Housing for all is a challenge faced by every developing country where the distance between the rich and the poor expands by the day. In cities today we see land being gobbled by real estate sharks, countless buildings and malls sprouting up but living amenities shrinking for the poor. The contrast between the gated communities for the rich and the slums for the poor could not be more glaring and yet we seem to be fine with the disparity. We take it for granted that the poor do not need what we need. The right to live in a home with dignity. We feel that this is the way things are and not much can be done about it, right?
Recently, hundreds of families were displaced from a housing community for the poor in Bangalore’s Ejipura to make way for a mall.
School going children, babies, pet animals, old people, men and women with utensils and clothes...all ended up losing the idea of a permanent home, of safety and basic dignity. Like they do in every city where the demand for real estate overlooks the need for housing for the poor.
Can we grow as a country if we all do not grow together? Can we prosper if a few have all the rights, and the rest, none at all? These were questions that perhaps troubled architect Laurie Baker because his life’s mission was to pioneer the idea of low cost housing that respected even those who had little money but the same needs as those who have everything.
Right from the beginning it was clear that Laurence Wilfred Baker (March 2, 1917-April 1, 2007) had a conscience that he not just listened to but acted upon. He questioned religion and entrenched political ideas and even after studing architecture at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, he volunteered and worked with the Friends Ambulance Unit in China and Burma during World War II.
Some meetings are fated and so it happened that in 1943, on his way back to England, at a port in Bombay he happened to meet Mahatma Gandhi!
The two struck up a conversation and Gandhi saw in Baker a questioning, restless spirit and told him that rural India did not need the knowledge of western architecture but human empathy and intelligent space and resource utilisation. Could houses be built with what was available on site? Could cost be brought down and space maximised?
Needless to say, this moment gave Baker a mission. One he devoted his entire life to.
He did not just build. He built for the invisible Indians who exist on the fringes of our line of vision. He worked memorably as an architect for World Leprosy Mission, an international Mission in 1945. His job was challenging. It was to convert asylums once used to shelter ostracised patients into treatment hospitals.
After some time, he married a like-minded doctor, Elizabeth Jacob, and the two set up a clinic in the district of Pithoragarh and spent many years here.
It is here that Baker studied vernacular solutions to issues faced by the locals and began to apply them to projects that he was commissioned to do. As Gandhi
had suggested, he began to be known for architecture that stemmed from empathy for those who had never been given any.
He understood that no matter who the inmates of a space are, be they leprosy patients or middle class/lower middle-class clients, they need aesthetics, light, ventilation and privacy and Baker’s homes had it all.
He used in his buildings, local design accents like jaali screens, curved walls, air vents, Mangalore tiles and beautiful wooden doors and windows sometimes found in garbage heaps!
Built-in ledges and shelves, low cost and sustainable ideas, low energy consuming mud walls with holes to let in light, harmony with the environment were some of the elements he wove into his structures.
He respected a site so much that he always built a structure in response to the earth... not against it by trying to level it or denuding it of its distinct natural character and that is why each building that was created, was unrepeatable and unique. A lot of his ideas are still being used widely in the new wave of green architecture.
Even though he became an Indian citizen only in 1988, he understood India far better than many Indian architects and is rightfully known today as the Gandhi of architecture.
(Reema Moudgil is the author of Perfect Eight, editor of unboxedwriters.com and an RJ)