Sunday, January 30, 2005


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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Renzo Piano – Pritzker Laureate

Renzo Piano was born in Genoa, Italy, on 14th September 1937. The family had a construction business that included his father, grandfather and his uncles. Piano grew in a strong environment of construction. As a child he used to visit his father’s construction sites and like any other child he was fascinated to see the people at work creating stimulating structures.

Usually construction does not thrill adults so much, unless they are involved, but for the children it’s an adventure and a lot of fun. The same thing happened with Piano; he looked at the details and the execution due to an instinctive curiosity. He also wondered about the designers who designed those buildings.

As he grew, his curiosity about the designers amplified and decided to become an architect. He was seventeen when he approached his beloved father with the idea of going to an architecture school. "Why do you want to be just an architect? You can be a builder," was his father's response. “You can make things, why would you just design things?”

Committed towards architecture, Renzo Piano later made his father agree and joined the Polytechnic School of Architecture at Milan in 1959 at the age of 22. Joining architecture was a dream come true for him and most importantly, he knew what he had to learn. The Milan Architecture College is one of the pioneer institutions in Italy, and while studying there he started working with Ar. Franco Albini who also provided design guidance to Piano.

Born in 1905 Franco Albini did his architecture from the same school in 1929. He was one of the most influential designers of that time. Much of his furniture was designed to make use of the inexpensive raw materials of the area in the post-war years when other materials were scarce. His work, both in architecture and design, displays a commitment to a rigorous craftsmanship and elegance built on a minimalist aesthetic, unencumbered by extraneous ornamentation.

The pieces of furniture that became the icons of his career were produced primarily in the fifties. Albini’s most innovative product design was a radio made of glass that revealed the entire internal component. Working with Albini, Renzo got all these qualities embedded in his soul.

While still studying architecture in Milan, he married a girl he had known from his school days in Genoa, Magda Arduino. In 1964 Renzo Piano graduated from the architecture school and came back to his hometown Genoa to work with his father.

This time he was not just a viewer but a participant in the construction activities. After doing architecture, his understanding was totally transformed and he starting respecting construction on site as well. Within a year he understood the astounding results of the meticulous detailing in architecture. Also it was on building sites that the young architect acquired the rudiments of his experimental and craftsman like philosophy, which he learned from Albini.

From 1965 to 1970 he also worked with the legendary architect Louis Kahn in Philadelphia, the architect who had designed IIM, Ahmedabad. While Piano’s experiment with architecture was still continuing he desperately required a break, which eventually came in 1969. Japan was to organize a World Expo at Osaka in 1970 with “Progress and Harmony for Mankind” as the theme. Invitations were sent to all the nations to participate with designs that would suit the theme.

The Osaka Expo 70 emphasized greatly on this theme and in its invite it was mentioned that the designs should produce the best possible architectural statement expressing strong spirit. For this reason most of the countries organized national competitions to get innovative designs. In India, 58 entries were received and the winner was Ar. Jasbir Sachdev, while in Italy the competition was won by Renzo Piano.

The construction of the Italian Pavilion was done by Piano’s brother Ermanno. It was a major turn in Piano’s professional life; the Expo project attracted a lot of favorable attention. When he visited the exhibition Piano met Ar. Richard Rogers who had designed the pavilion for England. The two architects found that they had a great deal in common and when an engineering firm suggested they work together and enter another ongoing international competition for the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris.

President Pompidou of France in 1969 conceived the idea for an art centre that would bring art and culture to the "man on the street". Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers participated and won the competition along with the legendary structural consultant ‘Ove Arup and Partners’ of England. The construction started in 1972 and was opened to the public on 2nd February 1978.

The design of this art centre was highly modern but soon fell into a furious controversy that arose over the assertive industrial style of this building. Its bold "exo-skeletal" architecture contrasts violently with the surrounding houses in the heart of an old section of Paris.

But the architecture of this building was also greatly admired internationally for its radical design. The Georges Pompidou Centre has been immensely successful, and has been a venue for many art exhibitions, attracting more than 160 million people since its inauguration—five times more than anticipated.

With 30,000 visitors each day, the building services were severely affected due to heavy wear and tear and were renovated 20 years later in 1999. Certainly the building has been very successful in what it was intended for. It is still admired and is one of the legendary buildings of the 20th century.

