THIS ONE’S FOR FREE
I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.
The keys are willing. Gentle hammers strike.
The tone is green, lively and calm.
The tone says that freedom exists
and someone isn’t paying the emperor tax.
I shove my hands down into my haydnpockets
and act like someone who looks calmly at the world.
I hoist the haydnyflag — it signifies:
“We won’t give in. But want peace.”
-from the Tomas Tranströmer poem, “Allegro”
To be simply human, to create work on a human scale with positive outcomes, like sheltering someone with aesthetic care…these are not things contractually required by some international, all-righteous governing body to generate profit. There is no such law.
Architects have bills to pay of course, and it’s understandable that they dutifully focus on the preferences of clients and the industry’s latest version of success: projects that generate buzz, development that offers everyone involved a nice cut. These payoffs help assuage our doubts about the efficacy of what’s been made.
Occasionally, though, we encounter someone who questions our profit precepts, who builds and builds beautifully even, without full-throttle capital investment or marketing thrusts. Filmmaker Vineet Radhakrishnan is currently working on a biopic about just such a person, his grandfather, Laurie Baker.
Baker was a British-born architect who headquartered himself on the west coast of India and spent decades — he lived and worked to age 90 — experimenting with low-cost, high-wonder structures. Interview subjects in Rahakrishnan’s upcoming film describe Baker as “a complete deviation from the standards of architecture,” and yet he left behind brick tons of construction — curvy homes, schools, clinics, a film studio, a cathedral — that stand strong, useful, and playfully splendid for clients who weren’t high-earners or big influencers.
Author and architect Arundahati Roy describes Baker in the film this way: “There was no connection between money and beauty. It isn’t that because he built low cost buildings, they were not beautiful. They were more beautiful than any buildings anywhere in the vicinity and continue to be so.”
Baker contributed to society on his own terms. That’s his gift to us, the example of someone working hard while finding himself a little wiggle room from the expectations of his profession, a few sips of freedom from economic imperatives of growth, growth growth.