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When I came to India in the 1940s as the Chief Architect for the Mission to Lepers my job was mainly to convert or replace old dreaded asylums with proper modern hospitals and to create the necessary rehabilitation and occupation centres as leprosy was no longer an untreatable disease. But there was no precedent for this new approach of treatment. Medical experts were few and far between and inevitably had varying and even conflicting ideas about how to go about things resulting in a whole new set of problems. Who was to guide me in my work? To whom should I turn to for instructions? Who actually were my clients? Was it the Mission which paid my salary? Or were they the doctors and dedicated workers who worked selflessly for the relief of the suffering of those caught up by this most dreaded of diseases? Or were they the patients themselves?

 

It was the Mission that paid salary that also decided how much money was to be used for each project. The doctors had a fair idea of what they required for their work. But finally it were the patients themselves who would actually live in my buildings, and in them regain not only their health but their hope and self-respect, and finally gain a new entry into life. What better clients could one hope for?

 

Soon I was swamped by a new set of problems. The buildings I was sent to inspect, their construction techniques and materials used, were nothing like the buildings I had been taught about and designed at the School of Architecture. I was expected to deal with mud walls and huge cracks. I was confronted with materials I had never heard of, such as laterite. People seemed to think that even cow-dung was an important building material! I was expected to know how to deal with termites and even bed hugs. I was warned that in a short time the monsoon would come. The word was spoken with such awe and fear as though a monsoon were a ferocious, wild beast ready to pounce on me without warning. And, true enough, it was like a ferocious, wild beast and it did pounce on me with a vengeance!

 

In fact, during those first few months I felt increasingly ignorant and helpless. I felt less knowledgeable than the stupidest village idiot for he seemed to know what a termite and a monsoon and black cotton soil were. I had brought with me my text books, reference hooks and construction manuals, but a bundle of comic strips would have been as helpful. What should I do? Go back home where I belonged? The cry of 'Quit India' was louder and stronger now than ever before—would it not be better to quit?

 

But it was already too late to quit. I might be snowed under with all these impossible and ridiculous problems (were they really the concern of a proper qualified Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects?), but I was increasingly fascinated by the skills of ordinary, poor, village people working with the most unpromising and crude materials with apparently almost no recognizable tools to make useful everyday buildings and articles. I spent most of my time watching these people build beautiful houses for themselves with mud and bamboo and dried grass and the poorest quality of timber I had ever seen. I saw round conical houses, up to six metres in diameter, built with pieces of timber no longer than a metre-and-a-half. Furthermore, these houses were built in areas that faced devastating cyclones every year and very often this type of indigenous architecture had a better chance of survival than the more 'proper' type of structure of bricks, mortar and reinforced concrete slabs. I had, up till then, heard of 'stabilized earth', but all over the country I saw mud houses which were treated with a wide variety of materials: from rice husks, bamboo strips and palm fibres for preventing cracks, and calcium (lime) water to pigs' urine for coping with other problems related to the use of mud.

 

The incredible and fascinating part about all this new education I was having was that these strange systems were effective, and slowly I realised that many of the answers to my problems, which I thought I could never solve, lay before me and all round me wherever I went. I suppose it took many years before I really understood and wholeheartedly believed that wherever I went I saw, in the local indigenous style of architecture, the results of thousands of years of research on how to use only immediately-available, local materials to make structurally stable buildings that could cope with the local climatic conditions, with the local geography and topography, with all the hazards of nature (whether mineral, vegetable, insect, bird or animal), with the possible hostility of neighbours, and that could accommodate all the requirements of local religious, social and cultural patterns of living. This was an astounding, wonderful and incredible achievement which no modern, twentieth century architect, or people I know of, has ever made.

 

Columbus is reputed to have discovered America, but a large number of people had been already living there without the publicity of his discovery for a very long time. Similarly, when I made my own little personal discoveries, I realized that I had merely chanced to find an extensive set of building systems which were in no way 'discoveries' to more than five hundred million people! I wanted to make use of this new knowledge in my own work. Perhaps it was as well that my employers brushed it all aside as a romantic notion for I realized I was merely a witness to these apparently endless indigenous skills and was in no way capable of implementing them so early after my 'discoveries'.

 

Rather reluctantly I had to return to my drawing board and design 'proper' buildings. I can't say that the result of my latest education was completely wasted. I learnt more about the more acceptable local materials, with new (to me) ways of using burnt brick, stone, tiles and timber. I also used new kinds of mortar and plaster and, as much as possible, tried to design my buildings in such a way that they would not be offensive or unacceptable to my real clients, the users of the buildings, and so that they would fit in with the local styles and not be an offence to the eyes of the people with whom I had chosen to live with. I think this was probably the second biggest step towards what (if there really is such a thing) is described as a 'Laurie Baker Architecture'.

