Himanshu Burte

A Recorded Lecture from FRAME Conclave 2019: Modern Heritage

In this lecture, Dr Himanshu Burte speaks on the nature of Laurie Baker’s human-centric architectural practice; as an empiricist, environmentalist and extremely critical and creative practitioner.

Edited Transcript

So it is going to take a while for me to recover from one hour of Geoffrey Bawa and after this lush serenity, especially because I have to follow it up with an argument. But, I will go ahead and I am going to be talking about Laurie Baker. I have kept what I am saying fairly narrow and it is mainly in the form of a straight-on argument I am offering, and I am hoping that we can have a discussion afterwards, whenever we are scheduled. I have actually changed the title from what is published or what was originally given to it, because I actually took the title of my obituary for Baker, written just after he passed away and because of the resonance with yesterday’s discussion around Gandhi and Architecture.

I will begin by looking at the context, the objectives and the premises of what I have to say. To begin with, since this is about heritage and we are talking about Modern Heritage particularly, I approach heritage with the understanding that every map is really a plan. It just does not show you what is there, but it is a project. Heritage in that sense, I see as an exercise in constructing the future. By constructing the past in certain ways, by preserving certain memories and ascribing certain meanings to it, we are really constructing and doing the work of creating a future that we want. That I think extends to some extent to Prem‘s point, though I am sure he would not necessarily disagree with this. So, given that this is what is involved in thinking about heritage, it becomes very important to be conscious of our value positions and especially about the ethic of architecture, its politics, economics, the aesthetics and of course, the actual processes and practices that go into making the practice or the product itself. 

[04:03] In the context especially of this conference, I want to keep the dilemmas that we have heard about yesterday, we have not really dwelled too much on the dilemmas, but they have been there. We have had, for instance, a glimpse of a Nehruvian imagination of Post-Colonial modernity. We have had an extensive discussion on Gandhi’s ideas for modernity, which are all well known. Those dilemmas for me continue to be part of the way we need to frame our understanding of our Modern Heritage. And I particularly value looking at debates, and contradictions in post-colonial spatial practice in India and at a broader landscape, I include much more than just architecture with capital ‘A’ or even with a small ‘A’. But for the moment, we will stick to that – which means, I think that the question around heritage and thinking about Modern Architecture’s Heritage presents us with perhaps a call to protect modernist buildings. Modernism probably ought to be protected and saved as buildings even as we deconstruct the tacit theory that the buildings carry. As I am sure you will have realised, this ties back into the question of the dilemmas of post-colonial modernity that India has grappled with.

Briefly my argument (referring to image 01); A], I am going to argue that Laurie Baker was the critical practitioner. Perhaps, the most thoroughgoing of all critical practitioners we have seen in architecture in independent India. I am actually extremely engaged and very inspired by the entire body of work that has come out in independent India which is actually highly marked by diverse kinds of criticalities but even within that, I would make the argument and partly polemically, that Baker presents an extreme case of this criticality. I will explain what I mean by that later. I would also argue that in the same polemical vein that he was perhaps the most thoroughly modern of Indian architects because of his critique of sometimes relative irrationality of rationalism and of course, expressionist modernism. 

I want to make a distinction and sustain it to the extent possible between modernity and modernism as a cultural expression and a very specific moment and a specific attitude which I believe remains, and continues today. I would argue that what Baker did, is that he really ‘world-ed’ a critical Southern modernity. He brought it into the world. He created almost a world through his work. He realised a particular kind of modernity that might have been speculated about and of course has been talked about a lot in different forms. To some extent, we might say that it walks the path that Gandhi might have imagined. I guess he realised the potential that Gandhi saw in him when he asked him to come back to India. What is important here, is that it is modernity in architecture which is marked by ‘maximalism’ of sensuousness and ‘minimalism’ of consumption. I think that is something that becomes extremely important because of the very substantively kind of modern architecture that results. For the benefit of some of you, especially the students, I am just going to do two things; give a very brief outline of Baker‘s background, and a few images of his work. He was born in 1917 in Birmingham. I think he became a ‘Quaker‘, and therefore was a pacifist when the Second World War broke out. He therefore volunteered – he would not enlist in the army – but he volunteered as a paramedic. He was a trained paramedic. He came to India and China with a friend’s ambulance unit and actually had a series of adventures, which are extremely filmy; in Northeast India and then spent a few years running a leprosy hospital in China. When he was going back to England, because his health had deteriorated in 1945, he happened to – as he was waiting for a few months for his ship in Bombay – meet Gandhi through common Quaker friends. And they got along well, of course, and Gandhi actually told him that India needed architects like him. And interestingly, within a few months, he was back. He set sail back to India that very year. 