After Georges Pompidou Centre, in 1977 Piano founded Atelier Piano & Rice along with the engineer Peter Rice, a professional who would work with him on many projects.

Ten years after the completion of Georges Pompidou Centre, in 1987 another remarkable project came to him – the Kansai Air Port at Osaka Bay. A building spread across a little less than 1.5 kilometres. It was to be constructed on a man-made island and because this artificial island was continously sinking the structure had to be flexible enough to sustain irregular settlements. This project required a great deal of technical expertise without compromising on the aesthetics and both were perfectly achieved by Piano’s committed team.

Due to the spectacular architecture and engineering of this world-renowned terminal, Kansai International Airport is now considered to be one of the most brilliantly designed terminals ever erected. It was completed in 1994 and was inaugurated by the Prince of Japan.

Just before the completion of Kansai Airport, in 1993, Peter Rice died. It was a great setback for Piano as he and Peter had designed many beautiful structures together for sixteen years. However Piano then founded the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, with offices in Paris and Genoa. Today, some 100 people work with him in close collaboration with some associated architects, linked to him by years of experience.

His father's romance for construction and his childhood memories at the construction sites have never been forgotten. Perhaps that is the reason for the name Renzo Piano Building Workshop, rather than Piano Architects & Associates. Piano not only designs but makes things and tests them.

By 1990, Renzo Piano had already become an international architect. Recognizing his contributions, in 1998 the eminent jury of the Pritzker Foundation, which also included Indian representation by Ar. Charles Correa, Renzo Piano was chosen for the 21st Pritzker Award. It was the 20th anniversary of the Pritzker Award Foundation and the venue for the award ceremony was the White House. The most powerful building on earth, whose architect James Hoban is virtually unknown.

Apart from the wonderful citation, distinguished people and architects provided their views about Piano’s designs. "He brings to each project a great seriousness of purpose, combined with a lyrical understanding of materials - so that what emerges is an architecture of extraordinary clarity and finesse."
- Ar. Charles Correa, Pritzker Juror

Today Piano is a celebrity, a man whose work is reinventing architecture in projects scattered around the world - from a mixed use tower in Sydney to the mile-long Kansai Air Terminal on a man-made island in Japan, to the master plan for the reconstruction of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin or the Beyeler Foundation Museum in Basel, Switzerland.

Even this spread over the globe does not indicate the full range or the enormous output of this prodigious architect. Renzo Piano's projects include not only buildings that range from homes to apartments, offices to shopping centers, museums, factories, workshops and studios, airline and railway terminals, expositions, theaters and churches; but also bridges, ships, boats, and cars, as well as city planning projects, major renovations and reconstructions. He is even a television star of a program on architecture.

“When style is forced to become a trademark, a signature, a personal characteristic, then it also becomes a cage. The effort to be recognizable at any cost, to put your hallmark on things, kills the architect and his or her freedom to develop. The mark of recognition lies in the acceptance of the challenge. And then, yes, it does become identifiable: but by a method, not by a trademark.” - Ar. Renzo Piano
Credit: CBS forum

Float Glass – Absolutely Flat

Glass has fascinated all of us due to its brilliant properties- one, that it is weather proof and second, we can see through it. None of the building materials match these natural properties of this wonderful material; it is synonymous with smoothness.

Though the composition of this product has not changed largely through the years, there has always been a fight for perfection amongst manufacturers; perfection in smoothness and its optical quality. These two variables would always define the future of glass.

Initially glass was produced by pouring the molten glass onto large tables, then rolled flat into plates to provide even thickness, cooled, ground and polished before being turned over and given the same treatment on the other surface. The process gave the glass the name Plate Glass.

Plate glass manufacturing was industrialized in 1917 when Belgian engineer Emil Bicheroux developed a process whereby the molten glass was poured from a pot directly through two rollers. This resulted in glass with a more even thickness, and made grinding and polishing easier and more economical.

Another Belgian engineer named Fourcault was working on a different process and he managed to draw vertically a continuous sheet of glass of a consistent width from the tank. Commercial production of glass using the Fourcault process eventually got under way in 1914. The process named this glass as Sheet Glass and it does not required and grinding and polish, making it much cheaper than plate glass.

