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Architect Laurie Baker

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Dr. N. Subramanian
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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 8:23 pm    Post subject: Architect Laurie Baker Reply with quote

Laurie Baker

Laurence Wilfred "Laurie" Baker (March 2, 1917 – April 1, 2007) was an award-winning British-born Indian architect, renowned for his initiatives in cost-effective energy-efficient architecture and for his unique space utilisation and simple but beautful aesthetic sensibility. In time he made a name for himself both in sustainable architecture as well as in organic architecture.

He went to India in 1945 in part as a missionary and since then lived and worked in India for over 50 years. He obtained Indian citizenship in 1989 and resided in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala, since 1970 , where he later set up an organization called COSTFORD (Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development), for spreading awareness for low cost housing.

In 1990, the Government of India awarded him with the Padma Shri in recognition of his meritorious service in the field of architecture

Education and missionary work

Baker was born into a staunch Methodist family, the youngest son of Birmingham Gas Distribution Authority's chief accountant, Wilfred Baker and Emiley. His elder brothers, Leonard and Norman, were both studying law, and had a married sister, Edna. In his teens Baker began to question what religion meant to him and decided to become a Quaker since it was closer to what he believed in. Baker studied architecture at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, Birmingham and graduated in 1937, aged 20, in a period of political unrest for Europe.

During the Second World War, he served in the Friends Ambulance Unit in China and Burma.

His initial commitment to India had him working as an architect for World Leprosy Mission, an international and interdenominational Mission dedicated to the care of those suffering from leprosy in 1945. As new medicines for the treatment of the disease were becoming more prevalent, his responsibilities were focused on converting or replacing asylums once used to house the ostracized sufferers of the disease - "lepers". Finding his English construction education to be inadequate for the types of issues and materials he was faced with: termites and the yearly monsoon, as well as laterite, cow dung, and mud walls, respectively, Baker had no choice but to observe and learn from the methods and practices of the vernacular architecture. He soon learned that the indigenous architecture and methods of these places were in fact the only viable means to deal with his once daunting problems.

Inspired by his discoveries (which he modestly admitted were 'discoveries' only for him, and mere common knowledge to those who developed the practices he observed), he began to turn his style of architecture towards one that respected the actual culture and needs of those who would actually use his buildings, rather than just playing to the more "Modern-istic" tunes of his paying clients.

Gandhian encouragement and initial work

After he came to India Laurie had a chance encounter with Mahatma Gandhi which was to have a lasting impact on his ideology and also his work and building philosophy. After India gained her independence and Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, Baker lived in Kerala with Doctor P.J. Chandy, from whom he received great encouragement and whose sister he would later wed in 1948.

Herself a doctor, Elizabeth Jacob and Laurie were married and moved to Pithoragarh, a small village in Uttarakhand, where they lived and worked for the next 16 years. Elizabeth's medical training was put to use aiding the afflicted in the village while Laurie continued his architectural work and research accommodating the medical needs of the community through his constructions of various hospitals and clinics. It is here that Baker would acquire and hone those skills from the local building community which had so fascinated him during his missionary work. In 1966, Baker moved south and worked with the tribals of Peerumed, Kerala, and in 1970 moved to Thiruvananthapuram.

Baker sought to enrich the culture in which he participated by promoting simplicity and home-grown quality in his buildings. Seeing so many people living in poverty in the region and throughout India served also to amplify his emphasis on cost-conscious construction, one that encouraged local participation in development and craftsmanship - an ideal that the Mahatma expressed as the only means to revitalize and liberate an impoverished India. This drive for simplicity also stemmed from his Quaker faith, one that saw indulging in a deceitful facade as a way to fool the 'Creator' as quite pointless. Instead, Baker sought to provide the 'right' space for his clients and to avoid anything pretentious.

Central for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. One of the first buildings designed by Laurie Baker. 1971Eventually, he was drawn back to work in India as more and more people began commissioning work from him in the area. The first client being Welthy Honsinger Fisher, an elderly American woman concerned with adult illiteracy throughout India, who sought to set up a 'Literacy Village' in which she intended to use puppetry, music and art as teaching methods to help illiterate and newly-literate adults add to their skills. An aging woman who risked her health to visit Laurie, refused to leave until she received plans for the village. More and more hospital commissions were received as medical professionals realized that the surroundings for their patients were as much a part of the healing process as any other form of treatment, and that Baker seemed the only architect who cared enough to become familiarized with how to build what made Indian patients comfortable with those surroundings. His presence would also soon be required on-site at Ms. Fisher's "Village," and he became well known for his constant presence on the construction sites of all his projects, often finalizing designs through hand-drawn instructions to masons and laborers on how to achieve certain design solutions.

