After graduating from Birmingham School of Architecture, Baker made India his home where he addressed the housing needs of the poor, sometimes called the ‘Gandi of Indian architecture’
Source: Isabel Seliger / SEPIA
Among the last buildings Laurie Baker personally designed and built is a house in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, that winds around a mango-shaped courtyard. Yes, mango-shaped. Built for a retired bureaucrat at half the cost of a conventional design, the typically free-form dwelling is built in unplastered brick with a roof that spirals up around the courtyard. As you walk deep into the earthy dark of the living room you see what Baker liked to call the ‘Coventry Cathedral effect’: broken glass bottles built into the wall and glowing against the sun like a rebooted wall of stained glass. This is not the richness of experience you expect to find in the work of an architect who devoted his life to building for the poor.
‘Although intrinsically a democrat and a humanist, he could be a dictator when it came to matters of design’
Life and work are rarely as well aligned as in the case of the British-born Baker, who made India his home in the mid-1940s. His work developed an impressive model of a sustainable and egalitarian approach to architecture in India well before Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and the 1973 OPEC crisis raised questions with which we are still grappling. Baker’s life-work, meanwhile, embodies important propositions for a socially meaningful practice of modern architecture anywhere. That he moved to India, at the urging of Mahatma Gandhi, to serve the very people that British colonisation had thoroughly impoverished, reveals the grain of his critical humanism. (He became an Indian citizen in 1988.) But his special contribution might well be to show that high-mindedness need not always involve heavy-breathing self-consciousness. The skill and creativity with which he designed and built sturdy, low-energy, cost-effective, context-aware architecture for the poor and elite alike attests to that.
An ethic of service defined Baker’s life. After graduating from Birmingham School of Architecture, he would have quickly settled into a promising professional career in Britain had the Second World War not intervened. A pacifist – Baker became a Quaker in his teens – and a conscientious objector, he was sent to southern China as a trained paramedic with the Friends Ambulance Unit in late 1941. Most of his three-year stint there was spent running a rudimentary leprosy hospital in remote Salachi near Kutsing with negligible resources and the constant hands-on nursing of patients. The intensely difficult job took a toll on his health and he was asked to return home to recover.
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Source: Addison Godel
In Bombay (now Mumbai), while waiting months for a berth on a ship heading to England, Baker met Gandhi through mutual friends and was inspired by Gandhi’s suggestion that he return and serve the Indian poor. Consequently, Baker started back for India in 1945 to join a missionary organisation as their architect just months after reaching England to rest. Soon he met Elizabeth, a dynamic young Indian doctor from Kerala, who he married in 1948 after a long courtship that successfully waited out resistance on both sides to their interracial liaison. ile on a long honeymoon trek at the foot of the Himalayas, the couple were urged by villagers to start a medical facility at Chandag, a 50-mile walk from Almora, the nearest town with a bus station. They began, as they would again and again, with a hut Baker quickly built for themselves. For the next 15 years, the prime years of practice for any skilled architect, Baker assisted Elizabeth in building and running the hospital.
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Source: Addison Godel
When a combination of factors – including the need to find schools for their young children – led the Bakers to move back to the dramatically diff erent social and natural landscape of Elizabeth’s native Kerala in 1963, the couple set up yet another hospital in a remote forested region serving tribal communities. Eventually, they moved to Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram), the state capital, in 1969. Beginning again with a hut for the family to live in near their son’s school, at 52, Baker would finally start building full time. Over the next two decades he would create the defi ning works of his career without a formal office (beyond the drawing board in the corner of his bedroom) or assistants. These include many institutions like the Centre for Development Studies, the remarkable spiral of Indian Coffee House, a rehabilitation scheme for cyclone-aff ected fishermen, as well as a string of tiny to medium-sized – and highly personalised – dwellings in Kerala and elsewhere.
Leprosy homes across India, various dates Children’s Village, Kulashekaram, 1965
Loyola Women’s Hostel, Sreekaryam, 1971
Centre for Development Studies, Ulloor, 1971
St John’s Cathedral, Thiruvella, 1973
Fisherman’s village, Poonthura, 1974
Chitralekha Film Studio, Thiruvananthapuram, 1976
Tourist Centre, Ponmudi, 1980
Experimental Houses, New Delhi, 1980
Indian Coffee House, Thiruvananthapuram, 1989
Padma Sri, 1990
UN Roll of Honour, 1992
Sir Robert Matthew Prize for Improvement of Human Settlements, 1993
‘Cost-effective houses are not just for the poor, they are for everyone’
Baker was a prolific architect by himself and in his collaborative relationships. By the time he died at the age of 90, he would have had a hand in around 10,000 buildings, the bulk of which were built by the Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development (COSTFORD), a non-profi t organisation initiated in 1986 by younger admirers including a leftist engineer and a former state chief minister. By the mid-1980s, Baker was already famous in Indian architecture and development circles. His work was a key highlight of Vistara, the groundbreaking exhibition of modern Indian architecture curated by Charles Correa in 1985, while his bravura technological and aesthetic creativity showed Indian architects the rich expressive range that could be achieved with an ethic of responsibility and service. More importantly, going against Modernist dogma, he also showed that learning from traditional architectural wisdom could actually widen the horizon of creative freedom for the modern architect.
