Towards a New Vernacular.
H Masud Taj introduces the work of
Asha & Prabhakar Baste

First published in the 1997 monograph, 'The Sheltering Angle-Architecture of Asha and Prabhakar Baste', this essay, authored by H Masud Taj, is an introduction to the work of architects Asha Baste and Prabhakar Baste and is being republished on the occasion of their new (2022) book.

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“The book (The Sheltering Angle) would not have come into existence if our friend, a poet and an architect, H Masud Taj, had not suggested that we publish a book on Prabhakar’s hand-drawn drawings…In 1997, a small monograph, ‘The Sheltering Angle – Architecture of  Asha and Prabhakar Baste’, was published… I wish to thank Masud Taj for the essay ‘Towards a New Vernacular’ he wrote for it.”

Authors of the 2022 book, ‘The Sheltering Angle’

In ancient Mesopotamia, the Code of Hammurabi (1800 BC) fixed absolute accountability upon master builders for both design and construction. In the succeeding millennia, cathedrals and cable-stayed bridges, cloisters and corporate headquarters, have been conceived and constructed using the paradigm of design-build.

Design Build Institute of America brochure: 1994

In India two factors override others by their sheer magnitude:

  • a building is the outcome of a handmade craft tradition and not industrial production &
  • the majority of the population lives in small towns and villages and builds without architects.

The architecture of Asha & Prabhakar Baste is relevant because it addresses itself both these issues. Their process of construction forges links with the craftsmen, and their buildings are designed to be prototypes. Their style has a simplicity, rigour and deductive logic that paves the way for a new vernacular.

Towards a New Vernacular. <br>H Masud Taj introduces the work of <br>Asha & Prabhakar Baste 1

Humane Process

When you wish to have a car you buy a product. When you wish to have a house you buy a process. That process engages teams of people working in tandem to make the product.  The process may either nourish or it may alienate those that it engages.

The process that is a norm in the profession is Design/Bid/Build. It relies on exhaustive documents (drawings & text) that serve as the basis of a bid among competing contractors, one of whom (often the lowest bidder) eventually signs the contract. But in a society that is not contract-enforcing, the process is reduced to a farce. Furthermore, by definition, the process is alienating as between the intention and its execution falls the shadow of the contractor. The architect is reduced to a paper producer and construction observer; the craftsmen are reduced to labourers who do know not why they do what they do. This approach of separating design and construction responsibility has only been around for the past 150 years.

Asha recollects her dissatisfaction in the USA with the role of the architect as one who assembles predesigned elements.  She realized this even while working in the New York office of the then-biggest architectural firm in the world: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (whom Hasan Fathy once referred to as the 3 Blind Mies). It was not the large scale of the projects that impressed her, as much as the limited extent of control that the architect was able to exercise that disappointed her.  

The process that the Bastes subscribe to is Design/Build. Apart from designing the project, the architects become its construction managers as well. The client, the active financier of the project, is aware of the cost of the material and labour that he pays on the basis of an approximate cost plan. Success depends not so much on the enforcement of contracts as on the forging of relationships with the clients and a longer-term relationship with the construction crew. 

Nurturing such relationships can have an impact not only on the quality of workmanship but also on the design itself. When Gopal Gonbare the plumber complained that his meticulous work always ended up being concealed behind plaster, the Bastes decided to expose the plumbing in the D’Silva Apartments, detailing it to remain away from the external wall on extended brackets culminating in the water pressure ring on the terrace simulating parapet railing.  The D’Silva Apartments are also evidence of the resiliency of Bastes’ methods to satisfy the city’s statutory requirements as well as the heritage precinct’s controls.

Having their own construction crew enables greater control and flexibility. As the architects execute that which they themselves legislated, they can achieve their intent by adapting to site conditions and coming off with a quality job even on a tight budget. Design intentions are conveyed through minimal drawings to workers familiar with Bastes’ style. Intensive design development accompanies construction with drawings becoming a means of investigating and pre-empting problems. The house itself becomes a drawing (the medium is the message) as walls are quickly plastered by workers eager to receive details drawn on them by the architect during his site visit. The swerve of the architect’s hand at the site marks the line of departure for a surrealistic pattern of mosaic tiles in the bathroom of the Chowgule House.

The confidence that the Bastes’ have in the architect being able to design his way out of any problem that may be encountered, is almost a belief. Akin to the mystical faith of the Naqshbandi (ie: Designers) Sufis who affirm that the only way to attain complete freedom is to design one’s way out of life’s predicament.

