Posted by: pgprm08 | December 6, 2009

Review of the book “The Gandhi of Architecture” by Laurie Baker:-LG 8


“We still do not see that the most important industry in the country is the building industry. We refuse to see that it can absorb every type of worker from the highly-skilled scientist to the completely non-skilled labourer. It can solve a large part of our unemployment problem, and, furthermore, it can start immediately, if we will it, as no other industry can.”

– Laurie Baker

LIFE

Laurence W. Laurie Baker was born on March 2, 1917 into a very staunch Christian Methodist Quaker family in Birmingham. The family was deeply involved in church activities. Laurie’s father Charles was the chief accountant at the Birmingham Gas Corporation and everyone expected Laurie to follow in his father’s footsteps. Laurie though, didn’t like mathematics much and was interested in design. In his childhood he would accompany his father every weekend to visit cathedrals and other old buildings and then he would build models and draw pictures of what he had seen.

During childhood he was influenced by the religious atmosphere in his family, his brother, his contact with Quaker (members of Society of Friends). The major impact on his life came after he met Gandhiji in India. During his visit they discussed on need of structures of houses in rural areas of India. That time Gandhiji expressed his thought that raw material required for building houses in rural area should be made available within five miles radius of house. Baker said that initially he did not understand that idea completely but after huge experience of forty years he understood how the Gandhiji had knowledge about minute things related to rural India and how clear his vision was. Thus encounter with Gandhiji had long lasting impact on Baker’s ideology, his work and building philosophy. When Baker and his wife shifted to Kerala, many people and institutions, including the Church in Kerala expressed interest in reducing costs of building. Baker showed that this was possible by actually building a house for a poor family at a meagre cost of Rs 3000. This was well appreciated and once again, as in North India, began the spree of building houses, schools and hospitals. The government heard about Baker’s work and the Chief Minister was highly impressed. So Baker began building government and semi-government institutions also. He organised a group of masons and carpenters who agreed with his style of building to avoid opposition and problems.  Baker says that he owes a lot to them. Baker’s low-cost housing techniques were a blessing for the lower middle class.

BAKER AND HIS ARCHITECTURE

Laurie Baker can be called the conscience keeper of Indian architecture and a widely admired (but imperfectly appreciated) icon of alternative practices of modernity in Indian life. For over four decades, Baker was known for his pioneering practice of cost-effective architecture in Kerala. Famous as the builder of affordable homes for the poor, Baker was also a unique creative artist whose originality, technical control and a unique sense of space made low cost yield high architectural quality for everyone. His greatest contribution was showing that cost-effective and ecologically sustainable construction does not automatically imply shoddy building and reduced creative freedom. Baker showed, in fact, that sustainable technologies when adopted with care and creativity, could lead to a unique architectural expression, one that moved the expert and the layman alike.

Baker’s life and practice were often marked by strategic inversions of conventions in the pursuit of foundational ideals. His method of practice was the very opposite of the statutory model in India which followed the British system. Thus, while Indian architects around him followed the British way of designing and directing operations from their drawing boards as ‘consultants’ far removed from the bustle of the site, Baker organized his work as a designer-builder in the manner of the traditional Indian master craftsman. He never maintained a regular office or a battalion of assistants, often sketched on waste paper, and designed largely on site. Unlike most practising architects, he knew the trades well enough to train his workers himself and be open enough to learn from them at the same time. Every project was thus design-built with teams of craftsmen he had himself trained. This hands-on approach made it possible for him to pursue cost-effectiveness in design, otherwise impossible in the normal professional mode. Baker’s work is characterized by a fairly consistent system of design principles, building methods, and equally consistent but evolving set of idiosyncrasies. Baker always treated factors like climate, the peculiarities of site, and the high consumption of scarce energy and capital in construction as basic components of the matrix of ‘givens’ that defined the solution space of every project. The functional and habitational demands of individuals or organizations who dwelt in his spaces governed the specific configuration and character of each project. And yet, these ‘external’ factors to which he paid close attention, never appeared to constrain his instinct for producing sensuous, dramatic and engaging spaces that had a great ‘fit’ with the lives led in them.

He strongly believed in the fact that most material has their own special characteristics and if used honestly and simply, they contribute to the looks of a building merely from their colour, their texture and the patterns formed by joining them together. There is no need to cover them over with costly finishes. Let a brick wall look like a brick wall and a stone wall like a stone wall. Concrete should look like a concrete and should not be plastered or painted to look like marble.

The project that is most representative of Baker’s architecture is the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum. It incorporates all the elements characteristic of Baker’s style-the jails, the traditional roofs, the steeped arches, the overhanging eaves and the skylights. It demonstrates how Baker is able to transform vernacular architecture to suit the requirements of a modern academic institution.