The above two discoveries made glass an industrial product, rather than a product of craftsmanship. Glass, once used only for castles and cathedrals, was now easily available at low cost. Architects were using it more frequently and the demand grew. As major amounts of glass were still being utilized in buildings, the bigger sizes and good optical qualities were always the foremost requirements. Thus began the war for perfection.

Though sheet glass provided brilliant finish and did not require any grinding and polish, both maintained the same share in the market because of the good optical quality of plate glass. However, the demand for plate glass was growing day by day.

Pilkington Brothers was the Britain’s glass manufacturing company that always looked forward towards better quality and mass production technology. It was a hard time for them as Belgium and France were the most popular glass manufacturers. In that environment of cut throat competition, Pilkington Brothers was able to survive because it was the only plate glass manufacturing company which also manufactured sheet, rolled and cathedral glass, all of which continued to yield profits which balanced the difficulties in the plate market. However, Pilkington had also been able to achieve comparatively low manufacturing costs in plate glass, resulting from numerous innovations and improvements in manufacturing since the introduction of the process.

As there was more demand for plate glass due to its better optical quality, in 1935 Pilkington developed the 'twin' machine which ground both sides of the ribbon of glass simultaneously. These developments gave Pilkington an international advantage in plate manufacture which they shared, however, by licensing the continuous and the 'twin' grinders to overseas manufacturers.

After the World War II, Pilkington Brothers became one of the world leaders in glass manufacturing. But to remain a leader they had to be innovative. Hence, the company was always looking for new talent for their technical department. They had one young energetic boy named Alastair Pilkington (there was no family connection however). His natural instinct always provoked him to look for better solutions over the current process.

Born in 1920, Alastair Pilkington was educated at Sherborne School and Trinity College, Cambridge. He became an officer in the Royal Artillery just before the outbreak of World War II, and later fought in the Mediterranean, where he was taken prisoner after the fall of Crete. When the war ended, he returned to Cambridge and gained a degree in mechanical science. After completing his degree he joined Pilkington Brothers as a technical officer in 1947.

By the start of the 1950s Pilkington Brothers had almost stopped manufacturing sheet glass and was concentrating on manufacturing plate glass due to the increasingly high demand of the latter. Alastair became Technical Director by that time and was continuously thinking about the solution. He saw two major problems in continuous plate glass manufacturing. The process however allowed glass of virtually any thickness to be made non-stop, but the rollers would leave marks on both sides of the glass, which would then need to be ground and polished on both sides.

The other problem was that polishing and grinding rubbed away around 20% of the glass, and the machines were very expensive. Alastair thought that if these problems could be eliminated, the cost would be reduced; a process where glass could be made without rollers like sheet glass but with perfect uniform thickness - that is, absolute flat glass. How to achieve this? The answer was blowing in the wind.

While he had identified what he wanted, his conscious efforts to develop a process to achieve it were disrupted. Being the technical director, he had to give his time to the routine functions. However, he found his regular job boring and often spent his time thinking about how to create a polished flat glass without distortions.

Like many other discoverers, the flash of insight that solved the problem dawned on him when he was not consciously attending to it. One day while helping his wife in the kitchen to wash dishes, he was struck by what he saw. Eureka!

The idea that a flat, polished finish could be produced came to him as he watched the oil floating on the water in the sink. To pour molten glass onto a bed of liquid was a direct corollary of this insight.

He knew that the surface of liquid is perfectly flat, flatter than any man-made surface. The liquid could not be water, it had to be something else. He made three prerequisite variables for this material. It should have more density than glass so that glass could float, it had to melt at a temperature less than the hardening point of glass (about 600° C) and could not boil at a temperature below the temperature of the molten glass (about 1500° C). The best material he found for the job was tin, a metal.

The rest of the concept relied on gravity, which guaranteed that the surface of the molten metal was perfectly flat and horizontal. Consequently, when pouring molten glass onto the molten tin, the underside of the glass would also be perfectly flat. If the glass were kept hot enough, it would flow over the molten tin until the top surface was also flat, horizontal and perfectly parallel to the bottom surface. Once the glass cooled to 600° C or less it would be too hard to get marks and could be transported out of the metal bath by rollers.

