The exposed brick house in Thiruvanantha-puram, Isavasyam, twirls around a mango-shaped courtyard. It has small lily ponds—also shaped like mangoes—in the garden and on the terrace. It has coloured bottles in the walls that seem like stained glass from inside, and there is not a single rectangular room in the house.
Listen to Gautam Bhatiya, author of Laurie Baker: Life, Work and Writings, and S. Neerada who lived in one of the last houses designed by the legendary Indian architect, talk about his legacy.
“That was my brief to Bakerji,” says S. Neerada, who had grown up seeing Baker’s buildings. When her husband, V. Suresh, then heading Housing and Urban Development Corp., began interacting with Baker professionally, Neerada told the latter over dinner once that a Baker house had been an old dream of hers. Two full years later, Baker told her he was ready to do the house.
It would possibly be the last house he would design and supervise. At Rs12 lakh, the 3,100 sq. ft house was low on cost and high on delight and comfort. “Every time I go walk around the house today, I remember Bakerji,” says Neerada, of the house they now use as a holiday retreat.
Much of the Laurie Baker (1917-2007) story is well-known: Right from his meetings with Mahatma Gandhi in 1942 to the rise of what was called the “Baker model” locally—from infra dig to ultra chic. What is remarkable, and not appreciated enough in the often dubious hype today over “green buildings”, is that he was among the earliest, and most effective, practitioners of sustainable architecture anywhere. Much before the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or Opec, crisis of 1973, which was a big turning point for the worldwide environmental movement, Baker, who was awarded the Padmashree in 1990, had already begun building the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram with his system of low-energy, cost-effective construction. The project also showed that ecologically sound economy in construction could also yield a remarkably lively architecture.
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a) Walls have been left unplastered throughout the house, typical of a ‘Baker model’. Glass-bottle window ‘panes’ in various shapes and colours add a vibrant touch: this is Baker’s ‘Coventry Cathedral’ stained-glass effect.
b) The mango or paisley leitmotif is repeated innovatively all over the house—from this courtyard to the shapes of the rooms within
c) Exterior view. There is minimal use of steel supports
d) A peek into the bedroom, through an old door that has been reused. Flooring in the house is either inexpensive terracotta
A sense of fun
Being seriously good, of course, never stopped Baker from having fun. He loved the mango shape. And Neerada did not want straight walls. So, the courtyard of the Neerada-Suresh house traces a mango shape. The rest of the house wraps around the courtyard, and the roof spirals up from above the dining space, to the top of three-and-a-half storeys in a continuous sweep. The height is significant. Says Suresh: “This is the first time Baker used (the) hollow Rat Trap Bond wall for over two storeys. I backed him fully as?Anna University had confirmed after a year of research that the wall system was stronger than normal walls, though it uses 25% fewer bricks.”
As you enter the gate, you see a curving and rising brick building with a shapely wooden window screen projecting out at the lower floor. Walking past the artful jumble of mango-shaped lily pools to the porch, the intimate and slightly dark entrance lobby glows with the red of the brick. Past a long, curving wall, look left and you see the pebbled (made with waste stone pieces) mango court.
Neerada says the house invites you to relax: “It makes you want to touch it, lean against it, do whatever. In fact, the bricks are wonderfully cool to touch, especially as you climb the stairs.”
The simplicity of the materials is part of the story. The house uses inexpensive country-kiln, table-moulded bricks, not wire-cut ones. A third of the concrete in the “filler slabs” is replaced with used roof tiles; the steel, too, is minimized through careful design. “Oxide” flooring alternates with inexpensive terracotta tiles, and the walls are all unplastered. And yet, it has all the sumptuousness of a “palace”, as an overwhelmed little girl on a visit described it.
Palace or not, Baker’s design has made Neerada feel like a queen. Five feet tall, she is used to struggling to open and close windows, to reach upper shelves and cook comfortably on platforms in the different houses she has lived in. Except here.
“I don’t need any help in this house,” she says. “And talking to other people who live in his designs, I have discovered that Bakerji always paid great attention to a woman’s requirements in a house, which is so rare and heartening. After all, it is usually the women who use the house the most.”
Among the many artefacts that Neerada requested him to include in his design was a bird feeder. She recalls: “During construction, one day, when I was on a visit to Thiruvananthapuram, he called me over and asked: ‘Do you know where I am putting your bird feeder?’ It was to be just outside the kitchen window. He said: ‘Now you can watch the birds while you are working.’” What better way of suggesting that the best things in life are often small and, of course, free?
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