Sambhaji Bhagat interviews Architect Gautam Bhatia
Director: Ralli Jacob, Rafeeq Ellias, P.K. Das; Cinematographer: Rafeeq Ellias
Duration: 00:21:37; Aspect Ratio: 1.366:1; Hue: 28.440; Saturation: 0.321; Lightness: 0.118; Volume: 0.077; Cuts per Minute: 0.925; Words per Minute: 101.766
Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi based practising architect and a writer of many books including Laurie Baker: Life, Work, Writings.
Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi based practising architect and a writer.
Shot of library
Sambhaji Bhagat: Gautam there is lot of concern for alternative materials and technologies and HUDCO (The Housing and Urban Development Corporation Limited) and yourself and you'll are now involved in building centres' activities. Could you elaborate on that? Tell us more about it?
Gautam Bhatia: Well I am not involved in any other building centre, I'm associated with the Laurie Baker building centre. And the concern of the centre is not so much with pushing a particular kind of low cost technology, its only working towards...
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Laurie Baker Building Centre
Sambhaji Bhagat: Gautam you are the chairman of one of the building centres of The Housing and Urban Development Corporation Limited (HUDCO). What is your work there? What are you doing at the building centre?
Gautam Bhatia: Well the building centre was set up to promote the ideas of Laurie Baker - I think we all familiar with Laurie Baker's work. Baker is a Trivandrum based architect and his... I think his greatest achievement in architecture has been to try and reduce cost and HUDCO having tried for many years successfully and unsuccessfully to try and lower costs from their own projects have now used some of Baker's ideas and is promoting his technology on a very formal institutional scale.
Gautam Bhatia: My role in the building centre is purely as a figurehead - I'm called the chairman of the building centre, but the real work is being done by people who've been trained to understand Laurie Baker's ideas. And to some extend I think I am here as a sort of conduit between Laurie Baker's ideas and the manner of producing housing in Delhi which is something most people in Trivandrum or... the way Baker is training his people they are not familiar with. So, to a large extent I sort of stay in the background. But the work that the centre is doing is propagating some of the ideas that Baker has worked on and set in the 40 years of his practice in India.
Sambhaji Bhagat: I mean, as I think, what is then the significance of Laurie Baker and his thoughts? What is the relevance of Laurie Baker's work in Delhi or in other places in the country that you are trying to now propagate through the building center?
Gautam Bhatia: Well the main reason for HUDCO's recognition of Laurie Baker is the fact that he manages to build very cheap and this is something that most housing institutions in the country have not been able to do over many years. And the Baker though has not used any of his ideas on an institutional scale - on a large mass scale. The idea of HUDCO taking over role where his ideas are propagated was I think a good one where places like Delhi where a large scale housing problem certainly exists, would now try out and experiment on his ideas and see whether this is one of the possibilities.
Sambhaji Bhagat: How does Laurie Baker save costs? Why do you say his work is low cost and therefore, has prospects of being applied to mass housing?
Gautam Bhatia; Baker has managed to really question the way all conventional architects and architecture works and this has been I think largely responsible for why he's managed to reduce costs. The first method of his cost reduction is in reducing the material. Baker has always felt that the way we build conventionally we waste far too much material, and we can probably use conventional material but only half of it to build the sort of spaces we required. And so he's managed to demonstrate this very convincingly on his work in Kerala. And I think in recognition of that HUDCO has taken this up as a challenge to push his ideas and see whether they do have a mass application.
Sambhaji Bhagat: I think the significant part of Laurie Baker's work as you mentioned is his personal involvement in a project to a great detail and a very one to one basis of interaction between the execution of the project and the role of a designer or the role of an architect. Do you feel this kind of a closeness of a one to one relationship with the architect really being closely interacting with the site... possible at a mass level in housing which you propose to now start considering its application through HUDCO's projects?
Gautam Bhatia: Well I think that direct relationship is certainly is not possible. The way Baker works it is a very close intersection with the client. And when you are talking about a housing problem we're really concerned with the anonymous user. And what... where I think Baker's work has relevance to a mass scale is... we can use some of the ideas to reduce cost but the basic framework I think of operating and building will have to be more conventional, I suppose.
Sambhaji Bhagat: Ya okay, just to get to another point about this question of alternate technologies... Today there is a move and quite a consciousness towards discovering or rather experimenting into alternative materials. Such as mud for example, the application of mud in construction is now being emphasised and several architects including the other building centre where Anil Laul is working for HUDCO... I suppose, are you also thinking in those lines of using mud and what significance has mud in the construction that is being propagated?
Gautam Bhatia: Well frankly I don't think mud had any major relevance for mass housing because we tend to have a very romantic notion of using mud and so far that has not changed. There is no real practical application of mud in an urban context. Most of the really fine examples in mud buildings, whether in housing or in institution, they all in rural areas. So, I think to try and start research on a material which has been used traditionally and used very successfully is like trying to reinvent the wheel. So the real... I think the answer lies not in pushing one particular technology over the other, but seeing how certain composite buildings can occur where you have materials - mud mixing with cement and cement mixing with brick.