In 1952 he prepared a report and presented it to the Board of Directors. The idea was novel, but could it be transformed into reality? Despite knowing that it would cost 2 million dollars just to experiment and to see whether it was possible, the Board agreed to go ahead because of the strong conviction that Alastair had.

Within weeks the pilot project was set up and Alastair produced a seemingly unachievable smoothness to glass, through a float process. The glass was named Float Glass. In 1955 Alastair convinced the company to set up a full scale plant and within 3 years plant was commissioned.

However, it took Alastair fourteen months of non-stop production before the plant could produce any usable glass, costing the company £100 000 a month. Furthermore, once they succeeded in making marketable flat glass the machine was turned off for servicing to prepare it for years of continuous production. When it started up again it took another four months to get the process right again. They finally succeeded in 1959, having spent almost 7 million pounds and announced their accomplishment to the world.

It was a big breakthrough in the glass industry achieved by a team of great engineers and a visionary company, Pilkington Brothers. The company that was on the verge of financial ruin while producing a float glass technology, finally came up as a leader. It later provided a license to many companies. Income from licensing and technical fees was running at a rate of £30 millions a year in 1986.

Alastair Pilkington encountered numerous setbacks during his seven years of hard labour. People, he recalled later, kept asking him: "When will you succeed?" All he could say was: “We will know the answer to that only when we have succeeded.” The cost was far higher than anyone had bargained for, and it took considerable courage for the Board of Directors to go on supporting him.

Alastair Pilkington's endeavors, all those years ago, could have led to disaster. But his persistence paid off. It is one of the most remarkable success stories in British industry. Alastair was honoured with a knighthood in 1970 for his contribution and three years later in 1973 he became Chairman of the company. Alastair died on 5th May 1995. The modern glass industry owes much of its heritage to this man.

Today around 800,000 tons of float glass is produced by 260 plants all over the world. Many of these plants can produce 1000 tons of glass every day continuously for 15 years before they require any repair.

“A large part of innovation is, in fact, becoming aware of what is desirable. (Then you) are ready in your mind to germinate the seed of a new idea...” – Alastair Pilkington

from CBS forum

Monday, January 24, 2005

Zaha Hadid – First Pritzker woman

Twenty years after achieving independence in 1932, Iraq discovered massive oil reserves in early 1950’s. Before their nationalization in 1972, the oil fields were privately owned by international companies. Seeing tremendous opportunities in Iraqi oil reserves, USA and other western countries became interested in taking control of these oil reserves. For Iraq it became a tragic episode in its political history and for almost 24 years it struggled to attain complete economic freedom.

Iraq saw considerable political unrest during those days. In northern Iraq there lived a Hadid family. Mohammad Hadid was a politician and economist. He earned a bachelor degree in economics from London in the early 1950s and later became a prominent political figure and a businessman. Married to Wajeeha Sabonji, Mohammad Hadid was blessed with two sons and one daughter.

The daughter was Zaha Hadid. Zaha was born on 31st October 1950 in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. She studied in Baghdad and her father played an important role in her creative development. Being a politician and a great patriot, Mr. Hadid always shared his views with his daughter about his country’s future. His progressive views on the industrialization of Iraq, housing issues, and the nationalization of oil production influenced Zaha in her views of the world. Zaha’s childhood experiences encouraged a belief in open communication between different groups of people, along with a strong conviction in Iraqi independence.

Raised in a liberal and open-minded family, Zaha was able to explore new ways of doing things. Apart from political issues her father exposed her to many different cultures while always stressing the importance of her heritage, largely through architecture. Also a friend of the family at that time was designing a home for Zaha's aunt and would bring the models by and show Zaha.

This was probably the reason that she became interested in architecture when she was just eleven. Her mother and father further encouraged her interest by taking her to architectural exhibitions.

She did her basic education from Baghdad and when she was 16 years, she was sent to Switzerland for a year to complete the ‘A’ levels. She completed her second year from London. Zaha’s elementary education in England and Switzerland exposed her to many different cultures. This was also the first indication of marginality in her life. She felt distanced from her Muslim heritage at the school because of its Christian educational style.

In 1968 she came back to her continent and studied in Lebanon and attended the American University of Beirut. In 1971 she completed her B.Sc in Mathematics from Beirut. Her childhood fascination to become an architect was still prominent and the major turning point came when she joined AA School of Architecture, London.

