Monday, November 21, 2005

Lest we Forget

India has had many great sons and daughters. Many of them earned our respect and we cried when they passed away. We forgot some of them soon, and some we remembered on specific days only because we thought that was the appropriate thing to do or because it brought us media attention. There are others who quietly, and in their own way, attempt to bring about a silent revolution. They are often far ahead of their times and society is unable to catch up with them. Such people are often forgotten even when they are alive. Sure, they are sometimes used by careerists for their selfish interests. And that is a tragedy.

There still lives a person among our midst who has all along tried to put some sense into our heads in matters related to environmentally sustainable planning and development. He has repeatedly pointed out how much of our traditional knowledge can be of help in designing and constucting environmentally and financially cheap, but safe, beautiful and highly utilitarian buildings and towns. And he is not even an Indian by birth. Yes, I am talking about Laurence W. Baker. We have largely ignored him (although a certain type of buildings are known by his name) and we are sure to forget him soon.

Laurie Baker is known for his 'low cost' houses. And that is another tragedy. When we say 'low cost', we tend to focus on the low financial cost of his buildings. While it is true that his buildings cost much less than 'conventional' (the term itself is a paradox -- what is conventional, traditional Indian architecture or the concrete matchbox monsters that started appearing a few decades back?) buildings, branding them 'low cost' misses out on everything that Bakerji stands for. Low cost is only one of the many aspects of his buildings that set them apart from the monsters other architects impose on us. His buildings merge with nature and do not stand apart like a sore thumb, are environmentally inexpensive, make best use of the space available, are designed with the needs of the client, and not just the external appearance or some design trend, in mind, makes best use of available sunlight and winds, thus reducing the need for artificial lighting and fans, just to mention a few. This in a society which discusses environmental issues in large rooms with tall windows, all of them shut tight with thick curtains, artificial lighting and air conditioning, with tea and snacks served in disposable plastic cups and plates. Come to think of it, it is no wonder that we don't take Bakerji seriously!

And Bakerji is not just a proponent of a building style. He has developed refreshingly innovative plans to rejuvenate the choking Alapuzha town and to solve the traffic problem in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city. He has drawn very insightful cartoons - one on Gandhiji and a nuclear India, and another on Malayalee's mundu come to mind. He is a very creative designer. As my friend Sundar says, Bakerji has never repeated a window design! He is a person with a great sense of humour, something that anyone who has met him would never forget. In spite of all this, he is a person with great humility. Again, as Sundar has recounted, Bakerji never thought twice about picking up the worn out slippers that Sundar had left outside and placing them before their owner's feet.

How have we treated this person? The first time I went to Bakerji's house, I stopped at the junction near his house to ask for directions. I spoke to a few well dressed gentlemen, who appeared never to have heard of Laurie Baker! Bakerji was invited to design houses for some of the earthquake victims in Latur. He realised that the villagers have no need for matchbox houses of the kind the Public Works Department or any of the 'conventional' architects would design. So he set about studying their needs and the houses that they traditionally build. In spite of his advanced age, he went about the job with all sincerity. One year passed, and no design was ready. The sponsoring agency then replaced Bakerji with a 'conventional' architects. The design was done quickly and the houses were built and handed over to the people. A year later, if what I hear is true, the people put their cattle inside the houses and live outside!

The term 'low cost' associated with Bakerji's buildings has done much damage. Many wealthy people feel that it is below their dignity to build such houses or even use technologies that Bakerji has suggested. When I saw tiles piled at a building site, I was excited because I thought they were using the 'filler slab' technology that reduces the weight of concrete slabs and thus reduces the amount of steel needed for reinforcement. When I asked the owner whether they were planning to use this technology, he replied that he did not have to use it (aparently because he could 'afford' not to). But the object of using the filler slab technology is not just to reduce the financial cost, but also to reduce the environmental cost by reducing the energy consumed to produce the materials used in construction. Environmental cost, unlike financial cost, affects the entire society, and hence a person can take credit if he does less damage to the environment.

Bakerji is almost ninety, and the age is telling on his health. Yet, no one has attempted even to build a good web page for him. He decided to stay on in India after he met Gandhiji, and like Gandhiji, he also may soon be forgotten for what he was. But some of us are sure to use his name for our own benefit. Maybe, that is the fate of every great person.

PS: 1. I found another blog on Laurie Baker, that gives a brief biography. To read it, visit

2. Though not a blog, there is a nice piece on Abu Abraham here.