Sambhaji Bhagat: Gautam could you please elaborate little more on the use of mud in construction and what has been your expedience in the past and now in the ongoing experiment at the building centres?
Gautam Bhatia: I have not been involved in using mud as part of my work with the building centre, but for some other projects I have used the material - but more again out of these romantic notions that architects have, that everyone ought to live in mud. We had done a housing project in Mathura district which to my mind was a failure because we pushed a certain technology which we felt was right for the rural areas. But it obviously wasn't right because after our backs were turned all the walls were plastered and it was a pakka
building. The problem with mud still remains with... with mud not being correct as far as the image is concerned. I think most people see its use or its associations with rural poverty and I think that is one of the biggest misnomers and unless that is rectified to some degree, we'll always have that stigma attached to mud. And even the people...
Gautam Bhatia: So, my own experience with mud has not been very good and I think if you look around you'll see that most of the institutions that are involved in doing research in mud haven't really built substantially to make mud a sort of relevant low cost material. All the work that some of the large organisations have done is in the form of small experiments in villages. And there is nothing which has promoted mud technology on a large scale.
Sambhaji Bhagat: What intrigues me Gautam is that if mud has its obvious limitations and its application in mass housing in an urban context where we are talking about high densities, we're talking about maybe multi-storeys because of land issues. Then why is the building centre or other institutions such as for Institute of Alternate Technologies... Alternative... of Mr. Khosla and even some other institutions around the country are trying to now propagate and carry out laboratory experiments in isolation of its context. I mean what is the idea behind this?
Gautam Bhatia: I don't agree with their way of working because I have a strong feeling that where we should do research in mud is not what these institutions are concentrating on. The real thrust ought to be in promoting traditional technologies and maybe working towards improving some of the techniques of building in the villages, where there is a very ready application. But trying to do something for the urban areas where there are so many other factors involved I think unless you start looking at alternative ways of transport, of alternative by-laws you're really barking up the wrong tree.
Sambhaji Bhagat: The next point that really comes up here is that if mud I mean how do we justify that mud is going to be cheap? As you said in traditional constructions mud had its role and was cheap because it was locally available. But how does this concept now come about in our present situation where the market forces do operate at such strength and which is going to very soon capture any material that turns to be popular to be adopted and used in construction?
Gautam Bhatia: Well, that's... mud may certainly go the way of brick or concrete if it becomes a popular material. And you're right, the popularity of material is gauged more by it's sale-ability and its... So, if it happened that there are vested interests in promoting mud, mud may very well find its way into the local building code and by-law and be pushed the same way. But that will defeat the whole purpose of pushing a low cost technology whose idea is that the user himself would be erecting a building. When you get so many middlemen who are first making the mud blocks and transporting the mud blocks to a site and building, the ultimate cost of a mud building would not be very different from a conventional structure. So, I think that's where the Laurie Baker building centre is also working towards eliminating the middleman. Because in housing and in any construction business, it is the middleman that makes the largest profit. So, if by getting the owner of the house closely involved in construction by getting the architect on the site and getting his hands dirty... this is a way of bringing together very sound technology and which everyone is familiar with. So, one is not trying to bring in new materials or asbestos mixed with cement... for all these new technologies are still in a very early stage for trial on a big scale. What makes Baker relevant is that he works with accepted materials and the certainly accepted design from the way he has been working in Kerala.
Sambhaji Bhagat: So, since its so obvious that the application of mud or various other alternative materials that we now trying to in the lab experiments, trying to propagate for mass housing or for housing in the slums and for the economically weaker sections. Don't you think there is a danger here that it is in a sense sort of diverting the minds and attention from the present material setup, which could then be researched and developed further because its applications and relevance are undoubtedly... has to a certain extent been established as meaningful?
Gautam Bhatia: Yes that, that's very true though you have to see that things which are relevant today may not be 20 years from now. And I think there is certainly a need to experiment with materials which may provide a sudden great explosive answer 20 years from now. It doesn't mean that we abandon all these experiments but I think the... our needs are much more immediate and that's way the technology also ought to be immediate and that's where I think Baker's relevance is also immediate.
Sambhaji Bhagat: And how do we answer this conflict? Today if you walk to a slum and you ask a slum dweller as to what his perception of a pakka
house is, or what kind of a house he is looking for, he would certainly opt for a house which is of concrete, which has got cement tile flooring, in the kind of houses that most people like you and me live in, And how do we then confront this social situation through our persuasive experiment and propagation of different technology?
Gautam Bhatia: Well I think for that we really ought to start from the top level down. If the prime minister promotes a certain housing idea then the first person on which it ought to be tried is the prime minister himself. Or if HUDCO pushes a certain idea I think the chairman of HUDCO ought to be also part of that scheme.
SB: Or should I put it the other way? It should be downwards up that what people decide to have should then be the rule.