The Architectural Association School of Architecture in London produces some of the most innovative designers in the profession. The school professes to provide a different type of architectural education demonstrated through a new style of pedagogy and emphasis on innovative social programs, materials and structures. The set-up of the school includes a rotating group of teachers from members of the Association who develop close relationships with their students.

The students are encouraged to develop their own educational plan by the school's loose structure. Students are left on their own to design projects and learn to seek out the expertise of their teachers who are generally world-renowned architects; a system of education par excellence found rarely in any Asian country.

This was the environment in which Zaha’s architectural style began to develop from 1972 to 1977 while she was at the Architectural Association. Oscar Niemeyer a legendary architect from South America and a Pritzker laureate was her role model. Niemeyer’s designs show fearlessness. He had designed Brasilia city and many other buildings with a bold visionary form that other architects would not risk. Zaha’s bold nature admired this quality.

After completing her architecture she joined her teacher Rem Koolhaas at his firm called “Office of Modern Architecture”. Koolhaas, a well known architect, was born in 1944 and has won many awards while doing his architectural practice.

A few years later she held prestigious posts at one time or another at the world’s finest universities including Harvard, Yale, and many others. In 1982, The Peak Club of Hong Kong announced an international competition for their new building which was to be a multi-level sports club. Zaha Hadid participated. Though the jury did not consider her radical design and discarded it, one judge who came late pulled her presentation drawings from the rejected schemes. Fascinated by drawings that Zaha Hadid made, especially a painting that read “The Peak” he requested jury members to reconsider it. On his persuasion the jury discussed her design and she was announced as a winner.

For Zaha it was a major breakthrough. Sadly the design was never executed because of logistical reasons with the return of Hong Kong to China. However the competition provided Zaha much acclaim in the world of architecture and soon she opened her office in East of London and started her architectural practice.

She was then involved for some years in minor projects and exhibition designs. Three years later, her next breakthrough came in 1986 when she won the competition for a residential development in Berlin. She won one more prestigious architectural competition for the Art and Media Centre at Düsseldorf in 1989.

Surprisingly all these competitions remained on paper and none of them were constructed. This labeled Zaha Hadid as a paper architect, insinuating that her designs cannot be executed. Comments that she is good for academics and cannot practice became common gossip. Inspite of no major achievements her work of art became popular in museums and by 1990 her works were displayed in almost every architectural exhibition and art museum.

Winning competitions made her a respected architect, and rightly so, because she had won more than 20 competitions by that time. It is also important to note that London never gave her any commissions and the people of this so called great city remained hostile.

It was Germany who provided her a project for Vitra Fire Station that became an immediate need due to a fire that caused tremendous loss some time back. The building was intended to serve all of Vitra's buildings which at the time fell outside the range of neighboring fire districts. Hadid worked for her first building as an architect and completed it in 1993. It was immediately recognized as one of the seminal buildings of late 20th century architecture. Her strong belief was finally on site. But she was a lady.

Times Magazine (issue May 16, 1993) wrote: "Last week, the 42-year-old Iraqi with the volcanic temper finally christened her first building, a startling fire station in Weil am Rhein, Germany." Highly published and contributing men may have a temper too, yet they are not described as having 'volcanic temper' nor is the media vulgar when their accomplishment is announced.

Media described this greatly talented and very persistent and strong woman differently but for Zaha it did not matter and she became stronger than before. She started getting commissions from the Arab community who always appreciated her because of her origins.

The next big turn came in her life when she again won a competition for Cardiff Bay Opera House. The building was to be made in London. How could an Asian lady win this competition? The result; entries were reevaluated after outrage at the idea of actually building it. Ultimately the project was turned down by the Millennium Commission. The British support creative output up to the point of production, then the support collapses because the industry or the financers do not back it further. For example, it took 200 years to convince England that the Euro Tunnel was possible.

Cardiff was to be her masterpiece and for the people of Wales, it was a focus of contemporary cultural pride. The project remained on paper and was never built. In 2004 another architect was hired with a contemporary design to build 103 million pound Opera House.

The Contemporary Arts Center, founded in 1939 organized a competition for its new building at Cincinnati. Again the winner was Zaha Hadid. The foundation accepted the design and ordered her to go ahead. This was next biggest opportunity for Zaha after the Fire Station at Germany. USA has always been open to accept new challenges and because American publications write about new achievements more than any other country, this could change her fate.

