“I never build for classes of people- high income, middle income or low income groups, tribals or fishermen. I only build for a Matthew, a Bhaskaran, a Muneer or a Sankaran.” – Laurie Baker
Laurence “Laurie” Baker was called the “Gandhi of Architecture”, and rightly so. Laurie Baker, a pioneer of traditional building methods, was known for his use of locally available materials to build energy efficient and low-cost buildings.
Laurie Baker was born into a strict Methodist family on 2nd March 1917. With regular weekend visits to the Cathedrals and the other old buildings, the design of these buildings fascinated young Laurie; he would build models and design of what he had seen. Soon after Laurie completed his graduation from The Birmingham’s School of Architecture, the World War 2 broke out. Realising the need for urgent medical help in the war-torn regions, he joined the Friends Ambulance Unit. At that point, he trained as a nurse, a midwife, and an anesthetist. It was during this when Laurie went to help at the Kutsing medical camp in China. When no one else was ready to look after the patients suffering from Leprosy, Laurie volunteered to offer his help. After a four-year stint in China, when he was finally about to return to England, he came across a Missionary called the “Mission to Lepers”, having worked for patients with Leprosy for such a long time, nudged him to come on board with this mission and he reached India.
With advancement in technology, the cure to Leprosy was also found. The need of the hour now were the hospitals to treat such patients. Laurie found it to be a perfect opportunity to utilise his architectural skills for the better. He refused to stay in luxurious bungalows which were provided to the missionaries in the British India and instead went on live with Dr P J Chandy, who ran one of the Leprosy hospitals in Faizabad. It was during this time when Laurie had the opportunity to listen to Gandhi’s speeches. He was deeply inspired by Gandhiji, who talked about the building needs of the country. In Laurie’s own words,
“One of the things he(Gandhi) said that impressed me and has influenced my thinking more than anything else was that the ideal houses in the ideal village will be built using materials which are all found within a five-mile radius of the house.”
All this inspired Laurie to build sustainable buildings made with naturally occurring and local materials.
Laurie went on to marry Dr Elizabeth, who was Dr Chandy’s sister. The couple went on a trip to Chandag, on the foothills of Himalaya. The locals heard about the new doctor and started flocking since there was no hospital around. As the number of patients grew by the day, Laurie felt the need to build a hospital and also a house for the two of them in nearby Pithoragarh. He built them in truly indigenous style. He also went on to build many schools. It was during his stay at Pithoragarh, that he learnt local skills of building and architecture. His style of building spread like wildfire, clients from outside would come to Laurie to get his help. Among them was an elderly American lady, Welthy Honsinger Fisher, who wanted to spread literacy in India. One of her pet projects was the “Literacy Village”, where she would use art, music, pottery and drama as a tool for teaching, set in village setup. Laurie helped her to layout the site and start building.
After more than a decade, Laurie and Elizabeth moved to Kerala. In Vagamon, near Idukki/Kottayam border, Laurie met a Belgian monk, Francis, who followed Hindu way of Monasticism and also ran an Ashram. Hearing about his previous works in Pithoragarh, Francis persuaded Laurie to stay at Vagamon and help re-establish the poor and displaced tribal people, who had no access to medical care. In 1969, Laurie, along with his wife and three children, moved to Thiruvananthapuram and settled there. He came to be famously known as the “Brick Master of Kerala”.
Laurie’s Style of Architecture
Laurie Baker developed his own style of architecture, which went on to become very famous and people started referring to it as Laurie Baker Architecture. When he first arrived in India as the Chief architect for the Mission of Lepers, he was faced with a fresh challenge. All the buildings he inspected, the construction and design styles were strikingly different from what he had learned in School of Architecture, back in England. He was greatly inspired by the techniques used by the locals for building houses, for which they used materials like laterite, cow dung, rice husks, Bamboo strips and palm fibers, which not only slashed the cost but also was extremely durable.
During his stay in the Himalayan foothills, he built several schools, chapels and hospitals. As he moved to Kerala, he learned the use of coconut leaves in construction.
Laurie’s architectural style emphasised mainly on masonry construction, ensuring privacy and use of brick jali walls for natural ventilation. Baker’s designs have traditional sloping roofs and terracotta Mangalore tiles and vents which allow hot air to escape. The difference in temperature in these buildings from outside is upto 3 degree Celsius. Baker’s construction also cost a lot less due to simpler, traditional techniques, like the use of Rat trap bond for brick walls and using bends in the wall to increase the strength. He promoted the use of low energy consuming mud walls, using holes in the wall to get light, simpler windows and a variety of roof construction approaches. He liked bare brick surfaces.
He believed in the construction of buildings which were in harmony with its surrounding environment; he rarely cleared the construction area of its green cover.
Some of his notable projects include International Leprosy Mission; Welthy Fisher’s Literacy Village, Lucknow; Andhra Pradesh Quaker Cyclone Project; Latur Earthquake Proof Housing Project; Tsunami-proof Housing Project.
Laurie Baker in his lifetime won a lot of awards and recognition, including the Padma Shri. He officially received the Indian Citizenship in 1994.
In these times, where the world is looking for sustainable existence, Laurie Baker’s approach to construction and architecture is what we need to adopt. His way of building inexpensive, cost effective, traditional style of design would be of great help in this direction.