Baker: the country’s only Indian architect
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What can you say about a man who spoke little, abhorred theory, propagated no style, and issued no grandiose proclamations about the state of architecture. And yet did more buildings in his lifetime than ten architectural practices put together, each done with the diligence and personal commitment to detail, and built with the implicit belief that all creative and innovative work grows out of ordinary concerns.
In a career that spanned six decades and a firm commitment to Kerala, his adopted home, Laurie Baker built over two thousand houses, numerous fishing villages, institutional complexes and low-cost cathedrals. It is hard to discount the remarkably varied spectrum of projects that came out of his solitary practice. (Baker employed no draughtsmen, had no office staff, and worked directly with teams of masons and carpenters.) And yet for someone with such a large and varied body of work, Baker had virtually no following in India. His ability to give 'a better building at half the cost' found few takers in a profession that relies on hefty fees and kickbacks; his insistence on discarding coloured tiles, fake veneers and the other useless fripperies of design, left him friendless in the building trade, a trade intent on promoting expensive products. Moreover, his method of practising as architect, builder and contractor all in one defied the antiquated norms of professional practice where each role is specified according to a code of ethics.
Baker lived and worked by his own rules. He needed no blueprints or unnecessary architectural details. An idea drawn on the back of an envelope became a building; a coconut palm on a site acquired a courtyard for its future growth. By letting his clients design the house during construction, he even flouted standard municipal approvals. And, in doing so, created his own architectural types, innovated building details, formulated methods of cost reduction, suggested improvements in vernacular technology, and even found new ways of practising the profession. In virtually every building he designed, Baker asserted the appropriateness of traditional methods of construction to local conditions, adopting available materials to newer forms. The single-mindedness with which he pursued his vision of building, the devotion to his craft, and the unwillingness to compromise on quality, was the outcome of the way he himself lived. Simply and without fuss. There was no formal living or dining room in his house. If a visitor were present, he or she merely ate with the family in the kitchen under a ceiling of utensils.
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