Less than thirty kilometers from the South Indian city of Kollam, and about four hours travelling by public transport and a motorbike driven by a local guide, the Munroe Island in the salty backwaters of Kerala offers the remote background for one of many projects by architect Laurie Baker. In an uttermost serene landscape of lagoons, canals, scattered palmleaf and red rooftile covered cottages, we manage to reach a compound, locally referred to as the Fr. J.P.M. Training Centre Pattomthuruth. It is a christian orphanage my guide explains. Though he is the one and only tourist guide in the area, this is his second time in six years to come to the place. It houses a community of girls, who rarely get in touch with the outside world, other than through the weather or the electricity supply. The compound consists of a chapel, a wash house and two adjacent buildings with classrooms, kitchen, bathrooms and lodging facilities. The first stone was laid in 1984. The Chapel was inaugurated in 1991.
I did some research on the internet before I started the Laurie Baker tour on site. It was helpful in recognizing a number of features in the appearance of the building. The architecture is even more striking than photographs may suggest. The actual climate and atmosphere surrounding a building cannot be captured by any photograph or representation. So there I am, deeply impressed by the refined sensibility of this architect to the context and environment that he has chosen to be his field of work. Inside the chapel the outside high temperature humidity is pleasantly smothered by the jali's -a subtle spacing of the bricks- turning the external walls into coarse lace curtains. Strategic placement of small uncovered gaps in the walls and gabled roof allow a cooling airbreeze. The use of rooftiles inside the thin concrete roofslabs provides the inside of the building with a mosaïc ceiling. The burnt brick walls of the schoolbuilding are raised in a rat-trap bond. An interesting and fair face is produced both outside and inside the building. Although about twenty-five percent less bricks are used, the double walls with bricks set on edge have proved to be as solid as the construction of a massive wall. Instead of the usual plastering of the irregular und bumpy side of the wall this bond leaves one side of the wall with an eye caressing brick cement pattern. The bond naturally does so due to the mortar filled sunken ends of the bricks that make up the cross connections in the hollow wall. As the architect illustrates in his book (Baker, Laurie. Houses How to Reduce Building Costs, Trissur: Costford, 1986 , 29-37): as plastering is expensive, it accounts for a ten percent reduction of total building costs, aside from cutting maintenance costs of plaster and painting. No decoration is added anywhere. And yet the building complex as a whole is brought to a high level of aesthetics. There are intrinsic reasons for the appearance of all arrangements on the plot, floorplans and building details. Moreover, design decisions on every scale are in line with the intention of the architect to dedicate design and construction to the actual users of the building.
Low-tech solutions to climate challenges fit without effort into the building concepts. Concepts that emanate from a continuous focus on that which is readily available. Not just in a material sense through the use of earth, water, light, wind and bamboo; the buildings express a minute observation of the longtime history of local construction techniques too. In general it is an architect's fate that with his absence the physical appearance of the concept falls to pieces. Indian architecture is by no means an exception. As I have been told, the architect would design, most of the time on site, and make design decisions while simply sketching, talking and exchanging experience with the actual builders, the masons and carpenters. This practice neatly obviates the need for an expensive apparatus of managers and contractors. The architect could proudly present amazingly low cost figures to his clients. Although style as such was detested by the architect himself, arguing that none of his buildings could be just put anywhere, one reads a non purposed building style. It is loaded with the spirit of one single architect.This is a remarkable feature of Laurie Baker's architectural work. Once a building like that is observed with attention it is hard to escape recognition of the handwriting. And, as the Indians say, a spirit cannot be copied. I found this out strolling off the Mahatma Gandhi mainroad, referred to as M.G. Road, every major city has one, into areas of Thiruvananthapuram. A single private house or an office building would turn up and leave a subtle mark on the image of the city quarter. The Baker building smoothly fits into it's environment. It expresses a miraculous talent to transform traditionalism and regionalism into a distinguished universalism.
