Practice of Architecture and Relevance of Laurie Baker in Contemporary Professional practice and Sectoral Challenges

Venue: Institution of  Engineers Hall, Opposite Kanakakkunnu Palace, Thiruvananthapuram 

Keynote Address By: Kirtee Shah Hon. Director, Ahmedabad Study Action Group (ASAG) President, Habitat Forum (INHAF) Chairman, KSA Design Planning Services Pvt. Ltd.

1. It is indeed my privilege and also an honour to have been invited to participate in Laurie Baker birth centenary commemorative event and deliver the keynote address at this very special function in Trivandrum. This event   launches  a yearlong countrywide celebration  to bring to the people in general and the professional architects in particular not only the architectural creations of a uniquely talented and socially committed  architect, Laurie Baker,  but also his vision of the profession, his approach to buildings design, his sensitivity to the Indian people’s needs–especially those of  the   common people– and his understanding of the creativity of the craftsmen involved in making  buildings and shaping  the built environment.

2. At the outset, I must congratulate the organizers of the centenary celebrations such as Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies and Center for Science and Technology for Rural Development ( Costford) and others who are close colleagues, followers, admirers and heir apparent of Shri Baker’s rich and inspiring legacy. I am particularly happy to learn that the celebration plan is countrywide and not confined to the state of Kerala alone. Because though LB lived and practiced mainly in Kerala, his work and vision are relevant to all India. The new generation of architects in particular deserve to know more about this man, his philosophy, his wisdom, his work, his approach, his humility and his silent contribution.

3. Today, on 2nd March 1917, a special child was born, somewhere in England. His name is Laurie Baker. He chose to go, settle and work in a country which was enslaved by his own government.  He moved to India in 1945, just two years before India became independent, as an architect associated with a leprosy mission and continued to live and work in India for over 50 years. His speciality is that he never ever forgot that, coming as he did as part of a leprosy mission, his work was “service “to the people, especially service to the common people. Not many architects today know or recognise the “service” part of their profession. The business part is their main preoccupation.

4. I have little hesitation in saying that  the ‘80s and the ‘90s generation of architects of Kerala and, to some extent, India – were singularly fortunate in having a Guru in Mr. Laurie Baker, if I am  allowed to use that much abused and maligned phrase in a case where it is the most appropriate. In a manner of speaking, Mr. Baker is to the local architecture what Mahatma Gandhi was to India’s freedom struggle. Both lead to liberation, both believed in simplicity, both drew their strategies from the culture and tradition of the place, both had a vision of the society they served, and both had implicit faith in the common people and their wisdom.  Mr. Baker is a true leader in the field which has hardly produced a leader of merit. His contribution and inspiration is not in form of technology or style alone. It is in the form of change of mindset, in the philosophy of work, and in the attitude to architectural design, practice and problem solving. He made architecture belong to the place – to the soil, to culture, to tradition, and most importantly, to the local people. And that is no small contribution in a country where architecture, in the hands of the foreign trained and influenced architects, is losing its roots, and where alienation – alienation from the people, from the roots, tradition, culture, climate and soil – is the order of the day.  And, in a way, it is a paradox, as Mr. Baker was a foreigner.

5. Mr. Baker believed in cost reduction, not a fashionable phrase among the modern day architects. He gave a new respectability to local materials – especially bricks and clay tiles. His architecture merged with the surrounding landscape, rather than standing out. It is not in competition with the nature but in harmony with it. Working with the fellow professionals, he improved and popularized technologies: be that rattrap bond or filler slab, which saved material, reduced cost and created new forms and aesthetics. He challenged conventional engineering design, practice and wisdom by using 9” and 4.5” thick brick walls as load bearing structures for the buildings taller than a single storey. And, most importantly, he gave a new status to the traditional construction artisans, especially the masons, by working with them in inventing and popularizing alternative construction methods. He professed that we – the architects – could learn from the artisans, the mason and the carpenter. Something we had not heard or thought before. The most lasting contribution of Mr. Baker is his attitude to architectural design and practice. He sought to simplify and demystify it. He made people – the common people – relate with it. If you see it this way, you would find my comparison with Mahatma Gandhi not very odd, misplaced or exaggerated.

