I came to know Laurie Baker since 1973 when I joined the Centre for Development Studies(CDS), Thiruvananthapuram as a young researcher. Unlike the name of K N Raj, I had never heard of Baker before. But what I saw on arrival in the form of red-brick buildings in the CDS campus was an instant eye-catcher. Over the years I had several opportunities to interact with him closely both in terms of his professional work as an architect and more importantly, at a personal level since he was more than just an unconventional architect and builder. His association with the CDS was not merely as an architect but also as a teacher for he was an Honorary Associate Fellow of the CDS till his end. He was a profound Gandhian who tried to demonstrate that through his work rather than preaching, a great environmentalist, a social critic that showed through his cartoons, and an artist that came through his paintings, a satirist par excellence and a social activist for causes that he believed in. But all these were, in my opinion, nothing but different manifestations of the essential Gandhian – a radical one – in him.
More than an architect
His contribution to an alternative approach to architecture and building construction is the one which has been 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 and his team at the Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development (known as COSTFORD) built, I must say that his important contribution was not adequately appreciated or recognised in the 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 as a curiosity although there is a 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.
Into the limelight
The late C. Achutha Menon was the Chief Minister of Kerala when Laurie Baker started being noted for his innovative approach to building construction. Achutha Menon was not only fascinated by this approach but was convinced of its essential qualities from the point of economising on scarce resources while enhancing a certain aesthetic quality to buildings that was compatible with the ecological environment of Kerala. When the CDS ran into initial problems with its construction of the campus along the Baker approach and by Baker himself, Achutha Menon protected it from the proverbial red-tapism and bureaucratic objections raised by the Public Works Department. He appointed, in 1973, an Expert Committee on Performance Approach to Cost Reduction in Building Construction with professionals of repute from both within Kerala and outside with Laurie Baker also as a member. This report is remarkable in the presentation of its report in as non-technical language as possible with profuse illustrations by Laurie Baker himself. However, this did not satisfy the well-entrenched interests-that-were of the PWD and they tried and succeeded in preventing this 'alternative approach to building construction' being adopted for public construction undertaken by the government. It is only after a quarter-of-a-century that the government has recognised this alternative approach to construction for buildings undertaken by the local self government & by a few government agencies but not by the PWD of the government!
I remember distinctly when Achutha Menon suggested to K. N. Raj of the CDS to get the report discussed by a wider group. First, a two-day seminar was organised in May 1974. Since Dr. Raj had asked me to coordinate the organisation of this seminar I distinctly remember the event which generated a lot of excitement at the CDS. Chief Minister Achutha Menon sat through the entire two-days and gave a valedictory address. Sri. T. K. Divakaran, then Minister for PWD was also present for most of the sessions. The then Chief Engineer Smt. Thressiamma and her team of senior engineers were also present. Members of the Expert Group and other important guests spoke at the seminar and Baker explained his approach at some length. I remember the cynicism and sarcasm with which the PWD officialdom viewed the whole exercise and raised a number of minor and not-so-minor objections and criticisms but none was prepared to comment neither on the philosophy of this approach nor give an alternative that would indeed economise on scarce resources, increase employment and be environmentally compatible. Some of them even said that his buildings will not last more than 30 years, intended perhaps as a warning to the CDS. (Of course, it is now more than 40 years since most of the CDS buildings were built and they are there in tact for all to see!). At the end of the valedictory speech, Chief Minister Achutha Menon threw up his hands and said: “nothing is going to happen here” (Ivide onnum nadakkilla).
However K N Raj did not give up (nor did Achutha Menon who helped form COSTFORD and led it till his end). He asked us to organise a three-week course on Adaptive Building Technology which was held in July 1974. In fact a number of applicants came seeking admission to the course but only 26 could be selected including 11 from Kerala and 9 from Government of India. Guest teachers consisted of the members of the Expert Committee as well as other professionals. A number of queries came to the CDS subsequently including from the Indian Army, National Housing Development Corporation and so on. Baker travelled to many states and advised several bodies. Of course Baker had lived and worked in the foothills of the Himalayas from the mid- nineteen forties to mid-nineteen sixties and he knew the specific local conditions in different parts of India and the possibilities it offered in using local materials and designs that would fit into his philosophy.