Towards a New Vernacular. <br>H Masud Taj introduces the work of <br>Asha & Prabhakar Baste 3

Product as Prototype

Driving down the Mumbai-Goa road, Prabhakar points out the beauty of old agricultural villages in their natural settings accentuating the ugliness and squalor of small new towns with their awkward medley of shop-fronts, temporary structures and shabby houses. The visuals alternate all the way to his hometown Ratnagiri: with village houses speaking a common language and the new townhouses making discordant noises. One is a conversation and the other an argument.

Prabhakar worked for 10 years on hospital projects, in the office of Llewelyn Davis Weeks and Partners in London. The firm had associated with Gropius on a building and with Doxiadis in the production of the Existics magazine.  While Gropius and Doxiades became the coordinates within which Prabhakar defined problems; hospital planning ingrained in him the importance of resolving circulation patterns so that the main spaces do not impede and are not disturbed by the traffic flow. A mind so attuned began, on return to India, to turn its attention to updating the organic vernacular house. 

First a tartan grid along the nine-fold division of a square. The main squares received a sloping roof and were separated by narrow zones for circulation and services. The older village pyramidal or hip roof suitable for timber construction now evolved into a lean-to roof in concrete with 20 degrees slope. Abutting against the low flat slabs (over circulation & services) allowed for a high-level ventilator and hence cross ventilation. A prototypal diagram became the basis of a spate of houses each an illustration of the diverse possibilities; among them the Helekar House and the Berde House.

The village as an idyllic cluster of sloping roofs surrounded by nature had been encapsulated within each house itself. Each individual house was a mini-village: a cluster of roofs surrounded by a garden. Dispersed parts carried the memory of the whole.

The Metaphorical Restaurant

The same utilitarian approach led them to formulate a low-cost drive-in restaurant for 200 people. The car park is shaded by an overarching canopy of three Rain Trees (planted by the Bastes 11 years ago).  The restaurant itself consists of lean-to-roofed verandahs wrapped around a courtyard.  The restaurant, a place where every visitor is a guest in momentary residence for the duration of a meal, is located in a space of transition: the verandah. Deductive reasoning inadvertently led to an inductive leap. The literal served the metaphorical.

Towards a New Vernacular. <br>H Masud Taj introduces the work of <br>Asha & Prabhakar Baste 5

The Silent Stage

The largest project of Asha & Prabhakar Baste in Ratnagiri is the Meeting Hall for the Zilla Parishad. It has an intimate fan-shaped auditorium for 200 people roofed with an amphitheatre open to the sky for another 200; besides ancillary services all on an irregular site. The project was designed 13 years ago, built at a cost of twelve lakh rupees, admired by the clients, and yet never used.  The building remained unoccupied and entangled in red-tapism.  It now stands derelict amidst overgrown vegetation, its glass panes shattered, graffiti on its walls.

On the 50th anniversary of nation-building, these 5000 square feet testify to the dedication of a husband & wife architectural team rising to the occasion; to the government client’s fall from grace, and to the apathy of the residents of a small town that allow a brand new building in their midst to fast-forward into a ruin.

The Minimal Dwelling

The Baste family reside in an apartment that they moved into twenty-one years ago and in which they raised two sons (one is now an architect).  It is also their office studio, with facilities for both manual and CAD drafting, headquarters from which orders are placed in Baroda to supply material to Goa; projects run from Kerala to Varanasi; Pune to Ratnagiri.  All the working and living takes place incredibly only in 560 sq. ft.  (the kitchen is slightly bigger than a double bed).  But space transcends square footage. It extends with the architect’s design abilities and it extends while living an examined life. Even with another apartment elsewhere, the family continues to live in fine-tuned functionality. Designing is a removal of the superfluous, says Prabhakar, and decoration is an addition. To clear off clutter is to clear one’s mind.

Their utilitarian apartment is their manifesto.

Towards a New Vernacular. <br>H Masud Taj introduces the work of <br>Asha & Prabhakar Baste 7

This essay is being published on ArchitectureLive! with the author’s permission.

Author’s Note: The essay originally appeared in the 1997 monograph The Sheltering Angle. The photographs of the terrain were taken while riding a pillion on Prabhakar’s motorbike while traversing a round trip of 800 km visiting sites. The Baste quotation as well as the author’s encounter with a Naqshbandi Sufi, The Sufi & The Architectcan be downloaded from Academia. 

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