6. LB is known for his initiatives in cost-effective, energy-efficient architecture and design that maximized space, ventilation and light, and maintained an uncluttered yet striking aesthetic sensibility. He promoted revival of regional building practices and use of local materials; and combined this with a design philosophy that emphasized a responsible and prudent use of resources and energy. He was a pioneer of sustainable architecture as well as organic architecture, incorporating in his designs, even in the late 1960s, concepts such as rain-water harvesting, minimizing usage of energy-inefficient building materials, minimizing damage to the building site and seamlessly merging with the surroundings. His social and humanitarian efforts to bring architecture and design to the common man, his creative  use of localmaterials, his belief in simplicity in design and life and his staunch Quaker conviction  in non-violence made him different, very different.

7. All great architects – Master Architects – have followers. Each generation produces Masters and a legion of their followers. So has Mr. Laurie Baker, though, I think, he would not like the tag of a ‘Master’. His humility, attitude to work, and his brand of professionalism won’t make him comfortable with that kind of a title. He was too simple and unpretentious for that.  His followers, however, are different, unlike the other followers of the ‘Great Masters’, both foreign and local. They don’t imitate style, they imbibe spirit.  It is this `spiritual’ following and the following in ‘spirit’ that makes Mr. Baker’s followers command respect and set trends. I won’t be surprised if they surpass their Guru in achievement. I get that impression when I talk to Shankar or Chandra Dutta or Sajan or see work of Costford or Habitat Technology Group or others who belong to LB school of design and construction. I have seen Habitat Technology Group’s work and contribution in earthquake reconstruction in Gujarat. It has set new standards there. I have worked with Shankar and his team in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They not only constructed a campus designed by my office, they made Bangladesh experience a new technology, which even the likes of Dr. Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, considered relevant for his country. Costford carries on the legacy and vision of LB in what it designs and builds. And the Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies works to keep his legacy alive and mission going. These individuals and organizations are not followers of Mr. Baker, they are his spiritual heirs. They are carriers of a message, not the duplicator of his  style. They are more than `alternative’ practice-ners’.  They are leading a silent yet most relevant movement in building construction.

8. I often wonder if Mr. Baker would have been what he is and would have done what he did, had he chosen to live and work in a place other than Kerala. He alone can answer that question. My guess, however, is that he might agree that had it not been for Kerala, what he has achieved and done, if not less, would have been different. It is Mr. Baker’s fate and vision that he chose Kerala to be his Tirthbhumi and  Karmabhumi, his home and work place. There is something very special about this land, about this place, about its people and about their creativity. It is not only beautiful and fertile. Kerala is much more. Ideas grow here. Take roots. Spread. Prosper. It is a receptive place. And that is because I think its people are very special. Laurie Bakers thrive here.. Technological innovations happen here. Large-scale experiments succeed here. The only Building Centers of HUDCO, which have something to show for the original conception, are in Kerala. It is very fortunate that you belong to this place or have chosen to settle or work here. It is no wonder that you have contributed and achieved so much. Besides your skills, hard work and creativity, it is also a big plus that you are in a congenial environment, in a supportive and inspiring place that is Kerala. It is not for nothing that Kerala is called the God’s own country. 

