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LAURIE BAKER, Buildings and Beyond

The master architect was convinced that designs are for people and had to suit the local climate.A tribute during his birth centenary year.

29bgp-laurie-baGRG1LL3803jpgjpgThis Green Sense weekly column started exactly 7 years ago, acknowledging Laurie Baker as one of the influences on this writer. It is an occasion today to remember this master architect on his birth centenary year, a person who instilled a sense of cost, culture and climate in the local architecture he advocated. Decades after he stopped designing, many architects continue to design the way he did; but many more vouch how he continues to inspire them to explore alternatives to the predictable and questionable mainstream approaches.

What matters today is not his mere biography, but his beliefs which he professed and practised with no compromise. Even for the rich, he advocated cost effectiveness; he was convinced that designs are for people and his designs had to above all suit the local climate.

During the post-independence era, especially the decades of 1970 to 1990, many modern masters of Indian architecture emerged. Most of them either studied abroad or were influenced by the profession of architecture as practised in the west. In total contrast, Baker stepped out of the mainstream to design for India and in India, though his own origins were from the west. With no desire to chase prestigious projects and awards, he designed for people – nearly 3,500 houses in a lifespan of 50 years which appears almost unbelievable.

The ‘Gandhi of Architecture’ was actually influenced by Gandhiji, and looked upon social causes as his professional achievements. Even his public buildings stand as a testimony to his philosophy of minimalism in materials; low on cost; eco-friendly in performance; judicious in structures; and efficient in functional spaces. If we look back in today’s times of sustainability talks, climate crisis and environmental degradation, Baker appears to have been far ahead of his times.

‘Uncommon Sense’

Incidentally, Vineet Radhakrishnan has looked back at Baker, making a biographical full-length film about his life and works titled “Uncommon Sense”. In the making for a few years, it got released for public viewing only some months ago, yet has received critical acclaim, including being listed in Archdaily’s list of must-see films. The fact that Vineet is Baker’s grandson adds a different dimension to the film, besides it being a documentary on Baker’s architecture.

The film looks at many of his projects, but more importantly captures the man in his thoughts and words, which gives it an academic flavour. Architects and many non-architects who knew him well speak about Baker, proving how he did not restrict himself to his buildings, but provoked thoughts in whoever he met.

Still relevant

Why does Laurie Baker continue to be relevant today? Architectural critics know that design elements die, styles change, new materials emerge, and technology evolves. So, the physical does not last long. The philosophies last longer, but they face the danger of dilution once the founder of the philosophy goes.

Laurie Baker continues to be relevant, beyond the physical and the philosophical. Once Shiv Vishwanathan termed U.R. Ananthamurthy as a phenomenon and if one were to borrow that term, Laurie Baker is a phenomenon.

Mix and match in designing

Natural materials can empower the designer to create ideas rooted in tradition, yet retain the freedom to interpret modernity in form and perception.

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It is not unusual to come across designers and architects who are not supportive of working with natural materials. Of course they vouch by the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, are aware that natural materials have lower embodied energy, yet prefer manufactured materials.

This unsustainable approach comes not from an ignorance of the environmental crisis we are presently facing, but from a belief that natural materials do not offer adequate design variations. Quantitatively speaking, this position can be accepted since number of natural materials are less than produced ones. However, the opinion that design potentials reduce is a matter of debate, considering the diversity of traditional architecture we have across the world, which continue to be a greater source for ideas and larger tourist attraction than anything of modernity. Local architecture with natural materials continues to score over any modern idea in terms of perfection, performance and even permanence.

Once recent example is the architectural installation at Kochi Biennale, designed by architect Tony Joseph, from Calicut.

It is both an artistic expression as well as an auditorium for daily events. Built largely with natural materials such as mud, arecanut, jute and coloured fabric, it also juxtaposes with steel trusses with sheets as wall panel and roof.

The structure proves how well it engages with its general location within Fort Kochi and specifically with the briefing from the now famous Kochi Biennale 2016.