And that is what happened. After the completion of project it was named ‘American Beauty’ by the people of America. Zaha became a celebrity architect and by year 2000 she became most favorite architect of students and lady architects. For Zaha the saga of the greatest unbuilt masterpiece of the late twentieth century ended; she became one of the busiest architects. From 1994 to 2003 she made some spectacular structures including the Car Park Terminus at France, BMW Central Building at Germany, Guggenheim Museum at Taiwan, National Centre of Contemporary Arts in Italy and many more. Her buildings are now appearing across the globe, from Europe to the United States, in China and Japan; everywahere except in England where she lives.

In 2004 March she was chosen for the Pritzker Prize by the jury. On 31st May 2004 she was awarded with this most prestigious prize at The State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia. She was the first lady awardee since the Hyatt Foundation started it and this was the 26th award in succession. She is also youngest architect to receive this award, at the age of 54.

The architectural career of Zaha Hadid has not been traditional or easy. She entered the field with illustrious credentials. Much admired by the younger generation of architects, her appearance on campuses is always a cause for excitement and overflowing audiences.

Her path to world-wide recognition has been a heroic struggle as she inexorably rose to the highest ranks of the profession. Each new project is more audacious than the last and the sources of her originality seem endless.

Zaha Hadid has become more and more recognized as she continues to win competition after competition, always struggling to get her very original winning entries built. Discouraged, but undaunted, she has used the competition experiences as a “laboratory” for continuing to hone her exceptional talent in creating an architectural idiom like no other. Zaha Hadid's moment has arrived.

Chandra Bhushan, Architect
CBS website

Laurie Baker – Living for a cause

Our perceived thought that architecture is a profession that can be practiced only with enough money, has limited this noble profession to metropolitan cities. While doctors, on the other hand, are practicing in rural areas and have made their profession well known all over the country, irrespective of the economical background of the people. Construction could be a means to achieve fame, records and grandiosity irrespective of its location, and this has been proved by the great Indian architect Laurence W. Baker, popularly known as Laurie Baker.

Laurie Baker was born in Birmingham, England on 2nd March 1917, as the youngest child with two elder brothers Leonard and Norman and a sister Edna. His father was the chief accountant with the Birmingham Gas Distribution Authority. At the age of 15, he passed out from the Edward Grammar School in Aston, England; he was an ordinary student with an adventurous life.

The principal of his school persuaded his father to make Laurie Baker opt for architecture as profession and send him to the Birmingham School of Architecture. Baker’s adventure continued and while he was doing his architecture, he went on a cycling tour of Europe with his friends. The unfolding vistas of nature, landscape, cities, the different life patterns of people and the differences in the houses from place to place fascinated him, and that tour proved to be a turning point in his life.

He graduated in 1937, and thereafter became an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). In 1939, the Japan-China war was at its peak and Baker went to China to help the wounded as a volunteer with a group called Quakers, after resigning from RIBA. He worked there for 3 years but his ill health made him to return to England via India.

He reached Bombay to board a ship but Baker had to wait for 3 months. Through Quaker associates, he was introduced to Gandhi Ji who at that time was there; Gandhi Ji expressed his concern over the state of Indian architecture and asserted that much good could be done in rural India by committed architects. Gandhi Ji’s philosophy and his charismatic personality thrilled Baker.

Baker returned to England briefly and then, taking Gandhi Ji’s words to heart, returned to India in 1945 after the World War II, to see how his skills might best serve the people of India. For the first three years he traveled all over the country helping the leprosy mission, and in the process he got exposed to indigenous architecture and was amazed at the way in which simple materials could be exploited to produce buildings with refined aesthetics and lasting qualities. These formative years laid the foundation of Baker's approach to architecture.

Baker met and married an Indian medical doctor, Elizabeth Jacob, and the two of them worked for years in the Himalayas, building and operating schools and hospitals, working with lepers and the poor. In 1963, Baker and his wife moved to the southern state of Kerala, Elizabeth’s homeland, establishing themselves in the city of Trivandrum in 1970. Working with local materials and exploring indigenous architectural traditions, Baker’s adventure in architecture started realizing.

