Poetry in Brick and Mud

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.

Long before I did so, I got a taste of life in Baker buildings at Trivandrum’s Centre for Development Studies, a research institute and graduate school where my wife and I were Fulbright lecturers. The 10-acre campus, stretching across a heavily wooded hillside, is Baker’s masterpiece. The offices, classroom clusters, and dormitories are all brick, with few straight lines: Each structure curls in loops and waves and intersecting semicircles. The main building has a majestic entrance 30 or 40 feet wide, whose ceiling rolls out and up toward the sky and whose sides roll outward onto an even wider set of steps. Symbolic of an institution whose aim is to apply economics to helping the poor, the building has, amazingly, no front door. Anyone can walk up the steps and through the wide entrance and down the corridors at any hour of the day or night. If you want to lock your office door, that’s up to you, but you can’t lock the front door because there isn’t one.

Not only is this campus beautiful, but Baker built it for roughly half the normal cost per square foot of Indian university buildings. And like all his buildings, these were comfortable on even the most oven-like of days. Some of the coolness was due to the breezes blowing through the jalis that fill many outside walls. A Baker jali is a brick version of traditional south Indian patterned wooden grillwork: Gaps between bricks lead air and daylight through a wall while diffusing the glare of direct sunlight. Some of the center’s coolness also comes from tiny courtyards built around pools whose evaporation helps fight the heat. And coolness also comes from the shade of the many coconut palms overhead: Baker located the buildings so he would have to cut down as few trees as possible. With only one or two exceptions, such as the campus computer center, none of the offices have the Indian bureaucrat’s normal status symbol–an air conditioner.

A droll, unassuming man with a gray beard, Baker has the manner of an avuncular, absent-minded professor who has left something behind on the way to class. His conversation rambles as if he hadn’t a care in the world, and he wears no watch or socks–although no one with any sense wears socks in steamy south India. His voice is hearty, and he speaks slowly, always in complete sentences. He is still working at age 83.

Baker grew up and studied architecture in the British mill town of Birmingham. A Quaker conscientious objector, he joined an ambulance unit at the start of World War II, then spent most of the war as a health care worker in China. On the way home, he was stranded for several months in Bombay, where, through Quaker friends, he got to know Mohandas Gandhi.

Gandhi, it turned out, had a great interest in architecture. ‘He said, ‘Please don’t take any notice of this terrible stuff around us’–the four-, five-, and six-story buildings going up,’ Baker recalls. Gandhi sent Baker to see what he termed the ‘concrete slums’–the tenements for Bombay’s workers–and asked him, ‘What is the alternative? What can we do about it?’

Deeply inspired, Baker went home, then promptly came back to India and began to build treatment centers for lepers. He married an Indian woman, a doctor. Until 1962, the couple worked in a remote Himalayan region; then they moved south to his wife’s native state of Kerala.

It was in the Himalayan foothills that Baker first saw how traditional Indian architecture reflects thousands of years of trial-and-error research in energy efficiency. ‘The rock they quarried for building the foundation and basement walls was split or blasted out from the same bedrock on which they would build,’ he has written, noting that timber ‘was always found within a few hundred yards, or at most a mile or two, of the house being constructed.’ Seeing this reminded him of what Baker said was Gandhi’s belief that buildings should be made of materials found within a five-mile radius.

Baker has not always been able to follow this principle, but he has come close. He is profoundly hostile to glass and steel; making them requires large amounts of expensive imported fossil fuel, and in Kerala the steel has to come from other parts of India. He regards plaster as a costly prestige item that covers up handsome walls of bricks made from local clay.

Bricks he loves. He often lays them with his own hands. For him this is not a matter of Gandhian self-humbling, but of sensual pleasure: ‘Designing a house and getting someone else to build it is like preparing a menu with great care and then leaving it to someone to do the cooking and then the eating,’ he says. ‘It’s no fun.’

