This paper will explore issues surrounding the creation of a new architectural tradition by a single individual in engagement with a dying building tradition. It will look both at the architectural work and philosophy of Laurie Baker in Kerala, South India, and at the work of the area’s traditional craftsmen, masons and carpenters. The paper will seek to understand the “Baker phenomenon” and the factors that caused this architect’s work to become an alter- native tradition. It will also attempt to arrive at a better understand- ing of how building traditions change or transform over time.
Craftspeople have lost much of their role as conceivers of build- ing form in Kerala. This change owes much to the introduction of the engineer–as-architect and the increased bureaucratization that followed the first few decades of Indian independence, and to the more recent proliferation of trained architects. Moreover, with the loosening of Kerala’s ritualistic social structure, the traditional niche that the asari (master carpenter/mason) occupied has been all but destroyed, leaving such people with little status other than tat of skilled construction workers. At the same time, new technologies and the spread of mass culture have changed the technical and aesthetic demands of the newly rich middle class, and so transformed the value system on which architecture is founded.
Baker’s work, mostly in laterite, brick and concrete, today stands gracefully alongside Kerala’s former tradition of building in wood, which is now virtually dead. Overall, during the course of the last three decades or so, Baker has designed more than a thousand houses in Thiruvananthapuram alone, in addition to forty churches, numerous schools, hospitals, and other institutional buildings. Currently more than eighty years old, Baker still undertakes projects, which are executed through younger architects who are his staunch followers. His work draws upon traditional methods and wisdom, yet his solutions are responsive to contemporary needs.
What is most striking about Baker’s work is the ease with which it has been accepted both by the general public and by young architects searching for something more “rooted” as an alternative to the International Style. His architecture has generated new construction techniques that have in turn necessitated training people to build with them, and his philosophy of “cost-effective strategies” has found ready patronage with the government — both essential ingredients to the sustenance of a new tradition of building. Yet the institution of a continuing Baker tradition is no easy matter, mainly because its chief virtue is a unique alignment of a critical modern approach, tradition- al skills and construction values, and a belief in the possibility that good architecture is potentially for everyone. Furthermore, Baker’s architecture has been largely confined to Kerala, suggesting perhaps that the tradition has a definite “place-specificity.” This paper seeks to investigate the opportunities and pitfalls evident in the attempt at institutionalizing the Baker spirit as a new and improved tradition.