Whereas the imitated postmodern glass facades on M.G. Road stand out reluctantly to pay attention to the all pervading southern sun, there are few examples of non-supermarket new buildings. Saint Gobain has definitely run over the Asian market, the contractors and developers relentlessly ignoring climate conditions, yet adding to another commercial succes: the airco. I once had the questionable honour to receive a room in a guest house next to a post office equipped with fourty of these engines on the outer facade. Together they produced the sound of an airplane take off. Inside my guest room, likewise airconditioned, I managed to fool the system and turn off the constantly droning sound and undesirably cold temparatures of the airco. However, the post office machines forced me to keep windows tightly shut during the night.
Even so, on a visit to the Centre of Development Studies (Baker, 1971) it proves to be one of Baker's achievements to handle climate in a sophisticated manner. The library is housed in a beautiful circular tower, again, like in the Indian Coffeehouse (Baker, 1989) the stairs are draped around a central vertical brick shaft containing holes on every level. Sticking one's hand in one of these holes one notices a gentle draft of cool air rising up the hollow column. On the top level a circular roofed platform with tilted windows offers a panoramic view on the hills of the Western Ghats, background of Thiruvanathapuram along the Arabian Sea. Here too the draft is cool at the top end of the brick air chimney. The director of the Centre happily introduces the newly opened library, a recent extension of the Centre with a similar tower. They are still in the process of moving the books and paperwork from the old tower to the new one. Over the years they have come to notice that paper, just as the old written palmleaves, does not last to eternity in the merciless climate. Apart from adjusting the Centre to the increasing demands of it's students, this lead to the application of aircos in the new tower. Although both towers look similar on the outside the new tower misses the hollow air shaft and the top end air outlet. Remarkably enough humidity in the airconditioned tower proves to surpass levels of the old tower.
When I visit the Hamlet in Naranchila, Thiruvananthapuram, home and practice of both Laurie Baker and his wife, the Indian physician Elizabeth Baker, I understand more. Mrs. Baker gives me the honour to meet her in their home. I am in awe, for here is the taste of sheer delight in architecture. The main rectangled living space is lifted onto the first floor. It lines up a sequence of places for sleeping, studying and relaxing. It ends in a wide unglazed Keralan window revealing a green subtropical landscape.
Such windows are also found in the Raja's palace (Puttan Malika Palace, Thiruvananthapuram, seat of the Travancore Rajas from the nineteenth century onwards), offering noble women an unseen glance into public life. Placed under an overhanging roof the wooden slaths gently curve downwards to the window seats, keeping the sun as well as the heavy monsoon rains outside.
Several additional buildings are on the plot, attached or standing free, composed along with the family's requirements for growing up children and the hosting of guests with copious meals. Even the dog has its own brick house. The building, a brick composition of intertwined, rectangled, curved, leveled, open, bamboo screened and closed spaces, curling steps and outside spaces, is far from the obvious office building, but manages to house a well equipped modern architecture practice. Here, sustainability in the use of the building, the adaptation to changing programs, is the fruit of a liberating imagination of space, put directly into the hands of craftsmen. Imaginative construction rather than drawings looked over by contractors decide on perfect details. Some of the used building materials are deserted leftovers from other places. Like the immured coloured glass bottles and refined carved wooden doors and roof gables.
The Hamlet currently stages the Trivandrum office of COSTFORD (Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development), the non profit organization that was pulled up during Baker's lifetime. COSTFORD, it's thirteen offices spread throughout Kerala, includes not only architects and engineers, but also urban planners, scientists, social workers and educators. The organization is now carried on by Indian successors. Some of whom have worked with Laurie Baker for decades.
There and then it comes to my mind this kind of architectural practice is almost unthinkable in a context that allows architects as arty concept makers only. As soon as engineering is seperated from design -increasingly occuring in Western practice- strange things begin to happen. Aside from a surplus production of thin filmy pictures competitively striving for superficial attention, a complex of management and administration activities moves in. Lack of time starts to play a crucial role, as architects increasingly serve commercial interests in an incessant race against the clock. Design is either relegated to the attic room, or confiscated by contractors, engineers and managers, disregarding any unwanted design considerations.