Natural materials can empower the designer to engage with regional contexts, thereby be able to create ideas rooted in tradition, yet retain the freedom to interpret modernity in form and perception. The auditorium employs the age-old technique of creating stepped seats using arecanut poles which is enclosed in the hall by textured and patterned rammed earth walls. Steel structure raises from within this enclosing wall to take the metal roof, the internal ceiling concealed by coloured fabrics hung with lighting from behind in varied hues.

As one among the more talked about built installations at the Biennale, this pavilion uses very few natural materials, yet creates a balanced hybridity not commonly seen around. The wall with mud, wood and sheet in a sequence has a more appealing narrative than a mere plastered wall. The steel and arecanut poles as supports for the roof and the gallery respectively, contrast curiously with each other. Internally, the fine texture of the roof fabric hangs just above the rough texture of the wall.

Given all this, why are the natural materials losing out against manufactured materials? It may not be only because modern materials have greater potential in some respects, but also because we are forgetting certain design fundamentals which would enable us to mix and match the local material to create excellence. Design has to do more with designing than a blind application of a technology or a material.

Culture-climate connect in designing

When we build with cultural sensibility, our buildings embody ecological sensitivity as well, by default.

04bgpgreensensG381C4DCE3jpgjpgIt is surprising to realise how every one of us, in our own way, is directly or indirectly involved with getting buildings done during our lifetime. It is one activity that most of us cannot escape, which at macro scale may mean commissioning a project or at micro level, just advising a friend about a design option.

In the implementation team we have innumerable architects, engineers, builders, consultants, suppliers, site team and such others, involved in the building construction industry. Our annual output in terms of built-up areas, spread across villages and all towns, is beyond calculation.

It is equally surprising to realise how most of us do not think much before we act. Most of our design and construction are based on a routine practice, endlessly repeated with minor variations therein. Naturally, deep thinking on design parameters like culture and climate are a rarity, resulting in the same faceless buildings being erected across India. While we have large number of practising professionals, paradoxically we appear to have a small number of thinking professionals, which could be the reason behind many non-descript buildings.

Pan-India perspective

This is where thinking architects like A.G. Krishna Menon and K.T. Ravindran become important. Both have a pan-India perspective about how we are approaching designs today and the imminent need to be context specific in our design interventions.

These two senior architects may not be listed as eco-architects of today, possibly ignored by the younger generation.

However, through their selective designs, public talks, academic involvement, explorative seminars and freelance publications, they have inspired a large number of professionals, paving the way for thinking about architecture.

Ravindran’s emphasis on the vernacular and Menon’s observations of the traditional settlements highlight the importance of culture-specific designs. Incidentally, when we build with cultural sensibility, our buildings embody ecological sensitivity as well, by default. These architects with their analytical mind will not summarily dismiss modern architecture, but would suggest ways to blend tradition with modernity. Modern designs can also have green sense, be local and be sustainable.

To that end, one needs to study the design options, their implications and finally choose the most appropriate.

Learning from history

History is too often brushed aside as a matter of past, but architects like Menon and Ravindran, show how we can learn from history. After all, historic buildings have been green buildings not only in India, but everywhere. What we can learn from them and apply in designs today can make our future generations safer.

This process of learning cannot be complete if we study buildings in isolation; we also need to look at how buildings come together creating urban design, heritage zones and religious cities. Such rich contexts have created a lifestyle which in turn has created the contexts. Thus by recreating each other, context and culture have stayed true to a region – its geology, geography, flora, fauna and climate. By their thought process, these architects have proved that to achieve a green future, we need to iteratively study all facets of house, neighbourhood, city, culture, climate and of course living itself.

Many of their designs are based on theories and in turn, they have evolved theories based on designs. Where theory and design inform each other without contradicting positions, there we can find the path to eco-friendly possibilities.

NATURAL, YET CREATIVE

Disciplined design expressions by Shankar Kanade complement non-formal sculpturesque forms and surfaces by K. Jaisim in their eco-friendly architecture.

11bgp-greensensgka18e4nr-4-jpgDesign challenges do not lie in walking an established path, but in charting it in the first place amidst opposition by mainstream ideas. The greatness of Shankar Kanade and Navanath Kanade of Shilpa Sindoor and K. Jaisim of Fountainhead, both with firms located in South Bengaluru, lies in charting such new paths.