Baker’s architecture requires us to reconsider many canonical commitments and conceptualisations that underpin modern architectural practice. While he has been called the ‘Gandhi of Indian architecture’, he was perhaps as much its Gaudí too. Alongside the explicit ethical challenge of addressing the housing needs of the poor, and of consuming less fossil energy, Baker implicitly challenged the Modernist aesthetic through his work. In a critical sense, he was perhaps the most substantive minimalist among modern architects anywhere. His architecture maximised sensuousness and a rare depth of habitational experience while minimising material and fossil energy consumption, thereby cutting costs significantly. Paradoxically, it was his professional humility (and empiricist orientation) that enabled him to find ways of achieving this.
Chengalchoola slum rehab
From very early in his building career in the foothills of the Himalayas, Baker realised that he needed to learn how to build all over again – this time, from the illiterate masons and carpenters and the traditional architecture they had built over generations – if his buildings were to stand up to the cold, rain and termites without the aid of cement and steel that were di cult to get to site in the absence of navigable roads. His work in north India is not documented. However, his work in Kerala shows how he quickly adapted the lessons of a sophisticated traditional wooden architecture there to develop a new architectural language in the now more-abundant burnt brick. He internalised and transformed the traditional climate-responsive architectural vocabulary in hot, humid and rainy Kerala. For a range of practical reasons, especially for natural ventilation, he deployed internal courtyards where possible, while extensively relying on perforated external brick walls (jali in north India) in place of the traditional (now costly) wooden trellis of Kerala.
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Source: Addison Godel
As a critical empiricist, Baker was free of the two contrary but equally debilitating sentimentalities that Aldo van Eyck once noted – one directed towards the past and the other towards the future. For instance, he innovated technically, adapting foreign inventions such as rat-trap bond masonry and filler slabs, which not only reduced material and energy consumption but also provided valuable insulation. Rat-trap bond brick incorporates insulating voids without compromising load-bearing capacity. With filler slabs, the concrete in the non-compressive bottom part of a typical structural slab is replaced by two discarded roofing tiles placed one on top of the other. These reduce cement consumption and provide insulation through air trapped in the hollows of their corrugated profiles.
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Source: Suyash Sahu
The empiricism was perhaps more radical in Baker’s approach to design. The specificity of inhabitants’ personalities and lifestyles (or unarticulated institutional needs) were concrete points of inspiration, as were the specific constraints and opportunities of sites and situations. During construction, if he believed that a small window would give someone in the kitchen a view of a beautiful tree, a window was duly put in. It helped that he never practised the conventional rationalist model of designing on paper, capturing an unchangeable building through detailed sets of drawings, then realising it mechanically on site, with strict adherence to pre-computed estimates.
His design-build method – which was founded on mutual trust between architect, client and craftsman – side-stepped the costs of architectural assistants and intermediaries in the form of contractors, while also leaving enough room for improvisation. This delivered greater efficiency and delight, with only the added burden of systematic account-keeping of material and daily labour costs. Among the economic and environmental efficiencies this afforded was the opportunity for reusing discarded materials from dismantled old houses, available at very low cost.
Given his prescient commitment and verifi able achievements in relation to social justice and environmental agendas, Baker was clearly an artist among architects, and he remains relevant today. The integrity of a Baker design is immediately palpable in ensembles like the Centre for Development Studies, as well as more incrementally built works such as his own house, the appropriately named Hamlet, a collection of finely adjusted, intimate dwelling spaces built on an initially unpromising hillside.
Chapel, loyola girls hostel
Another case in point is his building for the Indian Coffee House, a restaurant chain owned by a workers’ cooperative offering inexpensive food, located near the state transport bus stand in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram. Combining cheekily effective form and delightful functionality, the little tower can be read as a miniaturised ‘negative’ of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. Its dining area is a ramp twirling up around a solid central core housing the kitchen and pantries that also open directly to the ramp. Built-in brick furniture finished in shiny black cement radiates out from the ramp to the load-bearing external jali wall. The rhythm of the jali’s brick-high corbelled openings allows constant air movement and creates dramatic patterns of light. On the outside, shadows spiral up a form that is simultaneously intimate and monumental.
Like any practitioner, especially a modern artist, Baker’s method harboured contradictions. He was intrigued by the fact that, although intrinsically a democrat and a humanist, he could be a dictator when it came to matters of design. Nonetheless, Baker’s example illuminates a particularly important mode of practice for the contemporary architect, as an artist and a (self) critical practitioner.
This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today