In an interview to The Hindu’s Sunday magazine in 1999, Laurie Baker spoke candidly about his architectural beliefs and practices.
One of the most important factors that determined how Baker would design a building—or whether he would design it at all—was the client himself. “I need to get to know my client and what he has in mind. If I find that all he wants is to flaunt his wealth, I don’t take him on. Otherwise, I enjoy getting to know him (or her, a family, an institution or even a government department). In case of a family, I find out if they all eat together at regular times. Do they use the bedroom merely to sleep in? Or does he do his writing in one corner (like me) while his wife does her sewing or embroidery in another corner?” he said in the interview.
Baker never allowed himself to forget that the building would be used by his clients, not him. Their personalities were, thus, of vital importance. When Baker went to see the building site at the beginning of the project, it wasn’t only because he needed to know the land characteristics.
“I enquire if the clients want a good view or a garden, and whether they have pets. There are also details like water supply and from which direction the breeze and rain come that have to be noted,” he said.
Then, there were his own principles that he was unwilling to abandon. “I do not like falsehood and deceit,” he said. “A building should be truthful.” He strongly criticized the “big” constructions on Thiruvananthapuram Central Road, especially one multistoreyed building. “It is a reinforced concrete frame structure, and between the columns and beams, there are windows and brick-work. The bricks are plastered and painted all over. The front of the building, facing the main road, is covered all over with bits of flat stone, to look like crazy paving. So, the whole building is actually deceitful—it is a concrete-and-brick structure, but neither material is visible,” he said.
On his part, Baker tried to use locally-available material and avoided energy-intensive material. His rule-of-thumb was that if the area makes good bricks, use them; if there was laterite or stone in abundance, use these. “This is not only economical, but the building will also look as though it belongs, instead of looking ‘imported’.” Associated with local material was also the entire gamut of traditional plans, designs and building techniques that have evolved over centuries. “Unsatisfactory design and use have been abandoned and ideal material and designs have, by trial and error, remained and grown with the local terrain, climate and cultural patterns of living. It is meaningless to exchange these for expensive, unsuitable energy-intensive material, merely to look ‘modern’.”
More about Baker
Gautam Bhatia’s book, Laurie Baker: Life, Work, Writings (first published in 1991), is one of the first books on the master architect. The comprehensive biography includes sketches, plans, photographs and a selection of Baker’s own writings. It makes for an interesting read, not just for architects, but also for lay people, affording an in-depth look into the life and methods of an unorthodox genius. Penguin, Rs295.