[10:22] After a few years, he married Elizabeth Chandy, a doctor from Kerala. And on their honeymoon in the mountains of what is today Uttarakhand, in Pithoragarh, some villagers asked for medical help for somebody when they heard that Elizabeth Chandy was a doctor. They ended up starting a small hospital in a shack, on land donated by the villagers and then stayed there for many years, some sixteen-seventeen years, where Baker continued, (I believe, and I have not seen documentation of it), to build and consult in the plains a bit but, also as a trained paramedic, helped run the village hospital that they were running there, which he had also built. The family moved back to Kerala, in Vagamon first in the 1960s and then finally to Thiruvananthapuram. It is a heartening thing for all of us, who are over 50, that most of the work that we know Baker for was done after he was 50 in Thiruvananthapuram and Kerala. So there is hope.

At that point, he created what we recognise as a new kind of approach to architecture that integrated traditional design and technology and technological wisdom which was very clearly incubated in this spirit of inclusion and actually as I will argue, of ‘Seva‘, what Tridip mentioned yesterday. So, his architecture which is low cost and you will see some of it – was not welcome by the establishment. He, I believe, was not really ever invited to speak at the College of Engineering, Trivandrum, Architecture College. He was not known to be in many ways antithetical to the conventional architectural figure of somebody as a serious creative artist who did not draw a lot of his buildings up, or did not do many drawings and of course, never pushed himself or published very much.

But he had been applying for citizenship for a while and he got it in 1989 and the Padma Shri in 1990, almost as if to prepare the ground. We have grown up thinking of Baker, really as this alternative, this intermediate technology guy. The alternative guy who builds an architecture for the poor, low-cost housing, all of those is the popular associations. We even think of him as a traditionalist incorrectly, who just simply replicated the wisdom. Of course, we also know that he was acutely conscious of the energy footprint of buildings and he was working towards that at a time before Schumacher‘s ‘Small Is Beautiful‘ or even the ‘OPEC crisis‘; and I think that is a significant detail. 

From his very early time back in India, he realised that all his training as a modern architect from England, was not very useful and he had realised very quickly he needed to learn, as he said, what a termite meant and what a monsoon did. Which led to a pragmatic and situated technological innovation as the spirit underlying his work. Finally, as you will see in some of the images, he produced a quirky and deeply habitational aesthetic. It is really a remarkable thing that even if you leave aside the low-cost aspect, or any of those things – the simple kind of aesthetic that is centred on the act of dwelling is something quite remarkable that comes out of his work.

I will show you a few images again for those who might not be very familiar. This is the famous Center for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram (referring to image 02). And that jaali, I think it is the Ladies Hostel with a corridor behind. And this is all built in rat-trap bond which is nine inches thick, brick on edge with a hollow simply by the bonding pattern and filler slab, which you can see in the underside where a fair amount of concrete is replaced by used roof tiles and reduces both the weight and the cement and steel content (referring to image 02).

[15:44] This is the auditorium on the left and a moment through one of the passages (referring to image 03). This is the remarkable India Coffee House (referring to image 04). Guggenheim inverted with a solid core and a ramp going around it on which you sit and have your 10-15 Rupee coffee, or Idly- Dosa. All built-in furniture; no windows, no carpentry, just the jaalis to let in the breeze and also the rain of course, and can hose down the place where the pantries were in the central core. This is a beautiful house, the last building he built personally in his design-build approach for an IAS officer in Thiruvananthapuram (referring to image 05).