By 1970s and early 80s many architects had proven the benefits of practical and aesthetic designs, hence the city had carved a niche for good buildings, be they houses, industries or institutions. Going beyond mere functionality, Shankar Kanade brought the spirit of architectonic thoughts from Ahmedabad, ably joined by his younger brother Navanath who returned from the U.S. Jaisim, being influenced by philosopher Ayn Rand, followed exploratory architecture from a perspective very different from the others.

They started building with bricks, stone, hollow clay blocks and such other natural materials left exposed, without plastering or painting them. Thus the walls too became expressive, within which the voids like windows, ventilators and perforated jaali openings were carefully located to get the desired air and light.

Hallmark

Introducing skylights to bring in daylight, in a variety of forms and locations, became a hallmark of their architecture. They both realised that we need indoor air and light without creating glare or heat.

Avoiding ostentatious and unwanted design elements is important not only to negate a false image, but also to ensure cost effectiveness and reduced resource consumption. The resultant minimalism led to its own attraction and different aesthetics. The building should relate to the human scale both inside and outside, only then we can feel that buildings are appropriate for our use.

These professionals were not blindly following western architecture, but were creating a new approach by rooting it in the elements and forces of nature.

For a commoner, works of Kanades and Jaisim may appear different, but theoretically they have many comparisons. Their personal innovation creates the variety and their deep respect for the context creates the commonalties between them. Disciplined design expressions and grammar by Shankar compliments non-formal sculpturesque forms and surfaces by Jaisim in their architecture being what is called as eco-friendly today.

Too often we have heard the rhetoric that traditional Indian architecture has always been green and sustainable. While it is true, even the works of many modern architects have been so too, which do not warrant air conditioners, mass concreting, glass facades or aluminium-coated panels as elevation cladding. Kanades and Jaisim are undebatable examples. What the two firms did in the 80s paved the way for 90s when scores of younger firms in Bengaluru focused on eco-friendly buildings.

The entrance should be attractive

Tenants reject many rental houses simply because they did not like it as they walked into the house.

04bgpgreensensegd817e1qu-3-jpgWho has not heard of love at first sight or may be, experienced it? Much has been written about the idea of the first look – from the first glimpse of sun rise at the edge of ocean to the psychology of impulsive buying soon after seeing a dress or a handicraft. Human mind is structured to form opinions at the very instant it perceives something, often at extremes like ‘for it or against it’. As such, it is important to design products for positive appreciation at the very first look.

Architecture is no different to the theory of initial impacts and immediate acceptance. Real estate agents can narrate cases of tenants rejecting rental houses simply because they did not like it as they walked into the house. Many architects have the gift of garb to convince a potential building owner, yet once built if the structure does not appeal right from the entrance, the clients feel let down.

There is a term called ‘sense of entry’ – though often used in architecture, it is a simple word that suggests how we perceive a building as we enter it. Walking into a 5-star hotel is not the same as entering an art gallery or going into a coffee house with friends. If we feel good as we enter, there are greater chances that we would like the interiors too, for the outside can suggest what could be in store inside.

The elevation of the building is an interface between outside and inside, hence virtually dictates how the building merges with nature. Some designers believe their creations should appear distinct from the outside. While theoretically we can accept it, practical problems creep when every building looks different, creating visual clutter.

Harmony

People believing in context, collective appeal, urban aesthetics, green sense and such others argue for the elevation to merge with nature around. Besides vegetation, rocks and soil are among the most common materials we see around us, which take the form of size stones and clay products to get applied to construction. Being a direct product of nature, they do not degrade much due to rain and sun, lowering the life cycle costs across decades. There is a certain harmony created with the outside view, irrespective of it being a single building or a group. With multitude of natural materials available today, this approach offers many permutations and combinations in elevation making.

Sense of entry and perception of the interior are becoming more important than ever, as increasing number of buildings are adorning a green façade. Not all of them are really green or eco-friendly buildings, but look like one. In these days of the fake and the real, theories can come in handy to choose the real.

Stay connected with Nature

If you shun eco-friendly architecture and opt for artificial lighting, mechanical ventilation and air conditioning, and work in box-like buildings, you will pay dearly.

