Light shines in through the stained glass panels in Laurie Baker’s home even as the iconic architect notes that they were once liquor bottles. “No, I’m not a secret alcoholic,” Baker laughs. Another chuckle follows his explanation that his intricate window grills were fashioned from discarded bicycle wheels.
The frames from a new documentary feature on the ‘poor man’s architect’ – titled Uncommon Sense: The Life and Architecture of Laurie Baker – by his grandson Vineet Radhakrishnan, captures both Baker’s distinctive aesthetic and his penchant for self-deprecating humour.
The film premiered on Sunday at an event celebrating the man, who would have turned 100 this year, and his sustainable architecture model. The show and a discussion on his legacy by a pan-Indian panel of architects were held at the Pavilion – “a distinctly Baker-esque” structure by Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) 2016 artist Tony Joseph in Cabral Yard, Fort Kochi.
Both the screening and symposium were jointly conducted by the Kochi Biennale Foundation and the Gubbi Alliance for Sustainable Habitat, a collective of Baker-inspired architects.
Leaving the UK for India in 1945, Baker lived in Thiruvananthapurm from 1970 to his death, aged 90, in 2007. Over that time, he designed and built buildings that have come to be landmarks for both cities and his many clients, who knew him as “daddy”.
“Just as my grandfather’s buildings like the Indian Coffee House in Thiruvananthapuram each have a story associated with them, so too do his clients or as he would call them “his kids”. Not only was finding Laurie Baker buildings in cities across India a sort of treasure hunt, but there were also stories to discover about how he had endeared himself to the people he built homes for,” said Radhakrishnan, who spent nearly four years to complete the 107-minute film.
That was because he had to spend months looking through old trunks in Baker’s office since the master architect didn’t believe in documenting his work. Besides sourcing archival footage from a number of sources, Radhakrishnan also interviewed eminent architects from across India – capturing both their personal recollections of meeting Baker and perspectives on his work.
“Almost every home he built had some kind of constraint: either financial or terrain issues or a water shortage. But people aren’t just inspired to use superficialities like reinforcing concrete with bamboo, working with exposed bricks, jails or arches. His message and ideas went beyond construction techniques and are worth trying to keep alive and make available to young people, many of whom find them still relevant,” Radhakrishnan said.
Among these lessons are such notions as selflessness in architectural practice, building pleasing structures according to site context on the cheap and in keeping with green principles.
A collection of noted architects inspired by his eco- and budget-friendly buildings participated in the discussion titled ‘Learning from Baker’ after the screening. The conversation veered between memories and an appraisal of his aesthetic The session was moderated by Jaigopal Rao and saw in attendance Vikram Varma, Neelam Manjunath, Dean D’Cruz, Himanshu Burte, Jeeth Iype, M
alini Krishnankutty, Sathya Prakash Varanashi, Suhasini Ayer and Dharmesh Jadeja.
Among the capacity crowd in the Pavilion was Martino Stierli, Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “Laurie Baker was among the most profound and inventive exponents of this region’s vernacular architecture, incorporating his understanding of how structures interacted with their environmental and social context. He defied the notion that low-cost buildings couldn’t also be sustainable or site-specific. The Pavilion is clearly inspired by Baker, showing his continuing relevance,” Stierli said.
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