This is a courtyard and you get a glimpse of the quirkiness which departs from all, which actually almost stands outside of received ideas about good form and good modern geometries, etc. It is a mango shape that he really loved and he actually used it in ways that even in the same house, I have some other photographs where you think it is not really quite harmonious and it is not all fitting together perfectly, but he just used it (referring to image 06). He had particular freedom from questions of taste which means that sometimes it fails aesthetically for some of us. And this is the same house, this is what he called the Coventry Cathedral effect in broken bottles put into the wall (referring to image 07). What is remarkable is you have at the same time a kind of populist energy that you have sometimes in popular aesthetics but strangely quietened and made profound in the final coming together of that space. And that is a quality that I find remarkable in Baker‘s work. 

I am not going to describe too much of it, I am sure we know enough already, but I will just mention what I really mean by why I call him a critical practitioner, what I mean by it. I have come to believe that it will benefit from working towards an orienting ideal of a critical practitioner rather than a creative practitioner, in the model of an artist or even sometimes in the model of a technologist. What this involves really is creative practice where if you were to draw from say, Neil Brenner, and in a faraway sense, from Lefebvre – in a critical practice, there is a strong critique and understanding of the power and unjust social relations that shape our spatial practice. By spatial practice, I mean both the making of spaces, which is architecture, but also the inhabiting of those spaces, the organisation of activity, labour, within those. An interesting thought here is what I was looking at since yesterday – all the images of modernist buildings and the people in those images were either the elite and powerful owners or clients like Nehru or even Gandhi, or they were people who managed the work, who laboured, and it just struck me in the morning that Baker did not set out to build very much for the first kind, and he really was building for the people who were managing, who were doing all the labour, in all of these high modernist buildings that we saw. They are all great buildings and I am really engaged with their beauty even as a designer but this is something useful to keep in mind. It also involves a kind of a self-critique of both the knowledge and the theory and the beliefs that the practices work on – whether consciously or unconsciously – and it ultimately is a practice which means that it is a practice that is oriented to transform the world. It does not rest at critique because that is what people like me in my current life do. We analyse what is right or wrong with the world but a critical practitioner must go beyond and then seek to change the world and I would argue clearly that Baker was an extremely critical practitioner, which of course does not mean that he was not a creative practitioner, there is no doubt about that in my mind, but why is he thoroughly modern? 

[21:27] I think more than perhaps anybody and certainly Mies, he is really the architect of ‘less is more’. Yesterday when Tridip spoke about Seva and Sah:eva together (referring to image 08), I think that really is the spirit that animates his practice. His practice not as a designer but as a technologist, he brings in a very scientific attitude without the science being worn on the sleeve, so it is an empiricist approach which tests and even rebuts the parts of the rationalist dogma. Rationalism and Empiricism being two ways of broadly knowing the world or of building theory, one works down from the abstract theory that already exists which is rationalism, and empiricism really goes and tries to work with what you find in reality. I am arguing that Baker brings up the suppressed empiricism back into a fairly strong critical dialogue with modernism. He is also an early environmentalist; in fact, his manuals ‘are as useful as comics’ – which was a very interesting quote when he came back, and he came back with a bunch of manuals he learnt in the hills of what is today Uttarakhand that they are absolutely useless. He says, they really are as useful as a bunch of comics. At the same time, he is an early environmentalist because he has seen a problem that is not even really being discussed, but the method is a particular kind of empiricism which is a very romantic approach, which focuses in his work on creating that unity with nature – a lot like Bawa – but obviously with a completely different language and in some cases, a very different project profile and client profile, but not necessarily in all. 

You can see that there are many possible contradictions across these few characteristics I have outlined. Because, for instance, the romantic artist following his own vision to the end, is completely antithetical to the idea of Seva in theory, in principle. But he manages to keep a dialectic alive which really gives that special charge to his work.

