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Padma Shri awardee and celebrated architect Laurie Baker melded his English quaker sensibilities with Indian aesthetics in his buildings. Now, almost a decade after he passed away, Bengaluru-based filmmaker Vineet Radhakrishnan takes us through his grandfather’s journey in a documentary titled Uncommon Sense: The Life & Architecture of Laurie Baker, through archives and interviews with clients, architects, government officials, and family. Excerpts from an interview:
The film tracks Laurie Baker’s personal and professional life, each seems to feed off the other.
Exploring both the personal and the professional storyline in the film was a deliberate decision. My grandfather’s philosophy was more a way of living than just a way of building. He didn’t advocate simplicity while designing, and then lead a lavish life. His aesthetics, devoid of embellishments, reflect his Quaker beliefs; his meeting with Gandhiji led him to use local materials; and living in the Himalayas forced him to think beyond his English textbooks and learn from local craftsmen.
What has been your learning through the four years of this film project?
From gathering stories of his time in China, living in the Himalayas, and in the tribal forests of Kerala, to tracing the evolution of his work was extremely challenging. My interviews with people and their emotional connect with my grandfather even after all these decades helped me understand ‘Laurie Baker’ the public figure. To me he was always just grandad. His self-deprecating sense of humour and unassuming attitude made it easy for the family to forget what he meant to the outside world.
People often attach clichés to Baker buildings, but there’s more to that. Can you explain?
People tend to focus on the superficial elements of my grandfather’s architecture — the use of exposed bricks, jaalis, arches, or filler slabs. However, what is important is to understand his philosophy — respect for nature, focusing on functionality that is still aesthetically pleasing, having a social conscience as an architect. He used the same approach for both — a poor labourer and an affluent officer. Often, in the most inconspicuous humble buildings, rather than the photographed ones, hide his radical and innovative designs.
Baker was political in his opinions on healthcare, affordable housing, and resource management.
He was forceful and opinionated, and he felt that we as a society could do better. He always came up with proposals to solve problems, be it to re-imagine a slum or tackle waste disposal. He even created a detailed plan of action to make Alleppey the Venice of the East.
England-born Baker brought ‘Indianess’ to his designs. Could you give examples from your research of his work?
In my opinion, it was more a question of reimagining Indian architecture than creating something new. Be it a traditional wooden jaali that became an innovative curving floor to ceiling brick lattice jaalis in the Centre for Development Studies, or the witch-hat openings in roofs for air circulation in the Gawarikar house, or reimagining the traditional nalukettu courtyard Kerala house for Abu Abraham. A great example of the fusion of Western and Indian architecture was the Tiruvalla cathedral which combined traditional Indian motifs and elements like kalluvellaku (stone laying) and sloping tiled roofs, with typically Christian elements to create India’s first truly Indian cathedral.
Uncommon Sense: The Life & Architecture of Laurie Baker will be screened today at the India Habitat Centre from 7 to 9 pm.