 

In out-of-the-way districts, among the scattered and neglected population, the buildings needed were small, but whatever their size they were essential necessities—, more essential and necessary than even those in the densely-populated cities where plenty of alternative facilities are available. Furthermore, those living in these remote rural areas traded by the barter system rather than by buying and selling with money. This meant that it was extremely difficult to find money to pay for the building material, and so it was of the utmost importance to design and make buildings that were strong and durable, and as inexpensive as possible. For this and other similar reasons I became then, cost-conscious and spent a lot of time trying to find ways of reducing building costs in general— whether I was using local indigenous methods or building with the 'normal' twentieth century materials and techniques. Seeing millions of people living a hand-to-mouth existence made me come to abhor all forms of extravagance and waste.

 

This brings us to the two important characteristics of a so-called Baker Architecture— that 'small' is not only 'beautiful' but is often essential and even more important than `large'; and that if we architects are even to start coping effectively with the real building problems and the housing needs of the world, we must learn how to build as inexpensively as possible.

 

And so my interest and work spread. The medical world was cautiously interested and the world of formal education also followed suit. There were village schools and colleges and even urban colleges that wanted libraries, auditoria, etc. Designing for these various institutions became my bread-and-butter. For the dessert I could never resist the invitation to design religious buildings. So, often, there were ashrams, houses of prayer and churches on my drawing board— but always on the condition that there must be no ostentation or 'facade-ism'. I am often puzzled by the dichotomy in my nature—I claim to believe in democracy but I can find myself wanting to be an architectural dictator! I think I am more than normally tolerant about other people’s religious beliefs and practices, and yet I can find myself decrying the requests of a religious group for something which I feel is wrong or inconsistent with their beliefs. I claim that the client's needs and desires should come first and that he or she requires a 'client-based' building, not a 'Baker' building— but when expressions of his religious beliefs offend me I find myself unable to design for him or her.


If the above statement sounds a bit harsh perhaps a bit of background on my Quaker religious beliefs might help explain why I feel this way. Very briefly, the Quaker ideal is that there is a form of direct unity with the Creator, that Man experiences this at any time, in any place and under any circumstances. Special 'religious' surroundings and appurtenances are not essential, though many people find them a help. But, however much we hoodwink our fellowmen, it is impossible to be deceitful or put up a false front to the Creator. So all efforts to 'put on a big show' or indulge in deceit to make ourselves look greater than we are, seems to be quite pointless. A house has to be designed as a home for a particular group of people to live together as a family in their own inimitable style and if this planning and designing for them is done well it is highly unlikely that the outside of the building will be ostentatious or showy. It is even more so with religious buildings where people usually gather together for purposes of worship and prayer, with their own particular form of ritual or liturgy. The architect will do his utmost to provide the 'right' space in which these acts of worship can be made. As this mainly concerns our search for union with the Eternal it seems particularly 'not right' to indulge in a pretentious façade with these buildings. This anti-façade-ism has definitely been a very noticeable and is a deliberate characteristic of Laurie Baker's architecture, no matter what type of building is being designed.

 

It was towards the end of our stay in Pithoragarh in the Himalayas, while these interesting, special buildings were being built, that the government itself started mild enquiries, especially concerning the possibilities of cost-reduction in building. Several upright senior government secretaries were showing genuine concern at architectural practices which were apparently not actually essential or even desirable, but which they were assured as necessary by public work civil engineers . At first I was only unofficially asked whether there were in fact any possible ways of reducing costs for government buildings done by Government agencies.

 

My unpopularity among fellow professionals probably started at this time. I remember being shown drawings of a monumental façade to the proposed State Archival Buildings. The entrance portico looked very much like St. Paul's Cathedral West Facade with a huge flight of steps and rows of ornate columns. The public would not use this building and those who were to work in it would number less than forty. I asked for the reason for the great entrance portico the only answer I received was that it was because Mr Nehru himself would declare the building open! Needless to say I enjoyed these skirmishes with the government personnel and eventually became an official adviser!

 

For a number of reasons we pulled up our roots from our Himalayan home and moved south to the State of Kerala with its extremely beautiful local indigenous bamboo style of architecture. Again, at first, we chose a remoter rural area to live and work in, and again, we ourselves built our own home and hospital in the local style with local materials. We settled down to live in a completely different setting from that of north India. I found the relationships of Kerala vs. India very comparable to that of Britain vs. the rest of Europe. The people were 'insular' and proud, and their ways were very different (and in their own eyes superior) to those of others. Many more people were educated and literate, and this was especially true among the women folk. This had both advantages and disadvantages. For example, there were many attractive ways of using local building materials. The coconut palm leaf was split and the fronts plaited together to form a thatch which was pleasing to the eye and of extremely good insulation value. The plaiting work had always been done by the older girls in their spare time, but now almost all girls went to school and more and more of them to college and there was neither the time nor the inclination to make these stock of thatched leaves ready for the annual re-thatching. And so, for similar reasons, there was a strong move everywhere to abandon 'old-fashioned ways' and go in for 'modern' buildings using plenty of cement an( reinforced concrete.

