It is interesting that now, when anyone asks who this Laurie Baker is, they are told: he's that person who builds low-cost houses. But in fact I think my output of other buildings, factories, educational, medical, social and religious buildings, would in fact total up to far more square footage than my houses. And in my opinion, the achievement of reducing costs in most of these other spheres is much more difficult - mainly in persuading the clients that they needn't spend so much - and much more important too. Building houses is an individual matter and people can spend as much money as they want to - but public building is very often incredibly and stupidly wasteful and extravagant - and while you can talk and discuss with a man and his wife about their house needs and dreams, dealing with committees and government bodies and so on is much more of a headache.
When anyone comes to me to design a building for them I first want to know who they are, what sort of people they are, what sort of a building they want, what they will do in the building, what the site is like and the weather, and so on. As all this data and information comes to me, the form of the building they hope for takes shape in my head, and I start putting it down on paper. I don't think I even start with any preconceived ideas - the real inspiration comes from the person and the place and the function to which they want to put the building to. I am also conditioned by all sorts of practical considerations - how big is the land, does it suffer from excessive weather (strong winds or rains), are there beautiful views from the site, are there other nearby buildings that I have to "live with", how much money is to be spent, and so on.
I'm concerned about surroundings that already have controlled their own pattern of buildings in the neighbourhood. The various styles of architecture are all the result of thousands of years of ordinary people trying to make buildings that keep out the rain and wind and sun by using whatever materials there were, lying around or growing in the place where they live. So I see what principles have developed over centuries - in other words, I see what has resulted in this particular area from their forefathers' study of local conditions and materials - and then apply these principles to what I want to do for my client. Sometimes, the local architecture is so beautiful and so apt that I feel it would be foolish and an affront to try and design in any other way.
I don't think I've ever been inspired by what other architects have done but more by what ordinary craftsmen have created. By that I don't mean to say I dislike the work of other architects - much of their work I like and enjoy - but my point is that what they do is not what makes me want to build in a particular way or style - but what has slowly evolved empirically often gives me a great kick, and I want to be part of that continuing evolution or progression. The result is that what I build in Uttar Pradesh or in Gujarat or West Bengal are all different from each other and different from what I build in Kerala. I think probably this term that seems to be used, `a Baker style', is not correct because what Baker does varies from place to place. The so-called Baker style in Kerala is very different from the Baker style in Gujarat because the inspiration or the sources of inspiration are entirely different. Its just that my work is Kerala with brick is the most recent and most well known.
`Low cost' or `cost reduction' is not only concerning economy. Most modern building materials are manufactured articles (like burnt bricks or steel or glass or cement). Their respective costs are one important consideration but just as important is the question of how much energy (or fuel) was used in their manufacture.
The use of local materials is an example of economy because there are no transport costs. These styles show that people have discovered that there is a right way and a wrong way of putting materials together so that they are strong and durable. A wall, for example, is not necessarily stronger because it is thicker. The bonding together of a few stones is much stronger than the heaping together of a lot of stones.
Bricks to me are like faces. All of them are made of burnt mud, but they vary slightly in shape and colour. I think these small variations give tremendous character to a wall made of thousands of bricks, so I never dream of covering such a unique and characterful creation with plaster, which is mainly dull and characterless. I like the contrast of textures of brick, of stone, of concrete, of wood.
I just think it is plain stupidity to build a brick wall, plaster it all over and then paint lines on it to make it look like a brick wall. I think it is equally untruthful to cover it all over with tiles shaped to look like bricks. Or another variation of untruthfulness is to plaster it and then paint it to look like marble!
I think I'm subconsciously often strongly influenced by nature, and much of nature's `structural work' is not straight or square. A tall reed of grass in a windy, wild terrain is a long cylinder or a hollow tube; tree trunks and stems of plants that carry fruit and leaves are usually cylindrical and not square. Curves are there to take stresses and strains and to stand up to all sorts of external forces. On top if it all, they look good and beautiful and are infinitely more elegant than straight lines of steel and concrete.
I want young architects and masons to understand why this so-called Baker style has come about so that ordinary people can afford to build houses for themselves. Then, they must understand how cost reduction is achieved. Fancy brickwork or fancy shapes for rooms and buildings do NOT make a building Baker style. I think they must be consistent, that is, they should only think in terms of affordability, of suitability for the clients' needs, of being truthful and honest in their approach to design, and they should definitely not do anything merely to be showy or outstanding. Any excesses, any wasteful or unnecessary use of materials are a slap in the face to those who have no home and no hope of ever getting a home as long as we squander the wealth of our land.
