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Laurie Baker: The pioneer of low-cost housing

April 03, 2007 12:36 IST
Laurence Wilfred (or Laurie) Baker, who died on Sunday a month after turning 90, is commonly hailed as the pioneer of low-cost housing although he should be remembered more holistically as the architect who re-defined the concept of housing itself, aligning it with the local ecology and surroundings.

The houses that he designed, though low in cost, were high in value. His architecture was, in a way, as modern as it was traditional. It was contemporary because it minimised energy needs, not only when constructing the houses but also while living in them because of the better availability of sunlight and fresh air.

And it was pre-modern in the sense that it involved the use of mud and locally available stones and plant material (like coconut thatch) and also relied on age-old civil construction concepts like the arch and frameless doors and windows.

Even the liberal use of jalis (designed perforated plates) reflected the way Baker amalgamated the new with the old, even as they allowed the breeze to waft through the building. The saving on costly materials like wood and cement was significant, and there was no loss of aesthetic appeal.

However, though this British-born Indian- he received Indian citizenship in 1989- was called a Gandhian architect, the influence of Mahatma Gandhi was visible more on his thought and lifestyle than on his professional practice.
As such, his architecture appealed as much to the well-off in his adopted home-state of Kerala as to the poor, for whom it was primarily meant.

 Although Baker won several national and international awards and honours, he was never conferred the Pfitzer prize, said to be the equivalent of the Nobel in architecture. He was reportedly nominated for it last year, and it is possible that he will be awarded the prize posthumously.

More important, however, is the question of Baker's architectural bequest.  It is curious, for instance, that his structural designs for individual houses have not found wide acceptance outside Kerala, though several institutional buildings have been designed on the lines he envisioned.

Despite his work's special relevance for the poor, the government's large-scale housing programmes, including flagship schemes like the Indira Awas Yojana, have not sought to adopt as standard practice his cost-effective and environment-friendly techniques and designs.

Even the use of cement and steel has not been reduced in most housing projects for the poor. This is surprising, considering that the single-most important reason for the majority finding a 'pucca' house beyond their means is cost.

 The use of mud, which Baker exploited very effectively in building elegant dwellings, has remained confined to those who cannot afford anything costlier. It is possible that the seismic nature of the country's landmass north of the Deccan plateau might be the explanation for the limited spread of Baker's ideas.

After all, the maximum loss of life in the Uttarkashi earthquake in 1991 was witnessed in houses built of stones held together with mud, because even as the edifices crumbled, they crushed those inside.

Is that why the proportion of professional architects who choose to incorporate Baker's principles in their design and construction is very limited? Or is it that an upwardly mobile middle class does not want its new houses to be viewed as low-cost?

Whatever the reason, there is little doubt that Baker's legacy needs to be preserved and used widely in housing programmes for the benefit of millions of people who will find a house more affordable because of his unique contribution to Indian architecture.

Business Standard