It is worthwhile to examine a way of directing -Laurie Baker's work serving as an example- including the act of uncompromised design. The architectural construction language is certainly not common to every member of a construction team. Yet this language is a definite condition for a result called architecture.
The question arises to what extent industrialization and having access to means of transport support architectural sustainability. Both are the privileges of a developed society, but are in no way to be taken for granted. Ready made new materials as well as recycled products offer exciting perspectives in design. The exact description of the product is plugged in late in the design process. Very often only the brand name of the product is used. Sometimes the product determines the design, just like the old fashioned bricks do. Commercial interests of the suppliers unfortunately prevent them from sharing the composition of materials used in their products, thus suggesting a return to the secret practices of medieval buildingsects. Again for the architect, to stay in touch with the soil -that is, the actual properties of the material- remains essential to discovering and manipulating material in an imaginative way and control of the final result.
India generally is being pushed by globalization, largely through the IT industry. The economic developments are beginning to affect the building industry, politics and people's daily lives. Most Indians however are not concerned with romantic ideas about cultural identity or self esteem. At the same time, according to writer V.S. Naipaul, the Indian soul is never touched in the core of it's traditions.
The advantages of the Information Age, mobile phone and internet, available even in the most remote village nowadays, are undoubtedly immense. However, these gifts don't come for free. They go along with multinational and political manipulation of traditional agricultural life, the use of gentech and pesticides to increase crops at all costs and land and water pollution on an unprecedented and epic scale. They are accompanied by humongous waste production, deafening noise levels and frequently occurring severe shortages of clean water in metropolitan areas and on the countryside. The provision of solutions to the very basics of life of more than one-sixth of the world'
's population is seriously endangered.
Construction prices increase at a terrifying speed to catch up with desirable international standards, distorting the local market. In Tamil Nadu I witnessed a payrise for masons of one hundred and fourty percent in one month. Naturally this has a huge impact on the balance between labour -invested time- and material costs. Political trends aim at India as a service oriented economy, forgetting that if Europe and America are already doing the same thing, in no time there will be no skilled manufacturers, let alone masons left. Building contractors, banks and insurance companies -ING is well established- advertise a promising future on giant billboards, exclusively focussing on the ideal westernized Indian young, smiling and childless couple. We certainly do not tell them the payincost of a life long mortgage, that becomes ever harder, often impossible to pay for many. We do not tell them either of the economic mess we fail to face. We stay untouched, immovably awaiting better times after the crisis. On top of that, thinking in terms of 'after the crisis' causes even more drama. The heritage of the past decades of financial excess for a small number of people, will guide us to future decisions on matters of money and even the kind of housing the majority of people is provided with.
I undertook this journey for a number of reasons. One definite trigger was the deterrent documentary I saw at the Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam 2009. 'Yamuna gently wheeps' by Ruzbeh N. Bharucha demonstrates recent building practices on the outskirts of Delhi, where slums dominate the cityentrances. This is by no means exceptional, as all over the world metropolitan slums are located on the physical edges of built areas, infrastructural leftovers or riverbanks. In a mere summing up of the facts the film shows the failing practice of decisionmakers to influence the cities development including the rehousing of the majority of it's people. Although the cities townplanners and social workers keep quite different views on sanitation, infrastructure and social coherence, an enormous building industry is relentlessly marching up and treading down good intentions . The word conspiracy is not mentioned once as Indian society is provided with incorporated Governmental Departments to take care of issues like corruption. Instead the bold uttering of a primeminister features in the film, stating that the land belongs to the government that may therefore act to it's likings. In poignant scenes the inhabitants are forced to demolish, by their own hands, the innumerous ramschackle slumdwellings, in order to provide buildingland for new developments. They are moved to new areas far off the citycentre. So far away even that they cannot continue their indispensible services to the well to do community without the use of public transport, if at all available. That again devours their daily income or forces them to walk the dusty roads for hours in the tormenting heat to reach Delhis tree-lined lanes with gated communities and areas with colonial and westernized officeblocks. The ambition to produce architecture shrivels to dust confronted with this seggregation of communities. However this not only accounts for India, which in that respect only follows Western examples of classification through large scale buildingdevelopments. It does make aware of similar arrangements and problems in European cities.