9. Let me now move from shri Baker’s qualities, virtues and persona and turn briefly to the Indian human settlements scene and point out why we need not only to remember LB but learn from him. That too fast and fundamentally. Do not be surprised or get scandalized if I were to suggest that while India’s public life and development challenge need Mahatma Gandhi to return, in some form, with his ideas, philosophy and strategies, the complex challenge of managing India’s settlements, both rural and urban, need vision, approach and thought that guided LB’s work. We are headed towards a chaotic uncertainty, if not an inevitable  crisis,  so far shaping the built environment in our cities and villages is  concerned  and  there is much that is relevant in what shri LB thought,  did and showed

10. Let me start with the rural. Some time back, at a workshop discussing changes in the Guidelines for the Indira Awas Yojana I asked a senior – and respected senior  government officer (incidentally, a remarkably dignified human being from Kerala) if he would be able to show me 10 houses, out of 27 million, that were  constructed under Indira Awas Yojana (IAY), over time, that he would personally consider as ‘good’ (not ‘excellent’ or ‘outstanding’) in quality, design, workmanship, siteing, detailing, aesthetics, processes, etc. His answer was a thoughtful – and I thought, regretful – ‘no’. Even if there is an element of exaggeration or over-simplification or generalization or even ignorance of facts in that admission, the moral of the story is unmistakable: that despite a staggering achievement in terms of numbers (around 30 million houses ), longevity of the scheme (some 30 years), wide coverage (entire country), and massive cumulative investment (in the region of Rs.70-80,000 crore) the quality aspect of houses built under IAY has suffered constantly and consistently. It is seen not as successful one in terms of the outcome with the poorly designed, poorly constructed, poorly monitored and poorly managed program of half completed houses. It is unfair and uncharitable to call it a colossal waste as the program is well intentioned and even well-conceived. However, that it satisfies none – from the end user at the lower end to the policy maker at the upper end – is indeed a sad commentary, a major cause for concern: not only because IAY is arguably the world’s biggest public housing programme  but because it continues its work even today. Every year nearly 2 million new houses are constructed under this program at an investment of about Rs.15/16000 crore. If you add  the state public housing programs, nearly 3 million houses get built every year at  an investment of Rs.25000 crore for the rural poor on a subsidized basis. . Its significance is also that it  serves the homeless or inadequately housed  marginalised  segment – economically poor, socially backward  and politically voiceless – of  India’s rural population . It is an attempt not only at housing provision but also social inclusion. It is ensuring citizenship and giving dignity and is an attempt at empowerment of the marginalised.

With that background answer the following:

* How many architects know its existence, purpose, scale and problems?.

* How many have attempted doing something about it?

* How many have written articles, criticized quality and found out what is wrong?

* How many have approached the government, at the highest level, or a village Panchayat ,at the field level,  with ideas and suggestions for the correctives, to improve the product, processes, or performance?

* How many schools and colleges of architecture and engineering know its existence?

* How many research thesis have been done on IAY? How many students have opted to work on the matter for their office training?

* Have the well orgnised associations of architects or planners said anything   on this massive program in the past 30 years? When?

* Is housing their business?

* If the architects have nothing to say or intervene on such a massive program, who will intervene, improve performance and cause change to happen? Chartered accountants? Film stars? School teachers?

We as architects need to be concerned about the IAY and such other public programs  not realizing the  goals of better quality housing, better serviced rural settlements, better utilization of resources, better social and physical integration, and better contribution to the poverty alleviation objective  through IAY houses becoming economic assets for the beneficiary families. We as architects should also be concerned that such a massive and long lasting public housing program has contributed little to building and strengthening the rural housing delivery system; has nothing to show for short or long term employment creation, and has contributed little in terms of rural habitat policy making and institutional development. 

Is this asking too much? Can this be done? I have good reasons to believe that the government is aware of the shortcomings and keen on improving performance of the program. I am also convinced that concerned architects, schools of architectures, their faculties and students can play multiple roles in making a difference. There is little doubt that an initiative that seeks to engage students on IAY would go a long way in motivating young students and expose them to the rural realty and the challenges of  rural settlements.

The yearlong LB Centenary celebrations should put this matter on its agenda. LB will be very happy wherever he is in the other world.

11. Now let us look at the cities .If the villages are the places where architects do not live and work, they are certainly in the cities. And if the cities are the performing theatre for the architects, what is the shape and conditions of the cities? And what contribution are the architects’ community making in making them better places to live, work, grow and progress?

