Photography of a Laurie Baker masterpiece

Book review: ‘Masterpiece of a Master Architect.’

By Krishnakumar S.

NEW DELHI: To read this small photo album brought out by COSTFORD on the Center for Development Studies, which is dedicated to “Daddy”, architect Laurie Baker, who popularized the idea of affordable housing in a big way during the 1970s, was indeed a pleasure.

Masterpiece of a Master Architect: Center for Development Studies Designed and edited by Jayesh S Pillai. Published by COSTFORD and Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies. 2014. Rs 650/$20
Masterpiece of a Master Architect: Center for Development Studies
Designed and edited by Jayesh S Pillai. Published by COSTFORD and Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies. 2014. Rs 650/$20

It added to my delight that I was going through the book, flipping through the photographs as well as the beautiful write-up during my brief stay at Centre for Development Studies, enjoying the very environs about which the book is written about.

The tree-laden campus has a multi-storied library, which has a tower in between that brings in the great breeze of the Trivandrum city. Atop the building, one can enjoy the whole of Trivandrum, the “of seven hills.” One could view at a distance the Arabian Sea and the mountains afar. The clock towers — amazing, many of them are still working! — in the city over  different buildings seem to be ticking,  trying to keep pace with the changing urban landscape of  Trivandrum.

Paradoxical, as this book on sustainable and ecologically sound building practices comes to the shelves, the seven hills of Trivandrum are facing the cudgels of the realty groups, and the idea of affordable and sustainable housing propounded and popularized by Baker in the ’70s and ’90s is fast fading into oblivion.

Because of the increasing financialization of the world economy, the Greenspan bubbles, far away in United States, has with matchless briskness got transmitted to the town, forcing the idyllic charm of the great Trivandrum to lie prostate and capitulate to the high-rises and condominiums, which now inundate the city as it expands.

Land, resources and all that the earth gives have increasingly fallen trap to this worldwide trend, even in this small city. How the various layers of financial engineering has successfully transformed the predicament of the individual to have a rooftop into a stuff gullible of speculation!

From atop the CDS itself, one can view the high-rises and condominiums, some of them even adjacent to the lake near Aakulam, all available at click of a mouse and the swipe of a card for occupation and perpetual non-occupation, not to mention speculation for people far and wide across the world.

Even as the prophet of affordable housing has departed, it is gratifying from the part of COSTFORD to bring forth such a document that brings back to memory the idea of a time, so that people would think of keeping the same alive for ages.

Affordable housing would continue to be an important matter of concern for the whole of the developing world, and, of course, that of the poor African Americans and Hispanics in the United States, who were the victims of the recent sub-prime crisis.  It seems that the fruition of the dream of the hapless African American in low end Washington would require a Laurie Baker sort of a commitment and dedication.

Even as the photographs capture for us the airy serene environment in which the Centre is located, the write-up brings to us a little biography of our dear “Daddy”, the adopted son of Trivandrum, or Baker Sayippu, as he was fondly addressed to by the residents of Trivandrum.

Great to know that Baker’s activities in Kerala was preceded by a series of similar activities elsewhere in the country. Born in Birmingham, he began constructing homes for the lepers. The state government in Kerala pooled in his skills in the area of affordable housing.

The assignment offered to him by Archbishop Benedict Mar Gregorious at the Bishop’s House  attracted a lot of media attention. The political support extended by then Chief Minister Achuta Menon, the institutional support provided by K.N. Raj, when blended with the infinite commitment of Laurie Baker and his team resulted in the creation of this building “Centre for Development Studies.” This continues to bear the signature of sustainable living.

The book has within it four different themes. The first and second are biographies, that of the building and of architect, Baker. The third theme brings us back to the debate on sustainable housing, which was ignited in ’80s, got sidelined in the course of the housing bubble, but continues to be ever relevant. Last but not the least, is a great photo album of the building, the architect and nature.

(Krishnakumar S., teaches economics at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.)

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