Architectural style

The Indian Coffee House in Thiruvananthapuram, which was designed by Laurie BakerThroughout his practice, Baker became well known for designing and building low cost, high quality, beautiful homes, with a great portion of his work suited to or built for lower-middle to lower class clients. His buildings tend to emphasize prolific - at times virtuosic - masonry construction, instilling privacy and evoking history with brick jali walls, a perforated brick screen which invites a natural air flow to cool the buildings' interior, in addition to creating intricate patterns of light and shadow.

Another significant Baker feature is irregular, pyramid-like structures on roofs, with one side left open and tilting into the wind. Baker's designs invariably have traditional Indian sloping roofs and terracotta Mangalore tile shingling with gables and vents allowing rising hot air to escape. Curved walls enter Baker's architectural vocabulary as a means to enclose more volume at lower material cost than straight walls, and for Laurie, "building [became] more fun with the circle." A testament to his frugality, Baker was often seen rummaging through salvage heaps looking for suitable building materials, door and window frames, sometimes hitting a stroke of luck as evidenced by the intricately carved entry to the Chitralekha Film Studio (Aakulam, Trivandrum, 1974-76): a capricious architectural element found in a junk heap.

Baker's works, such as this house, blend seamlessly into the natural settings.Baker's architectural method is one of improvisation, in which initial drawings have only an idealistic link to the final construction, with most of the accommodations and design choices being made on-site by the architect himself. Compartments for milk bottles near the doorstep, windowsills that double as bench surfaces, and a heavy emphasis on taking cues from the natural condition of the site are just some examples.

His Quaker-instilled respect for nature lead him to let the idiosyncrasies of a site inform his architectural improvisations, rarely is a topography line marred or a tree uprooted. This saves construction cost as well, since working around difficult site conditions is much more cost-effective than clear-cutting. ("I think it's a waste of money to level a well-moulded site") Resistant to "high-technology" that addresses building environment issues by ignoring natural environment, at the Centre for Development Studies (Trivandrum, 1971) Baker created a cooling system by placing a high, latticed, brick wall near a pond that uses air pressure differences to draw cool air through the building. His responsiveness to never-identical site conditions quite obviously allowed for the variegation that permeates his work.


The Hamlet at Nalanchira near Thiruvananthapuram, which was home to Baker and his wife since 1970. The house, which resides on a hill top, was constructed by Baker.Laurie Baker died at 7:30 am on April 1, 2007, aged 90, he was survived by wife Elizabeth, son Tilak and daughters Vidya and Heidi. Until the end, he continued to work in and around his home in Trivandrum, though health concerns had kept his famous on-site physical presence to a minimum.

His designing and writing were done mostly at his home. His approach to architecture steadily gained appreciation as architectural sentiment creaks towards place-making over modernizing or stylizing. As a result of this more widespread acceptance, however, the "Baker Style" home is gaining popularity, much to Baker's own chagrin, since he felt that the 'style' being commoditised is merely the inevitable manifestation of the cultural and economic imperatives of the region in which he worked, not a solution that could be applied whole-cloth to any outside situation. Laurie Baker's architecture focused on retaining a site's natural character, and economically minded indigenous construction, and the seamless integration of local culture that has been very inspirational.

Many of Laurie Baker's writings were published and are available through COSTFORD (the Center Of Science and Technology For Rural Development) the voluntary organisation which carried out many of his later projects, at which he was the Master Architect. COSTFORD is carrying on working towards the ideals that Laurie Baker espoused throughout his life.

Further reading
Bhatia, Gautam, Laurie Baker, Life, Work, Writings, Viking Press, 1991. ISBN 0-670839914
Bhatia, Gautam, Laurie Baker, Life, Work, Writings, New Delhi, India,Penguin Books, 1994). ISBN 0-140154604
The Other Side of Laurie Baker: Memoirs, by Elizabeth Baker. ISBN 81-264-1462-6.
Voluntary Agencies and Housing: A Report on Some Voluntary Agencies Working in the Field of Housing in India, by Madhao Achwal. Published by UNICEF, 1979. Chapter 3:Laurie Baker.


See the attached PDF for more details and photos of his works.


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