Baker has been able to transform the Gandhian philosophy through architecture by practicing it for people who actually needed it. His every project is like a small scale industry within itself, changing lives of people. Laurie Baker has been committed to not only learning from and using traditional Indian architectural techniques and technology, but also building with traditional Indian materials.

He worked on a varied spectrum of projects ranging from fishermen’s villages to institutional complexes and from low cost mud housing schemes to low cost cathedrals. In Trivandrum, he has built over a thousand houses. Besides this, his work includes forty churches, numerous schools, institutions, and hospitals. His great passion in life was not the grand museums or concerts halls by which architects usually make their mark, but low-cost housing for the millions of Indians who, quite literally, do not have a real roof over their heads.

According to Baker, he learnt the actual way of practicing architecture by observing the methods used by the rural people to build their houses. These methods were the cheapest and the simplest and what’s more; these people did not even employ expert workers, but built them on their own. His education and the skills acquired during his professional practice in England became decidedly insignificant when he realized that the ordinary people knew how to use the local materials in response to the climatic and social needs better than he did.

Thus, in his future years of practice he was mostly to be found working on his building sites or training workers in their own remote territories to use twenty first century techniques while maintaining principles acquired over centuries to effectively cope with the Indian climate, materials, terrain, culture, economy and also population.

Following the principle of ‘Less is More’, Baker repeatedly made good houses for a small sum of Rs.3000/- to Rs.5000/- only. At first it was difficult for the authorities to recognize Baker’s pursuit. Certainly, these two trades seldom agree. Yet they came to see his creations and were left amazed and speechless. Later he was called for various State funded projects and to be on advisory committees on low-cost housing.

In India, low-cost is very often misunderstood as a compromise to quality. That is why many architects failed to venture mass-housing for the poor and lower-middle class. What should have been everybody’s business turned out to be nobody’s business. But this was Baker’s concern. He cleared the popular doubts related to the subject. As he put it, “Low-cost does not reduce or lessen structural stability and durability.” Indeed, the words stood the test of time and in practice also. Baker’s minimal use of steel and cement in construction not only brought down the embodied energy of the buildings but also the respective cost involved.

Baker’s masterpiece, the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Kerala, is a ten-acre campus of buildings that houses a research institute and a graduate school dedicated to utilizing the study of economics to help the poor. Some of his remarkable projects are Loyola Graduate Women’s Hostel, Corpus Christi School, Residential Co-operative of IAS, Chitralekha Studio Complex and many others.

There would be very few residents of Trivandrum who would be as concerned for their own city as Baker is. We can have debates over Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party, for her non-Indian origins, but for Baker we would probably hate to have a debate on this issue.

A person, humble at heart, has tried to reach across to people in a silent but persuasive manner the message of cultural identity and professional integrity. He has not only preached but more than that has consistently put his beliefs into practice through his buildings.

He is a person who has remained unmoved by the conventional set-up norms; he has been so sensitive and humane that in spite of being a westerner he decided to work with and for the poor in India. Courageous to all alone practice his down to earth techniques and ideologies in an alien country. He can be compared to none other than Mother Teresa.

Even in his mid eighties, a time when most people relax in their laid back years of retirement and inactivity, Baker was in the most creative stage of his life. His particular role as a master builder in the traditional sense has been that of a craftsman and a contractor apart from an architect.

Today, in his nineties, he now lies on his deathbed and one never knows when the ugly darkness has to arrive. But his followers and students are religiously carrying forward his work in Kerala. Training courses that give knowledge about Baker’s innovative techniques and alternative energy systems related to building are being carried out throughout the year.

“My feeling as an architect is that you are not after all trying to put up a monument that will be remembered as a Laurie Baker Building but Mohan Singh’s house where he can live happily with his family”.

“I have never doubted that in a country like ours any of us has any right to squander or waste, or use unnecessarily money, materials or energy.”

– Laurie Baker

Undoubtedly, he stands alone as the greatest craftsman of brick modern India has witnessed.

Mr. Mahendra Sethi, Architect

Presently Mr. Sethi is working with DKS Consultant, New Delhi and pursuing an independent research on the subject. He is contactable at or


This essay corner is for private encourage the academic component of inspire and promote the cause of our profession.
z y n o r i q u e.
Articles are sourced out from various websites and not intended for commercial purpose