Poetry in Brick and Mud

For 50 years, Laurie Baker has drawn upon India's traditional architecture to create buildings that are affordable, beautiful, and energy efficient

| November/December 2000

My wife and I recently spent five months living in Trivandrum, the sweltering, leafy capital of the south Indian state of Kerala. The house we rented, like thousands of others in the city, was built largely of concrete and would have looked at home as a row house in California. A flat roof lay directly above our kitchen, bedroom, and living room, and we discovered that it was, absurdly, rainproofed with tar.

Trivandrum is almost at the bottom tip of India, less than 600 miles from the equator. By our standards, it was ferociously hot and humid: If you walked vigorously for a few minutes, you were drenched in sweat. We were not the first visitors overwhelmed by the heat of India: A 19th-century British governor general said it felt 'as though one were passing through the mouth of a foundry.' But with this lunatic black roof soaking up the blaze of the tropical sun and then radiating it down at us like a broiler for 24 hours a day, it seemed as if we had gone from the foundry's mouth into its flaming innards.

Coping with the heat of India is a problem not just for sweaty Western visitors. It is one cause of a serious energy crisis. Even though only wealthy Indians can afford it, a large chunk of energy use goes for air conditioning, as it does in the United States. In addition, almost every Indian home or office with electricity has ceiling fans whirring all day during the hot months--which in much of the country means all year long. When hundreds of millions of people use appliances like these, it puts a crippling strain on the country's rickety electrical system.

In Trivandrum, the power went off for a scheduled half hour each evening, and often for longer unscheduled periods as well. The voltage dropped each morning, our ceiling fans turning ever more slowly, as downtown office buildings put on their air conditioning for the day. And it dropped still more at dusk, when people got home and turned on their fans and lights. Yet India can not afford to generate more energy to cope with this demand; plus, it means more pollution spewed into the air from private generators and coal-burning power plants--and more global warming.

Visiting friends, we soon noticed that it was much cooler in the attractive brick homes designed by Laurie Baker, a bold and eccentric British-born architect who has lived in India for more than 50 years. Some Baker houses had strange, irregular, pyramid-like structures on their roofs, with one tilted side left open to funnel wind into the house. These seemed inspired by the air intakes on ships; decks built to funnel cool air below. And unlike our house, Baker's houses invariably had sloping roofs in traditional Indian style, with gables and vents where rising hot air could escape.

Gradually I realized that the flat roof on our rental house was not an isolated piece of insanity, but a small example of a much larger pattern. In architecture as in so much else, it seems, Indians are aspiring to an impractical Western ideal. Baker's work is both innovative and unusual in that it combines Western and traditional Indian ways. His goal has never been to leave be-hind the grand museums and concert halls by which architects are usually remembered. Rather, his passion has always been to design and build low-cost housing for the millions of Indians who, quite literally, do not have a real roof over their heads. And on a changing subcontinent whose educated classes have emigrated to Europe or North America by the millions, Baker was that great rarity: a learned Westerner who had emigrated to the Third World. I became curious to meet him.

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