I wondered if India -with its vast pantheon of God-caretakers, for every issue there is a spiritual entity to turn to- could address it's majority of people by letting them have access to architecture. To be more precise: Indian architecture, thought off as a cultural expression of it's society, local building traditions, materials and construction techniques. And it does so.
Two astonishing examples I found in the centre of Kerala's capital Thiruvananthapuram.
That a political communist predominance has been the essential condition to realize the projects I would not like to state, but a coincidence it is. It is undoubtedly the result of the dedication of truly concerned individual members of the Keralan government to put social matters above personal profits.
The two slum rehabilitation projects are located right in the heart of the city.
For many generations inhabitants of Chengal Chulha Colony have lived on a shoestring, deprived of proper water and electricity supplies or sanitation facilities. Without disrupting the still existing slum dwelling community it now shows additional brick buildings of four stories in an urban villa typology against a background of lined up unified concrete blockrows. The latter of earlier state attempts to rehouse the poor. The Baker buildings allow the social coherence to remain intact. On a small plot of land the impressive ensemble of villa's look like ungated dreamscapes. Placed in a playful relation to each other, each building houses multiple families. All dwellings are different, either in orientation, floorplan or entrance and include individual terraces for semi-private use. Without exception Baker's architectural principles are visible here. Invited to one of the homes by a child and it's mother, the poor English vocabulary we have available in the conversation, points out they are currently without water and electricity. The reason for these unfortunate circumstances remains unclear as all the necessary technical equipment is present in the building. On the way out of the townquarter we find one single tap for the whole community from which water is carried into the houses.
I was lucky to find the second slum rehabilitation project at Karimadom Colony still in progress. The task here is to realize about 450 units with all the necessary infrastructure. Again located in the very centre of the city I witness day to day constructionpractice. In the director's office, where the head carpenter is just collecting the earnings of the day, I get a glance into the drawings. About twenty-eight square meters for each dwelling, consisting of two rooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and an outside terrace, the units ingeniously form mountain-like buildings. Ten houses on the ground level, eight on the second, six on the third and four on the top level are opened from a central staircase. The urban plan shows a pleasant spacing between the buildings and slight concave curvings to embrace a public space.
In a way this is what India in history has always done: embrace foreign influence. Though I have travelled a great deal, I do not know of many places that urge to express the word 'ancient' to caress cultural phenomena as India does. Architecture remains a service for which, more than anything else, acknowledgement of the roots of culture is essential. Laurie Baker was trained as an architect in Birmingham, Great Brittain. He spent most of his practicing life in India. He left hundreds of buildings of which only a small amount has been
To be a witness of a work that deserves the mark architectural and that incorporates a fullscale respect to perhaps the slowest of all developing traditions, like the building industry is, has been a mere privilege. Though Laurie Baker's architectural work is complete as such, involving an era of pure and intense discoveries of man's capability to contribute to a sustainably built environment, it opens up an Indian souled architecture too. One that is drawing from a vast well of Indian construction experience and literally: Indian soil. I sincerely hope this will prevail and guides a perspective towards the spread of quite a different attitude in providing space for Indian architecture. One that is integrally addressing gobal crises and economics likewise. Time, of incalculable value, scarce in occidental areas and still abundant in India, will tell.
Many thanks to Mrs. Elizabeth Baker and COSTFORD's architects and participants. Without their friendly hospitality and patience with my curiosity this essay would not have seen daylight. Special thanks to Merle Kindred, who introduced and accompanied me to several of Baker's public buildings. Thanks to the officials for allowing me to attend the COSTFORD presentation at the Indian Army Headquarters on February 6th, 2010. I met innumerous Indian people who kindly supported me to gain insight into the Indian cultural inheritance. Last but not least I am grateful to my partner Gilles van Eeden who encouraged me to write and attentively review this essay.
Author: Brigitte F.S.A. van Bakel, February-April, 2010
Copyright 2010: No part of this document is to be extracted or changed without written consent of the author.