Mortar for bricks normally would require cement–another Baker enemy, because until recently most cement in Kerala had to be imported. Baker instead likes to use substitutes such as lime. When he was building the Centre for Development Studies, for instance, he made lime on the spot. He sent people to gather cartloads of seashells on beaches a few miles away, then had them baked in a mud kiln (its fan powered by someone pedaling a stationary bicycle) and ground up. Few of the scholars from India and abroad realize that their office walls are held up partly by clamshells.

Nor do they know that they’re walking on bamboo. Concrete floors and steps are ordinarily reinforced with steel rods, but Baker has found that a grid of split local bamboo, carefully lashed together in the right pattern, does the job just as well–and at less than 5 percent of the cost.

Baker would like to work more with that great renewable material–wood–but the deforestation of India has made this impossible. He would love to see Kerala’s devastated forests replanted with a traditional building wood, the jack tree–‘a very beautiful wood, a nice rich amber color.’ It would be so easy, he muses, to plant groves of jack trees: ‘They could do it with picnics for the foresters’ children! Give them each a jackfruit and have them go wandering spitting out pips.’

Indian policy makers ‘haven’t the faith in their own materials,’ Baker says. His favorite building material uses no fuel to produce, is usually only a few steps away, and is free: mud. To those who laugh, he points out that if you count all structures from village houses to Bombay office towers, 58 percent of all buildings in India are built of mud, and a good number of them are more than a hundred years old. Mud is also completely reusable. You can tear down your old house, add water, and make a new one. Try that with glass and steel.

Most Indians’ picture of ideal housing is what they see from America or Europe on television. This means, Baker says, that few middle-class clients share his enthusiasm for mud: ‘I say, ‘Have you thought of using mud? It would save you a lot of money.’ And they say, ‘Well . . . no, you don’t know our rain, Mr. Baker!’ ‘ As a result, he has most often been able to design mud buildings as housing for the poor. Baker’s designs have been used for tens of thousands of such units in Kerala. A family sleeping under a tarpaulin or under nothing at all doesn’t worry if its first real house doesn’t look like one in the San Fernando Valley.

Laurie Baker has not turned his back on the modern world; the homes and offices he has built have running water, electricity, and sometimes garages. But in his embrace of brick, mud, and bamboo, Baker has done what tragically few people in any field in the developing world have done, which is to be intelligently selective about what they take from the West.

Baker emphasizes that building attractive and energy-efficient buildings doesn’t depend on Western-style training. On the contrary, he says, architecture is too important to be left to architects. He has written nearly a dozen do-it-yourself booklets, with titles like Laurie Baker’s Mud, illustrated with his own pen-and-ink diagrams. Some have been translated into Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala. Two of the most recent, Rural Community Buildingsand Cost Reduction for Primary School Buildings, were published on Baker’s 80th birthday.

Baker’s ideas have caught the imagination of younger, environmentally minded Indian architects and engineers, and nearly 100 of them now work for a nonprofit organization that practices his approach: COSTFORD, or the Center of Science and Technology for Rural Development. In the past 15 years, COSTFORD has built homes for 10,000 poverty-level families, for which it charges no design fee. The center has also built government buildings and homes for 1,500 middle-class and professional families, which has helped pay for the other work. The organization’s Trivandrum office is run by Shailaja Nair, a 34-year-old architect, and her engineer husband. A picture of ‘Bakerji’ hangs on the office wall. ‘He’s half a century older than we are,’ says Nair. ‘But he’s one of us. How do you explain a man like that?’

Nair takes me on an all-day tour of COSTFORD projects built with Baker-inspired designs. We end up in a rural village called Koliyacode to visit five recently completed mud homes of several rooms each. Government subsidies provided the equivalent of around $400 per house, and the village residents contributed more, in some cases their own labor. Most of the money went for wood (roof beams and window and door frames) and roofing tile. The roofs overhang the walls to protect them from the monsoon rains–a sine qua non of mud architecture–and a drainage ditch below carries the water away. There is no glass in the windows, but wooden bars keep out intruders and India’s vast army of crows. Except for the roof tile and the wood, everything is made of dried brown mud: inner and outer walls, and even the large mud bricks that hold up some living room shelves. The sturdy outer walls are about six inches thick. They do not crumble to the touch, and they feel as hard as concrete when I bang my fist on them.

