The moral origins of Laurie Baker’s art
Laurie Baker, who passed away in Thiruvananthapuram a few days ago, is relevant for a world that is threatened by global warming. His futuristic vision of India, encapsulated in his buildings and ideas of architecture, emphasised efficiency in the use of materials and energy, improvisation and adaptation of local craft and artisanal traditions, and the needs of millions of homeless. The hundreds of houses, churches and public buildings he designed and constructed offer a rare example of an equitable and sustainable architecture.
Baker has spoken about the influence of a Quaker upbringing and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi in his life. In an autobiographical essay, he recalled how Gandhi took fancy to the Chinese shoes he had made of cut waste clothes when they met the first time. Gandhi invited him to come and work in India after the war. One can deduce from the encounter that Baker shared some of Gandhi’s economic ideas even before they had met in person. The Quaker roots had inculcated in him an appreciation of labour and austerity.
One does not know if Baker shared Gandhi’s interest in the British philosopher, John Ruskin. However, there is an imprint, conscious or otherwise, of Ruskin in Baker’s work, especially the ideas expressed by the former in his writings on the Gothic. Ruskin suggests three rules to test the desirability of a product: One, never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which invention has no share; two, never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end; three, never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works. These, we can see, formed the core of Baker’s work ethic.
The contribution of Baker to Gandhian praxis is similar to that of the economist J C Kumarappa. Unlike with Kumarappa’s formulations on the village industries, Baker’s ideas found a wider audience. As in the case of Kumarappa, it was Gandhi who gave a political orientation to Baker’s professional skills. Baker’s experiences within the Quaker community may have prepared the ground for him to relate to Gandhi and understand science in moral categories. His pacifism was also shaped by the belief that the science which disrupted the order of life negatively ought to be shunned. He was always supportive of campaigns that sought to expose the false science of our times. He wrote with equal passion on the need for an essential architecture and the immorality of a nuclear bomb. The aesthetic and wholesomeness of his buildings and concepts were a reflection of his philosophy of life. In the essay,Architecture and the People,Baker summed up his work practice in four points. One, he had a clear idea of his clients and their needs. To him, they did not exist as social and economic categories; they were not high income groups or tribals, but people with names and personalities. He once said that he could recall the names of all those for whom he had built houses. Two, no one has the right to waste money, materials and energy in a country like India. Three, people have the ‘‘inherent and inherited ability’’ to know what good architecture is. Architects, he felt, could and should learn from ordinary people. Four, design has to be organic; it has to be transferred from the field to the drawing table and not the other way. He wrote that, ‘‘good or bad design, or good or bad taste has little to do with colour, or form, or texture, or costliness — but that has only to do with honesty and truth in the choice of materials and the method of using them’’. His concepts of architecture and design were not utilitarian; he only reiterated that utility and aesthetics can comfortably coexist.
There is a fundamental critique of the way knowledge is currently understood, acquired, valued and practised in Baker’s work. He did not respect the hierarchies implicit in the use of modern knowledge. He acknowledged traditional wisdom and was constantly learning and adapting it in his work practices. The divide between thought and manual labour was for him a false one. He designed his buildings in such a way that they would ‘‘fit in with the local styles and not be an offence to the eyes of the people’’. The housing projects Baker undertook for the poor were in sharp contrast to the government housing projects. His homes were lived in whereas the sarkari concrete huts ended up being used as cattle sheds and storehouses.
In one sense,Baker was a lucky man.Gandhian ideas of social and economic reconstruction were on the retreat by the time Baker began to build. Baker’s low-cost architecture was in sharp contrast to the promise of big science. However, he found a powerful backer in C Achyuta Menon, the communist leader and chief minister of Kerala, and the Archbishop of Thiruvananthapuram when he settled in Kerala in the 1960s.
The Baker model of a low-cost housing revolution to address the needs of the poor found a lot more takers among a moneyed elite in the later years. The joke about the upwardly mobile Malayalee seeking a Baker model house with an exorbitant budget explains the complex nature of his acceptance among people. People may have only bought in to the form of his architecture, and not the vision behind it. A construction company offered tributes to him with a frontpage ad in a leading Malayalam daily on the day his death was reported. Of course, the master builder would have smiled at the irony.