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It is many decades now since urban dwellers have adapted to a new lifestyle catered to and controlled by technological advances where we create light, supply air, condition the indoors and replace wall windows by wall papers. If we are proud of our achievements in creating such artificial contexts to live with, now it is time to be worried about. Air and light are not mere physical supplies, but means of sustaining life.

Principles of ecology has for too long been looked upon as data-based science, with eco-friendly architecture of the past dubbed as a by-product of technological limitations of those days. As such, we sought to replace natural phenomena by artificial light, mechanical ventilation and air conditioning, enclosing people in box-like buildings. However, thousands of staff working in completely artificial indoors may vouch how uncomfortable it is to work in such ambiences. Complaints like drowsiness, hair fall, dry eyes, skin vulnerable to allergies, headache, diluted attention and many more are commonly heard, with big theories now doing rounds around the ‘sick building syndrome.’

We know that extremely crowded areas with no trees, no green or no open spaces are more prone for aggressive human behaviour. Considering such slum-like conditions, we tend to equate them to poverty, high density living, family frustrations and such others, while the fact that dearth of day light and fresh air also contribute to this behaviour.

Human life flourishes in certain conditions of natural light, either in cold or in tropical regions; and such light is the energy, never the artificial light. For all living organisms, sun directly provides the energy needed to live, especially the plants.

Let us take the case of daylight to connect ecology to human health. When the right kind of sunlight falls on our body, the bone marrow gets stimulated, producing more red blood cells, enabling denser blood. If RBC count increases and lives longer, more oxygen supply happens, ensuring better health. From skin to calcium, everywhere daylight plays a major role. As many sunlight experts like Shrihari from Mysuru and others can endorse, it is the sun energy that ensures the biological cycle from the baby days to old age and can assist in anti-aging, and provide stronger bones, long lasting teeth or wrinkle-free skin. For all age-related problems, sunlight has a solution.

We have heard how people moving from India to the USA or Canada need to face extreme cold conditions with no visible sun for days, have to stay indoors, resulting in symptoms of depression and anxiety. On the contrary, people doing physical tasks outdoors expose their body to sunlight and surprisingly appear to have more robust health, despite minimal nutrition, unhygienic houses and irregular food habits.

It is time we realise we need to live with nature simply because we are a product of nature and avoiding it is like fish trying to avoid water.

Design matters

Buildings need advanced construction ideas, but without much energy consumption to keep themeco-friendly.

Designing the ideal shelter for varying climate conditions in India is an impossible task, with so many annual seasons, locale-specific micro-climatic modifications and increasingly unpredictable shifts in rains, heat and humidity.

The summer is over and the monsoon rains are lashing us. In many regions, it will be both hot and humid, leading to an uncomfortable sweating even while it is raining outside. It is a challenge now to keep the water and heat out, yet have air circulation through the building.

Indoor comfort conditions cannot be achieved through a singular design idea, but demand multiple interventions.

Monsoon times pose such a critical problem, most known solutions can rarely satisfy all our needs for mid-range temperature, glare-free light, big windows, protection from rain, moderate humidity and appropriate indoor to outdoor connectivity. However we may attempt as many solutions as possible to arrive at the best possible option. Traditional architecture did not face this problem as much as we face it today since they had fewer functional needs from buildings.

For the largely residential, few civic and some market related buildings all with shorter spans, they could manage with the local materials and construction systems.

Places of worship were never supposed to be the comfortable kind, with devotees willing to sweat it out.

DESIGN vs. DESIGN IMPLICATIONS

Majority of buildings today are being built by habit where we take the ideas for granted.

27PP-greensense_27_2453329eA frequent question one encounters today is why green and eco-friendly ideas are not frequently seen, despite their critical need, ease of implementation and financial viability. While there can be no definite answers to such socio-psychology-based questions, this query can lead us to wonder whether we really design knowing well what the design is and what impact it would have once it is built.