Thus, the main principles Laurie Baker followed in designing a new building can be summarized:

  • He wanted to get to know the client and what is in his mind. If s/he merely wanted to show off or flaunt his/ her wealth, Laurie would not take him/ her on. Otherwise, he would enjoy getting to know him/her.  So for designing a house, he wanted to know even the client’s eating habits. Do they all eat together at regular times? Or was it a smash-and-grab affair?
  • His next principle was to use locally-available material. If the area makes good bricks, use them. If he wanted to build in an area full of laterite or stone, he would use it. This would not only be economical, but the building would also look as though it belongs to the place; it would not sport an imported look.

He said, “One of the most foolish architectural lies that anyone can imagine – build a brick building, then plaster it all over and paint bricks on the plaster to make it look like a brick building!”

  • The other principle was to avoid as much as possible energy-intensive material (that is, material that requires a lot of fuel in their manufacture).

WRITINGS

Baker’s vision is also seen in his writings – published and unpublished articles, papers and seminar reports. He presents his views on simplified methods of national housing programmes, their technology and administration. His writings reflect his attitude towards conservation of both materials and heritage confirm what others have written about him. He says that his initial years of work with the leprosy Mission in India were an eye-opener for him. He saw the irrelevance of the text books, reference books and construction manuals of architecture he had studied in front of the trying conditions of India – monsoon, insects, etc. He was also fascinated by the skills of ordinary people using ordinary materials to build useful, durable buildings. He continued to educate himself about these local styles and practices and built houses, hospitals and schools in the indigenous way during his stay of 15 years on the borders of Tibet and Nepal. This led to what came to be known as ‘Laurie Baker Architecture’.

As his work spread, Baker gives two important characteristics of his architecture – ‘small’ is not only ‘beautiful’ but also essential and more important than ‘large’; and that architects must learn how to build as inexpensively as possible. The style of his architecture was a direct result of his religious affiliation to the Quakers. The Quaker belief is that however much we might be able to fool our fellow human beings, we cannot do the same to God. So there is no point in ‘putting on a big show’. A house therefore, has to be designed as a home for a family to live in comfort and peace. To make the outside of the building ostentatious and showy is totally unnecessary. This anti-facadism is another prominent characteristic of Baker architecture.

When Baker and his wife shifted to Kerala, many people and institutions, including the Church in Kerala expressed interest in reducing costs of building. Baker showed that this was possible by actually building a house for a poor family at a meagre cost of Rs 3000. This was well appreciated and once again, as in North India, began the spree of building houses, schools and hospitals. The government heard about Baker’s work and the Chief Minister was highly impressed. So Baker began building government and semi-government institutions also. He organised a group of masons and carpenters who agreed with his style of building to avoid opposition and problems.  Baker says that he owes a lot to them. Baker’s low-cost housing techniques were a blessing for the lower middle class.

Baker admits that Gandhiji influenced him profoundly. He took seriously Gandhiji’s words that houses in the village should be built of materials that are found within a five-mile radius of the house. Baker has a strong belief in local architecture and ability of local people to build their own houses.  The local architecture has the right solutions for housing needs. All that is needed is add on our modern experience to improve on what has already been accomplished. On the other hand, he was strongly critical of professional architects. He branded their approach as conservationist, stick-in-the-mud and obstructionist.

LEGACY

Baker’s ideas have caught the imagination of younger, environmentally minded Indian architects and engineers, and nearly 100 of them now work for a non-profit organization that practices his approach, COSTFORD, or the Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development. In the past 15 years, COSTFORD has built homes for 10,000 low cost houses, for which it charges no design fee.

Milestones in Baker’s Life…

1917: Born in Birmingham, England. Educated at King Edwards Grammar School & The Birmingham School of Architecture

1938: Associate of the Royal Institute of Architects (ARIBA)

1945: Came to India as the Chief Architect of the Mission to Lepers

1970: Fellow of the Indian Institute of Architects

1981: D.Litt conferred by the Royal University of Netherlands for outstanding work in the Third World

1983: Order of the British Empire, MBE

1987: Received the first Indian National Habitat Award

1988: Received Indian Citizenship

1989: Indian Institute of Architects Outstanding Architect of the Year

1990: Received the Padma Sri

1990: Great Master Architect of the Year

1992: UNO Habitat Award & UN Roll of Honour

1993: International Union of Architects (IUA) Award

1993: Sir Robert Matthew Prize for Improvement of Human Settlements

1994: People of the Year Award

1995: Awarded Doctorate from the University of Central England

1998: Awarded Doctorate from Sri Venkateshwara University

2001: Coinpar MR Kurup Endowment Award

2003: Basheer Puraskaram

2003: D.Litt from the Kerala University

2005: Kerala Government Certificate of Appreciation

2006: L-Ramp Award of Excellence

2006: Nominated for the Pritzker Award (considered the Nobel Prize in Architecture)

REFERENCES:

Laurie Baker: Life, Works & Writings by Gautam Bhatia, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 1991

Laurie Baker: The Gandhi of Architecture; Centre for Education and Documentation

Advertisements

Responses

  1. good job with the blog.. good to see the SE blog maintained so well.. I think it will be nice to put the names of people who have done the review.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: