish. His ideas (which now largely fall under the umbrella of sustainable building, cost-effective and socially responsible architecture) were unrecognised in the 1950s, ridiculed in the 1960s, opposed in the 1970s and 1980s and grudgingly accepted from the 1990s. Today, these very ideas are somewhat ironically considered very contemporary ideas. As a result, with every passing year people from all over the world were writing in, wanting to know more about him.

I do not know how they discovered Laurie Baker. My grandfather was a very private person with no interest in publishing or promoting his work. A large part of his work is also confined to the Kerala and neighbouring regions. This meant there was hardly any way for people who couldn’t travel to Kerala to see any of his work.

Laurie Baker and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth at their residence, The Hamlet at Nalanchira in Thiruvananthapuram

Laurie Baker and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth at their residence, The Hamlet at Nalanchira in Thiruvananthapuram

One thing both my grandparents showed me through their remarkable lives in the Himalayas, the tribal hills of Kerala and their eventual home in Thiruvananthapuram is to not worry about what other people think and to just do what one believes in. So four years ago, just after completing an Ivy League MBA and landing a plush job in the United Kingdom, I chose to travel all around India for two years to film his buildings, interview dozens of people and then spent another two years to put together the film combining archival footage of him with aesthetically filmed shots of the buildings to attempt to bring the man behind the architect to a new generation.

The attempt is not to focus on specific materials or construction techniques that have come to be identified with him but to examine the motivations and the objectives behind the decisions, to understand the thinking process and approach to a challenging problem. The former changes with circumstances and with people’s living habits but the latter is what always stays relevant and is worth analysing. It is also an examination of his early influences, personal values and singular experiences in life, whether it be the four years tending to lepers in China, or meeting Gandhi and deciding to come back to India or choosing to live for one-and-a-half decades in the remote Himalayas where he was forced to learn and appreciate traditional building methods and materials.

Ultimately, the film is an attempt to start a discussion with young people interested in design, architecture and so on about an alternative way to think about building but also about living.

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