Let us look at these familiar cases. We appreciate a hand-crafted wooden paper holder in a friend’s office, bring it home as a gift, but get disappointed by the same piece on our table. Nothing wrong in the craft, but what was a fitting piece on a wooden table, becomes a total misfit on a glass and chromium table, making all the difference. Down the road we observe a porch projecting from a curved wall, insist with our architect to keep one in our house front too, but feel unhappy when it is actually built so. The difference could be because the original curve might have got balanced by other complimentary curves and in our house it could be out of place due to house design. Likewise, if the owner randomly changes a wall or a window, it may affect either the structures or the elevation, simply because the design implication was not considered while changing the design.

Majority of buildings today are being built by habit where we take the ideas for granted. Unfortunately, many design and construction experts also tend to ignore fresh thinking, mindlessly repeating the routine practice. The claim of hundreds of houses in the bio-data, without ever doing any performance assessment or realising lost opportunities therein, makes contractors and builders too oblivious to the implications of their constructions.

Everyone can visualise design but everyone cannot visualise the implications of designs. The implications are more critical than the design itself. Majority of us who claim to design are actually recollecting our own memories and experiences, repeating what our elders did in varied ways. We also could be simply copying a popular idea, not realising how a great building needs original thinking.

Why are we shunning eco-specialisation in architecture? The most common cause is the fees payable as an avoidable waste of money, which of course is a myth. More effective solutions, even if they come at a cost, are worth it. There are innumerable non-monetary, invisible and non-quantifiable benefits like day light, fresh air, flexible space, efficient designs, alternative aesthetics, lower maintenance costs, lesser power bills and such others. A discernible house owner may wish to get every aspect of the building to be reviewed and revised, to get maximum benefits for the time, money and energy spent.

To that end, we should think about not only the design but also about the design implications. If design implications are the criteria, eco-friendly ideas have a greater chance of getting executed.

For thermal comfort

Knowing daylight and shadow patterns round the year is helpful, and common sense observation can be the starting point for understanding light and shade balance in buildings.

Often we see design ideas going through a paradigm shift, nearly to the opposite ends. To realise this phenomena, look at this — from the past practice of building for shade inside the jan5house and outside on the walls, today we are seeing buildings washed with light everywhere. Accordingly, windows on the walls have become larger, external walls are exposed to direct sunlight and skylights have been introduced.

While the theory of light is desirable, the resultant heat built-up is a nuisance no one can live with, hence the need for ideas to shade the building. From an eco-friendly perspective, the more shaded the building, the more cool would be the inside space. In case of air-conditioned structures, this would reduce energy needs; and if not, we achieve more effective passive cooling.

Emergence of chajjas

During the early years of modern architecture in India, simple projected chajjas were introduced. Most people think they are mainly for rain, which is not true. As shading devices, though without specific considerations of direction, depth of projection and materiality, they continue to be popular in India.

Thinking architects like Le Corbusier experimented with alternative forms, and came out with specially inclined concrete walls outside the window, often called as Brise Soleil. Much before him, the Golconda building at Pondicherry had a series of horizontal concrete fins. Such external skins placed closely to the walls allow wind movement and let in diffused light from the bright tropical sun but prevent direct solar radiation into indoor spaces.

Indian traditional designs did not use an external skin, but provided deep overhangs like at Fatehpur Sikri or built external walls as perforated jaalis to reduce heat built-up as found in Jaisalmer. Or positioned wooden louver-based features as walls as seen in the Padmanabhapuram Palace. Of course these are among the best examples we get, with thousands of variations with lesser effect commonly found all over our country.

Solar charts

While all the above measures are valid and much needed, our data base for ensuring shade has drastically improved over the years. For every region now there are solar charts – specifically locating the sun in technical terms like altitude and azimuth for any given minute of the year.

It is possible today to calculate the exact pattern of shade for any given time using manual formulae or computer simulated software driven programmes. These measures assist in designing the shading device to derive increased shade in summer and increased sunlight penetration in winter. India being in the southern hemisphere with high summer sun and low winter sun is a difficult place to design for, considering our vast geographical extent and regional diversities.

No single solution can serve year-round needs; hence we need to think judiciously to derive maximum benefits across the seasons. While computer software can help, common sense observation and following the right kind of precedence can be the starting point towards a building where light and shade are balanced.