The weather has gotten hotter than ever since I arrived in Kerala, but today, inside these buildings, it is wonderfully cool. The one place inside where it’s hot–the loft area, where the sun’s heat has seeped through the tile roof and hot air from inside has risen–is used to dry grain or freshly washed clothes. As I tour the houses, a flock of villagers and their children begin to gather, curious that a foreigner would come all this way to punch a wall of mud.

Sometimes Baker doesn’t bother about blueprints–he prefers informal sketches and talking with construction workers on the spot–and so I ask if I can see a home he is now building. The house is for a government official and his wife, a poet. Appropriately, it is the poet with whom Baker is mainly dealing. She is, he says happily, his first client who is as eccentric as he.

‘I’m noted for using old colored bottles set in cement–they give a nice light,’ Baker says. ‘In the drawing room, about half the main wall is going to be made of bottles only. And then we’ve got some holes in the roof to let sunlight in and air out.’ To illustrate, Baker seizes a piece of chalk from a pouch slung over his shoulder and uses the brick wall of the house as a crude blackboard: He shows how each roof hole will have a raised rim of bottles. The rim will support a concrete cap like those that cover chimneys. And, he adds gleefully, these round skylight-vents will also function as sundials. The house itself is a spiral. A rising ribbon of smaller rooms, interspersed with a few desk-sized nooks for writing poetry, curls around a central living room, whose ceiling is two stories high.

A spiral home with poetry-writing nooks is not likely to be reproduced en masse as housing for India’s poor, as Baker himself would be the first to admit. But even here, at his zaniest, he has built a house that costs vastly less than one of the same square footage designed by a conventional architect.

As any high school geometry student knows, a circle is the shortest line that will contain a given amount of space. The outer wall of a rectangular house would use far more brick.

And the fact that most of the inside walls are also curved means that some can be built with just a single thickness of brick, instead of the double thickness that straight brick walls of equal length would require for stability.

Finally, Baker is using a remarkable variety of recycled materials–and not just the several hundred glass bottles. In the bathrooms, bits and pieces of waste glass are put to work as tiles: ‘If you want a piece of glass to fit a window, you go to the glass place and they cut your size, and there are always these little strips left that they throw under the table,’ he explains. ‘So I said, ‘Can I have some?” Several hundred chipped or broken roofing tiles are embedded every foot or two in this building’s concrete roof, a signature Baker technique. As you look up at it, the inside of the roof looks like a checkerboard whose squares have been battered and then flown apart. These otherwise wasted tiles add so much reinforcement that Baker can use 30 percent less concrete in the roof.

Once it’s finished, the poet’s house will consume far less energy than many homes half its size. Thanks to jaliwalls, cool air flows in; and thanks to the bottle-rimmed roof vents, hot air flows out. Amazingly, there are no electric ceiling fans (even modest Indian homes often have one per room), and no air conditioning.

As we continue our tour through the house, Baker gives instructions to the workmen, who today are making windows–some of which will contain only rough vertical wooden slats that can be tilted to catch the breeze. After several dizzying loops, we have spiraled up to the roof.

Here too, Baker says, ‘you can sit and write poems.’ The nearby trees tower 15 or 20 feet overhead, their breadfruits and coconuts dangling almost within reach. The real poetry of this house is that it respects its surroundings and doesn’t overpower them.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for what we see from here of the city skyline. A few older buildings, such as the palace of the maharajas, respect the ancient unwritten law that no building should be higher than one of Kerala’s millions of coconut palms. But dotting the horizon are the palaces of the new maharajas–slab-like eight- and ten-story modern luxury apartment buildings for India’s burgeoning business and professional class, all of them, Baker points out, requiring huge amounts of Kerala’s scarce electricity to run elevators and air conditioning. Baker’s poetry in brick and mud is, by contrast, in harmony with its surroundings, not only aesthetically but also in its acknowledgment that the earth will not permit us to be so profligate with its riches forever.

Adam Hochschild is the author of five books, including King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.

From Mother Jones (July/Aug. 2000). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (6 issues) from Box 334, Mt. Morris, IL 61054.

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