 

Unlike in the Himalayas I had little time to help with my wife's hospital work as I became quite involved in local building activities. Many people and institutions were showing great interest in reducing costs of building. It all started when all the Bishops had agreed to work together at the Kerala Bishops' conference for the good of the common poor man. They had. with great fanfare, agreed that each parish in the state should try and put up at least one inexpensive, small house and give it to the poorest family in that parish, regardless of caste or creed. But after three years only two or three houses had been built. The Archbishop Mar Gregorios of Trivandrum called for a 'post-mortem' seminar to find out the reason for this failure. The explanation given by all was simple enough—: there was no longer any such thing as an 'inexpensive building'! I begged to disagree and offered to demonstrate, rather than to talk about ways of building inexpensive houses and spent the following two weeks putting up a small house of about forty square metres and costing, by request, less than Rs 3,000 (about US $400 at the time). The participants of the conference came to see the result of this demonstration and to our amazement declared the house to be 'too good' for 'the poor'. So the Archbishop asked for a second house to be put up for half the cost!

 

From this beginning there followed many small houses, schools, clinics, hospitals and churches and then the government moved in to examine what was going on. The Chief Minister of the state Sri Achutha Menon became a convert and I built the State Institute of Languages, at his request, for a small sum of money which the Works and Housing Department had declared was impossible. But my work for government and semi-government institutions continued, notably with a fairly large and prestigious complex known as the Centre for Development Studies, staffed and run by world-known economists of repute. The Chief Minister launched the scheme by challenging them to demonstrate and prove their economic theories by the way in which they built and ran their institution.

 

At this time, my greatest problems came from the vested interests of most categories of people concerned with the building industry. Most of them were paid on a percentage basis of the total or partial cost of a building. Clearly they did not wish to reduce costs! The craftsmen also were similarly paid and they too did not want any changes. It became increasingly tiresome when people who asked me to design a building for them for a certain sum of money, would return to say that the builders said it could not be done even for double the figure I had given. There was only one thing to do and that was to get together a band of masons and carpenters who would do what was asked of them and who would learn new techniques and un-learn old, wasteful ones. It was rewarding for my clients, for me and for the workmen. For example, some of them became excellent brick-workers who got enormous satisfaction from producing beautiful brickwork. Much of what has come to be described as Baker Architecture I owe to these craftsmen. Because of them it became easy for me to construct almost any type of building, and these ranged from the smallest houses to a large cathedral seating three thousand people. I was particularly pleased that three housing groups were taking advantage of these ideas. A whole fishing village for example, was built after many of its old huts had been washed away by the sea in a gale. Several institutions also built houses for their poor at comparatively very little cost. Then the so-called 'upper strata' of society came forward with interest which proved to be genuine, when quite a lot of them asked me to build their houses for them using these simple, cost-reducing techniques.

 

Low-cost housing techniques were the most rewarding for the group of people who came under the label of the 'lower middle class'. They feel they have certain standards of living to keep up, matters relating to dress and to the education and marriage of their children, but their salaries leave them very little to save for house-building—: an activity which they had always considered well beyond their reach. Now they could build. They were quick to understand the principles involved in cost-reduction. They were quick to understand the real priorities of building a home. They had and expressed their faith in the 'expert', and would sometimes actually help where they felt they could.

 

Again the government showed further interest and called for a report on the methods of cost-reduction. There was strong opposition to the idea of requesting a private individual with 'funny' ideas to present an official report to the government. Three outside government experts joined me and the report was presented, and, accepted, after the Chief Minister had organized a seminar in which all the suggestions and recommendations in the report were thrashed out and either agreed upon as possible and feasible, or, if impossible, rejected. Finally everything in the report was accepted, but over the years very little of it has been implemented.

 

Industrialists are often hard realists and the principles of cost-reduction have been taken up by some of them in different parts of the country. It seems a far cry from small low-cost houses to big foundries and factories, but that is what has happened. The wheel seems to have turned a full circle because it is these industrialists who are now employing these cost cutting techniques with their huge factory buildings.

 

Lastly, I have found, consistently, throughout my working life, that the whole business of planning and designing is intensely absorbing and fun! Always living close to nature I learnt many lessons from the design of God's creations. Very rarely do we find the square or the rectangle but very often the circle is used. The straight line is rare, but the graceful curve is frequently seen. An interesting scientific observation is that the length of the wall enclosing a given area is shorter if the shape is circular and longer if the shape around the same area is a square or a rectangle. This is an important factor in cost-reducing exercises! Furthermore, I have found the answer to many spatial and planning problems by using the circle and the curve instead of the square and the straight line—and building becomes much more fun with the circle!