Vinu Daniel’s atypical practice, quite uncompromisingly rooted in an ethic of non-violence, frugality and self-reliance, is beginning to gain prominence. In this post I explore a few areas of personal curiosity about his work that I got a chance to ask Vinu about during a recent visit to Trivandrum.
Daniel has a deep understanding of the meaning of sustainability. He strives to build entirely with materials sourced within 5 miles of the plot, he thinks deeply about how to reduce the violence of the act of building against the land and all beings already present, and he minimizes the use of material and resources in keeping with the Gandhian precept that “the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
Daniel was inspired by the architect Laurie Baker, but Daniel’s designs don’t reproduce Baker’s raw, earthy, irregular aesthetic. In fact, I find it striking that Baker’s aesthetic seems to have largely disappeared from what is being built today in the region. As beautiful as we architects may find Baker’s work, why does it not seem to have resonated more broadly in contemporary Kerala?
Daniel sees this question as a great paradox that goes to the heart of the Baker legacy. Daniel holds Laurie Baker’s work in the highest possible esteem. He believes Baker essentially “solved” architecture, by showing how to produce extraordinarily beautiful and very low-cost buildings that bring happiness to the occupants, fulfill the functional requirements, and minimizes material use. Such a perfect form of architecture should logically have become widely followed and should now be ubiquitous. How did this not happen?
Daniel believes that the essential reason is that Baker never talked about beauty. He would put forward the low cost, the frugality, the technical solutions, and the social aspects of his buildings, but he never presented his work as something aesthetically elevated, as having the grandeur inherent in beauty. As a result, believes Daniel, people got a sense of this form of building as everyday and practical, or even as an architecture for the poor. It did not respond to people’s need for aspiration and status. As a result, society at large has little appreciation or even awareness of Baker’s work today, even as it is venerated by architects.
The insufficiently broad societal impact of Baker’s legacy leads to the learning that it is not enough to design perfectly appropriate and ethical buildings with a form of beauty that appeals only to a narrow audience. For responsible building to become widespread, people have to find it beautiful and desirable. For Daniel, beauty is therefore essential, not just for itself but to ensure the success of this approach to building. Hence Daniel’s adoption of a much more polished aesthetic as a deliberate choice rooted in desire for social impact, not just as a personal preference.
Another area that I have been curious about is that despite Daniel’s early and strong engagement in the use of raw earth, recent projects have often eschewed it. It is easy to understand why: Daniel’s priority is to use the most appropriate low-impact locally-available material, which does not always turn out to be raw earth.
Daniel remains passionate about raw earth, but he explained that his perspective is broader than systematic attachment to a single material. He credits his training at the Auroville Earth Institute, a world-leading center in raw earth construction, with bringing him rigor and creativity that was highly transferable and that has structured his way of working with materials in general.
In particular, working with raw earth gave Daniel a practical understanding of embodied energy, which is not something that is usually taught in college. Embodied energy gets to the heart of what the much abused words “sustainability” and “organic” should actually mean. Daniel passionately believes that it is only through quantified, data-driven technical knowledge that one can battle the misuse of these concepts and that it is incumbent on architects to acquire that knowledge.
Today, Daniel uses the methodologies and techniques he initially applied to raw earth with other materials, like locally-made kiln-fired bricks, plastic waste, or construction debris. All of these materials and techniques are at a much lower order of magnitude of environmental impact compared to aluminum, concrete and steel. There is no contradiction, and certainly no competition, between these low-impact materials. Daniel is applying the philosophy of building and a set of technical capabilities that he honed with raw earth in an agnostic spirit between low-impact materials.
This focus on knowledge of materials and building processes has led Daniel to a rather unusual form of practice. As he set out to build radically low-impact buildings, he had a very practical need to be out in the field, training workers and finding creative technical solutions different to prevailing practice. Sitting at his drawing table and specifying off-the-shelf products as most architects do was simply incompatible with his way of approaching building.
Still today, Daniel’s working process occurs as a very practical convergence of the site itself, the materials found locally, and the human skills and creativity of the workers. It is from this meeting of factors – and not from the mind of the architect working remotely – that springs the built form.
Consequently, Daniel has no real studio as we might imagine. Instead, he works in the field with craftspeople: he estimates that over the years he has trained 250 people in raw earth and other low-impact building techniques.
Given this approach, that is very different from a typical architecture firm, I was curious about how Daniel has developed his practice and how he sees it developing going forward.
Careful selection of clients has always been a given. At the beginning it was an empirical necessity as only a rare client who completely buys into the approach would want to work with Daniel. Historically, clients have therefore been private individuals and, more recently, small institutions like a religious group or a local art center, with whom visions can align.
But Daniel’s aim is not only to produce very local experiments that suffice unto themselves. One senses a real desire to catalyze larger scalechange. Daniel seems to thrive on demonstrating what can be done by applying creativity, pragmatism and technical skill outside the confines of the ordinary construction practices and the conventional supply chain.
To continue in this path, Daniel needs to find more like-minded clients as he works his way up in the scale and prestige of commissions. This seems to be happening: he was invited this year to design an installation for the 2023 Sharjah Architecture Triennal, which he of course used to make a statement about waste by building with discarded tires.
Whatever the outcome, Daniel’s work is already an inspiring example that architects around the world can turn to. We can accept his work as a challenge to question the assumptions within which we work and to raise the true sustainability of our own work.
But Daniel invites us to go further. My impression is that he doesn’t see a building as the true finality of the architect’s work. He sees our more important societal role as disseminating knowledge.
Daniel believes that as architects we have a duty to educate ourselves so we gain true expertise in construction that is genuinely low impact, going back to first principles rather than accepting the prevailing simplifying premises. We should then take that knowledge and act as teacher to disseminate it among construction workers, clients, and other stakeholders across society.
In this way we can act as a catalyst of a much broader societal process to mobilize collective intelligence to produce low-impact, frugal and beautiful buildings, in line with our true human and societal needs. It is in this combination of ethics, pedagogy, and beauty that I believe lies Vinu Daniel’s unique and inspiring contribution to our profession.