An Essential Gandhian
As I mentioned earlier, it would indeed be a narrow view if one were to associate Laurie Baker only with building construction of a kind. He was essentially a Gandhian in the sense that he genuinely believed in the use of locally available resources, by people themselves instead of relying on authorities for taking care of their basic needs, living in harmony with nature and causing the least harm to the environment. I think it is these qualities in him which compelled him to react, especially through his cartoons, the dilapidated manner in which public spaces such as roads were kept with electric wires hanging down in and out of place posing danger to the people, the haphazard manner in which the roads were dug up and the littering of wastes in public spaces. He spoke about these things whenever he got an occasion and tried to impress upon his disciples and non-formal students (and there were many who visited him from different places including abroad) the need to observe, respect, and learn from nature.
These ideas and attitudes continue to be relevant and even critical. Look at the way we manage to dispose of our wastes with scant regard not only to nature but to our own fellow citizens. While government as a collective institution has the primary obligation to provide basic services such as roads, drinking water and sanitation, see the way these are implemented and the problems it creates to ordinary people not to speak of the time and cost overruns to the society as a whole.
The formation of COSTFORD
These concerns and the need to plan for appropriate habitat for the people led Laurie Baker to join hands with Achutha Menon when a non-profit, non-governmental organisation with the name of COSTFORD (Centre for Science and Technology for Rural Development) was started. Of course it was started under the leadership of Achutha Menon with the toil and enthusiasm, not to speak of the spirit of public purpose, of Chandra Dutt, a social & political activist based in Thrissur. Baker took an active part in the functioning of the COSTFORD and in this endeavour he was ably supported by K. N. Raj. After Achutha Menon's demise, the Chairmanship fell on K. N. Raj whose health problems led him to give it up after a while. Baker succeeded K. N. Raj and remained Chairman till his very end. I think with the creation of COSTFORD it was possible to carry on and disseminate the philosophy and practice of Laurie Baker not just in building construction but in a whole range of areas that could be brought under the rubric of 'habitat studies' as well as in rural development.
The formation of Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies
While COSTFORD did carry on the intellectual legacy of Laurie Baker it is mostly in the realm of what may be called action projects. This of course is a continuing activity given the fact that the mainstream culture of building construction and related activities continue to be dominated by energy-intensive and capital-intensive technology and materials and are hardly compatible with the ecological conditions of this part of the world. Therefore the challenge has to be met also at an intellectual/academic level by undertaking research, training and dissemination activities. It is in this background a group of followers and admirers of Laurie Baker took the initiative to create the Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies in Trivandrum.
It is expected that this Centre will take the lead to document the important works of Laurie Baker, initiate studies on the very many facets of his approach to building construction, initiate training programmes in habitat studies as well as in rural development, publish papers and books, produce audio-visual materials for more effective dissemination of the philosophy and practice of Laurie Baker and take up new areas for research and training that will, in one way or another, contribute to the creation of environmentally sustainable habitat in Kerala and elsewhere. It is also hoped that the Centre will also become a platform for creative and meaningful debates on sustainable development issues with special reference to habitat studies, attract scholars and practitioners for study, teaching and research and engage in interaction with local scholars and practitioners.
Of course, there are other institutions that have also been created to carry on, broadly speaking, the intellectual legacy of Laurie Baker. There are also other groups and institutions initiated by individuals as well as non-government organisations that also have similar objectives in the area of building technology and construction. I think there is sufficient space for a number of players to carry on the legacy of Laurie Baker and it is my hope that it should create conditions for a healthy and vibrant competition for enhancing excellence as well as developing models that improve upon what Baker has left behind. That will be a fine tribute to a great soul that Laurie Baker was.