 Decades ago, in a seminar on “Design for Development” at NID at Ahmedabad, in his keynote address Shri Romesh Thapar, a public intellectual, posed questions on the role of the designer. Concerned about the invading ugliness in form of deteriorating physical, environmental and social conditions in our cities he asked: “what does a designer do with the waves of vulgarity invading our cities?  Is his/her work and role putting up one well designed, sensitive  structure among the hundred ugly ones or to work towards sensitization of the society against the invading ugliness? Do we ask this question? Does this invasion of ugliness disturb our sensitivities? More importantly, are we doing anything about it?

 Cities, as we know, are a losing battle – the Smart Cities and Amrut programs notwithstanding.

 Story of the three capitals is sad but worth telling. If the financial capital Mumbai has half of its people in slums; if Delhi, the political capital, has its air so polluted that the Delhi High Court described it as ‘Gas Chamber’, and if Varanasi, the religious and spiritual capital of the country, has the country’s most revered Ganges so polluted that it requires a special ministry and a special river cleaning mission – it symbolically states the country’s urban situation. If we have failed to manage these capitals properly, despite their resources, attention and public gaze,  what is the chance that we are doing better – or would  do better – elsewhere, where resource are scarce, public attention is less glaring, and the governance is weak?

 One does not like drawing a gloomy picture.  But we all know that the cities are not a happy scene: be that Bangalore or Bharuch or Pahelgaon.

 The question to ask is: What contribution are the architects making to addressing  the issues of deteriorating cities ,individually and  collectively?

 The cities as they grow and develop need care and concern. Also ideas, resources and innovations. It is risky and unwise to leave them for the politicians, officials and builders to develop and govern. There is little doubt that architects have in them, in their training, something to contribute meaningfully to cities becoming better places to live and work.

 It is not enough to say we are making good buildings. Thank you. But that is like saying that we are not starving when confronted with the spectre of widespread  poverty and hunger. Wherever we are, we must stretch ourselves. We must question. We must suggest. And we must  contribute to shaping of better cities . Do not ask me how. You know there are many doable ways.

12. If the decaying villages and struggling cities are too big, too distant and too complex for the architects to do something about,  while remembering LB and seeing relevance in his work, we may ask questions about and understand the state of architecture education in the country.

* Is the architecture education in the country removed/divorced/disconnected  from the contemporary societal and even sectorial challenges? 

* Does not the architectural education we impart and learn carry a hangover of the colonial past?

* Especially the colonial past associated with a mindset that rejects and looks down upon local, indigenous and our own?

* Aren’t our systems and institutions still burdened and influenced by the British systems and institutions?

* Isn’t our education and practice under the influence of the past? How much has really changed? How much has been the indigenization?

* Earlier, a ‘foreign’ tag had premium, the foreigner and the foreign trained architect carried weight and called the shots. Has that weight lessened? Has the mindset, mentality changed?

* How much is local and indigenous in our architectural and planning education?

* Aren’t the architects still looking westwards for ideas, inspiration, examples and masters?

* In the  globalizing world there is nothing wrong in looking westwards – or for that matter to Singapore, Dubai, China or Malaysia – for inspiration or ideas or technology. What is crucial, however, is to be firmly rooted to avoid being swept away and having a reference frame to make balanced choices.

* It is also to be appreciated that those solutions and ideas—the ‘foreign’ ones– are not the most relevant, not the most workable in solving our local problems and meeting our local needs.

* Who and what will change this scenario? 

If all that sounds big, macro and distant, let us see what it is like on the ground where the  architects work.

Isn’t it true that most practicing architects understand little – and care even less – for the external environmental factors such as climate, energy, water, etc. while designing buildings?  Aren’t they victims of external – mostly western – influences and practitioners of unsuited, inappropriate ‘styles’? Is not a ‘curtain wall’, a full glass façade in the blazing sun, which necessitates an over-working air-conditioning system to cool it, an insult to the local climate and the energy crisis? Isn’t it true that most architects are not cost conscious in their design solutions and that, generally speaking, cost consciousness is looked down upon as the preoccupation of the inferior, the strugglers among the architects? 