If it is to design a house, I want to know the client's eating habits. Do they all eat together at regular times? Or is it a smash-and-grab affair? I also want to know about the bedroom. Do they merely use it to sleep in? Or does he do his writing in one corner (like me) and his wife do her sewing or embroidery in another corner?I always want to see, right at the beginning of our association together, their building site. Not only do I want to know what sort of a site it is (is the land level or sloping?) and what trees there are, but I also ask whether they desire a good view, a garden and whether they keep animals. I want to know about the water supply and from which direction the breeze and rain come from. And I have to always keep in mind that it is they who are going to use the building and not me.
My feeling as an architect is that you're not after all trying to put up a monument which will be remembered as a 'Laurie Baker Building' but Mohan Singh's house where he can live happily with his family
I have never doubted that in a country like ours any of us has any right to squander or waste, or use unnecessarily money, materials or energy.
"Cost-effective houses are not just for the poor,they are for everyone. The equation that a cost-effective house is a house for the poor, implying a bad looking house, can definitely be proved wrong. Isn't it the responsibility of the upper and middle classes to stop indulging in extravagance and make better looking houses instead? This entire classification is wrong."
'I never build for classes of people, HIG [highincome group], MIG, LIG, tribals [tribal people], fishermen and so on.But I will build only for a Matthew, a Bhaskaran, a Muneer, or a Sankaran.'
I believe that Gandhiji is the only leader in our country who has talk consistently with common-sense about the building needs of our country. What he said many years ago is even more pertinent now. One of the thin he said that impressed me and has influenced my thinking more than anything else was that the ideal houses in the ideal village will be built materials which arc all found within a five-mile radius of the house. What clearer explanation is there of what appropriate building technology means than this advice by Gandhiji. I confess that as a young architect, born, brought up, educated and qualified in the West, I thought at first Gandhiji's ideal was a bit 'far-fetched' and I used to argue to myself that of course h probably did not intend us to take this ideal too literally. But now, in my seventies and with forty years of building behind me, have come to the conclusion that he was right, literally word for word, and that he did not mean that there could be exceptions. If only I had not been so proud and sure of my learning and my training as an architect, I could have seen clearly wonderful examples of Gandhiji's wisdom all round m throughout the entire period I lived in the Himalayas.
There is a general belief that India is wealthy, both in simple basic building materials and in potential labour forces. Then there is a firm unyielding belief that all this talk of low-cost building' should not be 'for the poor' but for all. Furthermore, although we possess a certain amount of more sophisticated building materials, such supplies are comparatively small and must be used to maximum advantage. For example, we possess steel but the fact remains that many mechanical industries have a stronger claim on its use than the building industry, which can, if it wants, find substitutes and alternatives.
Our modern, advanced scientific minds should know how to assess the merits and demerits of historical and factual evidence of the way people who have lived in a particular setting and climate, have coped with the problems which arc still inevitably ours today. To brush aside all this demonstration and evidence as old-fashioned and therefore useless, is extremely foolish. Having made our assessment we would show ourselves capable of adopting the lessons we have learned (negative or positive, they are of equal importance) to our current living habits and the currently available building materials at our disposal. Along with this we should remind ourselves that it is not 'Advancement' or 'Development' or 'Progress' to indulge in modern building materials and techniques at tremendous expenses and to no good effect when there is no justification or reason for their use, instead of older, simpler, inexpensive methods.
People in most countries of the world are accusing their architects of failing to produce a modern form of their own previously distinctive architectural!' styles. If one or two typical modern buildings from each country could be transported and put down in isolation in a large flat desert, could any of us even architects walk from one building to another and say, "Just look at this one - pure Italian" and further on, "My! This is obviously an Indian effort!". A hundred or so years ago we could probably have been successful with such identifications, but there are very grave doubts whether we could do so now.
I can never understand an architect who designs 500 houses all exactly the same. It doesn't take much to put all the components into at least half a dozen other combinations. It's perfectly easy to mix materials on any given site so the possibilities for variety are endless. If only we didn't level sites and eliminate trees but instead plan to go around them, then we would not get the long monotonous rows to begin with. Most materials have 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 look like a stone wall. Concrete shout look like concrete and not be plastered or painted to look like marble.
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 area of our unemployment problem, and, furthermore, it can start immediately, if we will it, as no other industry can.
My observation is that vernacular architecture almost always has good answers to all our problems. In every district, wherever you go, the people themselves take an active part in making their houses. Now, for whatever reasons, they have lost their skills, and need to look outside for help.