This is broadly my argument. What does this leave us with, in terms of thinking about heritage? I think, on one hand, Baker‘s work is a very important Modern Heritage. But it also casts a different kind of light by its example on what is accepted as the canonical modernist heritage. Very often Baker is, I think, kept in a corner or treated as a kind of special pleader. One of the objectives I have is to try and restore him to very much the centre, and of course, do so by highlighting the challenge that he presents, in terms of thinking of what a thoroughly modern and thoroughly critical architecture might be. This is extremely important; it is important not simply at some abstract romantic or purely aesthetic level. 

[26:01] One of the things that we have failed to acknowledge fully and take on board fully about Rationalist Modernism is its deep philosophical roots which run through everything that is there in it, in an ideology of Productivism. Lefebvre is a very useful guide there because he shows us that the modernist programme is really a programme of producing a new kind of space which is global. Today there are discussions which draw from Lefebvre’s arguments to say that we are undergoing a planetary urbanisation, by which it is meant, restructuring of relations and especially of domination, which centred on the urban in one sense. So, Lefebvre alerts us to the fact that Modernism actually is part of that process – of extending control by capital and by the state, – and this is very important and very interesting – through the vehicle of technical knowledge. There is some recent, more empirical work which shows us the inspiration that the modernists took from the theories of scientific management from Taylorism, Frederick Winslow Taylor. Scientific management is a foundation of what today’s common corporate practice which is focused entirely on; maximising economic efficiency, and it is tied into the larger commitment to endless growth. 

What we value as the rationalist and abstract expression or commitments of modernism, are closely tied to those beginnings. Of course, none of this is deterministic. I do not mean to argue that there is only one direction in which there is a kind of linear relationship between the philosophical basis and the actual practice of modernism, but I think it is something to be alert to. To recognise that starting very much in the West, but we have that moment increasingly here in India, we have been experiencing, what Lefebvre called the devastating conquest of the lived relations by conceived abstract space, abstract relations – those of the drawing of an ideal citizenship, document or some kind of set of characteristics. We are in this moment, and the sustainability challenge that stares us in the face is part of that too, because I think it is not too far off to argue that modernism in the form in which it was conceived, practised and mobilised, and which I do believe continues in important ways today – whatever form we may go for – has taken us to a particular kind of endgame. We are living the endgame of modernism in the form of the crisis that faces us. And in this context, without suggesting a knee jerk reaction, I submit that Baker offers us this very powerful empiricist, environmentalist, human-centred and politically very interesting – if not oriented towards social justice in its revolutionary sense, certainly towards a much more inclusive politics of architectural practice – not simply of space in some abstract way but of the practice of who you build for. So he has outlined an approach that we cannot afford to simply treat as purely a critique, a kind of non-modern set of questions, but really take it on as perhaps the most thoroughly modern of architectures, especially because it is thoroughly a critical practice. Thank you.♦

Himanshu Burte, an architect and urbanist, is an Associate Professor at Centre for Urban Science and Engineering (CUSE), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT-B), Mumbai. Prior to this, he taught for over eight years at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, and has a PhD in Urban Planning (CEPT University, Ahmedabad). He has practised architecture in Mumbai and Goa for over a decade and a half and has also published extensively across the professional, popular and academic press for almost thirty years. His latest book (co-edited with Amita Bhide) Urban Parallax: Policy and the City in Contemporary India gather diverse disciplinary perspectives to deconstruct urban policy in India. Active for long in building critical discourse around architecture and urbanism in India, Burte is a co-founder of Gubbi Alliance for Sustainable Habitat ( a network of architects practising sustainably in India. His current research interests include urban transformation, critical practice, urban infrastructure, housing policy, theatre architecture and sustainable urbanism.

FRAME is an independent, biennial professional conclave on contemporary architecture in India curated by Matter and organised in partnership with H & R Johnson (India) and Takshila Educational Society. The intent of the conclave is to provoke thought on issues that are pertinent to pedagogy and practice of architecture in India. The first edition was organised on 16th, 17th and 18th August 2019.

Organisation and Curation: MATTER
Supported by:
H & R Johnson (India) and Takshila Educational Society

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