In some ways, aren’t the architects alien in their own environment, in their own place and in understanding and responding to the demands of climate, energy crisis, resource crunch, social complexities, and life style choices? Aren’t they divorced from the rich local traditional practices in building construction? Don’t the architects’ stylistic preferences, their ‘isms’, over-ride functional needs of their clients? Put crudely – and the fellow architects may kindly excuse my saying this – aren’t the architects taking their clients for a ride? Partly through ignorance, partly through arrogance, partly through alienation, partly through design and partly through default?

14.  My next questions are on the clients of the architects.

* For whom are the architects working or not working ?.

* For whose benefit, to meet whose needs, are they using their skills, knowledge and expertise?

* Which segment of the Indian society are they reaching their services?

* Certainly not the villagers, as hardly any architect practices in a village. That eliminates 75 percent of the population and their building needs from the work sphere of the architects.

* Architects are concentrated mainly in big cities. And who are their clients there? Not the lower middle class, also not many in the middle- middle class.

* Their clients are the rich, businessmen, industrialists and public and private institution builders: mostly the upper crust of the society. Also the builders and the real-estate developers. As a class, the upper one or two percent of the society.

* What about others? Aren’t they building? Aren’t they investing? Don’t they need services of an architect, a designer? Wouldn’t an architect’s skill and expertise, if available to them, make a difference to what they are building on their own or using para-professionals?

15.  Do we know what architects are doing with their own operative environment?

Not much is said or done about the Institutional environment within which the architects operate. It is highly restrictive and constraining but to change it the architects are doing nothing or precious little.  The reference is to regulatory framework that includes building bye-laws and regulations, the building permit system and the compliance monitoring mechanism put in place and managed by the local bodies and/or the urban development authorities. The system seems to have been made to kill design, creativity and innovation.  The stipulations and provisions are kept deliberately vague. Interpretations vary from the officer to officer, desk to desk, time to time. Arbitrariness is the order of the day and corruption is rampant. The system, as we all know, stinks. Yet, one sees little pubic articulation of concern and little joint action with other stakeholders, on part of the architects’ community. They are not protesting, not fighting against the wrong, not mobilizing opinion, not finding and presenting alternatives and not working to influence change. Subservience and accommodation to the system’s irrationality and tyranny and acceptance of its creativity neutralizing power is simply amazing.

And it is beyond doubt that the architects are the most qualified – and the most equipped – to bring it to the notice of the bye-law framers and the administrators that making supportive, positive, facilitating and enabling byelaws and building regulations costs nothing  in money terms;  that it only demands some imagination and openness to learn from others. However,   they go a long way in making the cities beautiful, their skyline exciting and the urban form richer – something the administrators admire so much in foreign cities but do little to promote and ensure it here.

16. Let me touch upon now their mindset, ethics and humanity. The Architects’ relation with his/her working universe. Architects often visit their project/work sites. How many visit labour camps on the site and ask what kind of water the contractor provides, let alone whether there is a crèche for their children? Who asks whether there is even rudimentary safety precautions on the 11th floor for the construction workers?

Unlike a painting that adorns a wall in a house or an office or a museum, an architect’s  creations, the buildings, last a hundred years, stand tall in the street, are  prominently visible, last three generations and  therefore  must  be relevant  to the changing tastes and the times. “From the door knob to the city square” is an architect’s universe. How many share that vision, perspective and responsibility?

17. Leadership of the profession is yet another matter to be looked into. Identifying systemic deficiencies and bringing about institutional change demand a committed leadership with a vision. What kind of leadership does the profession has? Who are the leaders and what are they doing?  Are  the star/lead  architects  the leaders of the profession? Are the associations of professionals playing the leadership role? Do they? What and who are they leading? What initiatives? What sharing? What mobilization? Which issues are championed? What remedies, options and strategies are suggested?

A leader must lead, give, inspire, set example, even sacrifice. Whom are they inspiring? What are they giving? Is the word `sacrifice’ heard anywhere at that level? Is not the public good versus private interest the most obvious feature of the leadership issue?

18. Let me clarify that I have no quarrel with architecture. And I believe that  Architecture as a subject, as an art form, as a science ,as a Shashtra, is too big and ancient to be treated with  anything  but  respect and pride. But the architecture profession, as perceived and practiced now, certainly needs a rethink, a paradigm shift. The multiple crisis that includes energy, water, space, resources, ecology, governance, values, etc.—the new technologies, changing social equations and emerging realities in the globalizing cities make it imperative that the architects re-educate and re-equip themselves.  Both de-learning and re-learning is called for. Moreover, a degree of de-professionalization of the conventional professional, in terms of attitudinal shift, client choices and priorities, is a necessary part of the change.

Architecture is a noble profession. In the hands of its conscientious practitioners, it is a medium to serve people, society and also the environment. “Service” is the word. It combines both art and science. Culture and technology are its pillars. It is a vehicle to translate ideas and dreams into reality.  It embraces both: reality and vision, creativity and practicality. It has been there from the dawn of the civilization and will always be there. However, the way it is perceived and practiced, it needs to move 

• from the monuments to  people,

• from magazine pages to practical lives

• from the elite to the common people

• from top to bottom,

• from the  pedestal to  the ground.

That would take nothing away from its hallow, its mystique and its nobility. It will only be richer.

19. This seemingly critical and what could so easily be seen as ‘negative’ portrayal of the architecture profession is not borne out of negativity or frustration or anything of that sort. It is also not an outsider’s view based on ignorance, prejudice or ideological baggage. It is an ‘insider’s view, based on experience and borne out of a belief  that the architects, as a community, as professionals, as privileged citizens, could do much more, serve many more and contribute so much more meaningfully to this  emerging society.  It stems from an understanding that given an orientation shift and attitudinal change, they could be leaders in making our cities and settlements better places to live, work, grow, develop and prosper. This presentation or this view does not negate the need for monumental architecture and the architects pursuing it. It only says that if 80 are chasing the monumental dream let us have just 20 who are concerned about the common people and their building needs.

20. Shri Laurie Baker is not with us now. But he has left behind a body of work, a philosophy, a way of thinking and doing. A unique legacy.  He has shown the  path to take when we ask some of the questions I asked today. LB, besides being a visionary, also had a strong practical side to him. That practice is of huge inspiration and guide as we work to contribute to managing our rural and urban settlements better and taking architecture to the common people. 

And this centenary celebration is a useful vehicle to reach his voice, vision, philosophy and work to the architects and others in the profession. Especially to the younger generation. To the students who are learning to become architects  and have dreams in their eyes to contribute to shaping better buildings, better villages and cities and better life for all people. 

Laurie Baker has much to inspire them and we should not miss this opportunity. You have made the beginning. Let us take it further. 

And let us start with Costford and Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies and others in Kerala and elsewhere working with the Committee on Rrejuvenation and Strengthening of the National Network of the Building Centers (Nirmiti Kendra), which I am chairing. As you know, the idea was well conceived. They were set up to provide technical guidance to people building homes and other construction; to supply low cost materials; to  promote and propagate innovative and non-conventional building materials; train construction workers; undertake demonstration construction, and play other related roles to ensure better and cost effective construction, especially for the low income groups and the  poor. Out of some 650 such Building Centers, approximately 90% are non-functional or defunct today. There is no reason why they should be sick and non-functional. The Committee has suggested many innovative ways to reintroduce the BCs in the context of new challenges of the housing and construction sector. I suggest that the promoters of the Centenary Celebration commit to working with the Committee in the revival of the Building Centre movement. Nothing, believe me, will make Mr. Baker happier.

Thank you for this opportunity to meet you all and remember Laurie Baker.

Kirtee Shah 

Trivandrum | | +91 9925010706

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