Lawrence Wilfred "Laurie" Baker (2 March 1917 – 1 April 2007) was a British-born Indian architect, renowned for his initiatives in cost-effective energy-efficient architecture and designs that maximized space, ventilation and light and maintained an uncluttered yet striking aesthetic sensibility. Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and his own experiences in the remote Himalayas, he promoted the revival of regional building practices and use of local materials; and combined this with a design philosophy that emphasized a responsible and prudent use of resources and energy. He was a pioneer of sustainable architecture as well as organic architecture, incorporating in his designs even in the late 1960s, concepts such as rain-water harvesting, minimizing usage of energy-inefficient building materials, minimizing damage to the building site and seamlessly merging with the surroundings. Due to his social and humanitarian efforts to bring architecture and design to the common man, his honest use of materials, his belief in simplicity in design and in life, and his staunch Quaker belief in non-violence, he has been called the "Gandhi of architecture."
Religion, Second World War and a chance delay in India
Belonging to a staunch Methodist family, in his teens Baker began to question what religion meant to him and decided to become a Quaker. Baker studied architecture at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, Birmingham, and graduated in 1937, aged 20, in a period of political unrest in Europe.
During the Second World War, he served in the ‘Friends Ambulance Unit’ which was a volunteer ambulance service, founded by individual members of the British Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Baker served in China as a trained anesthetist with a surgical team, coping with civilian casualties in the war between China and Japan. However, after a year or two of this war area activity, he found himself having to deal with derelict civilians suffering from Leprosy.
The War took its toll on Baker, and he was ordered back in 1943 to England to recuperate. But fate took a hand in delaying his departure by about three months as he waited for a boat in Bombay. During this time he stayed with a Quaker friend, who also happened to be a good friend of Mahatma Gandhi. Baker attended many of Gandhi's talks and prayer-meetings — which eventually led to a mutual admiration and friendship between them. This was also the height of the 'Quit India' movement which demanded an end to British Rule of India. Eager to return to India to settle and work, Baker was initially hesitant by the nationwide animosity to all Westerners. But Gandhi reassured him that though the British Rule must end, concerned individuals would always find a welcome place to work with Indians. This friendship greatly influenced Baker’s ideologies as an architect and the work that followed.
Baker returned to India in 1945 to work as an architect for the World Leprosy Mission, an international and inter-denominational organisation dedicated to the care of those suffering from leprosy. As new medicines for the treatment of the disease were becoming more prevalent, the organisation wanted a builder-architect-engineer to convert or replace asylums once used to house the ostracized sufferers of the disease into treatment hospitals as leprosy was no longer an untreatable disease.
Baker soon began to work on leprosy center buildings across the country. It is then he met his going to be wife Elizabeth Jacob who was a doctor with the same Leprosy Mission. Baker and Jacob found themselves sharing common beliefs and decided to marry.For their honeymoon, they traveled to a western Himalayan district of Pithoragarh. Once the local tribals there found out that Elizabeth was a doctor, people came to visit the couple in droves. So immediate was the need for medical help in that remote region that the Bakers decided to build a home and hospital on one of the hills on a piece of land no one wanted. The Bakers lived in Pithoragarh for sixteen years to help the people.
While at Pithoragarh, Baker found his English construction education to be inadequate for the types of issues and materials he was faced with: termites, the yearly monsoon, as well as laterite, cow dung, and mud walls, Baker had no choice but to observe and learn from the methods and practices of vernacular architecture. He soon learned that the indigenous architecture and methods of these places were in fact the only viable means to deal with local 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 realized that unlike the Modernist architectural movement that was gaining popularity at the time denouncing all that was old just because it was old didn't make sense.
Baker adopted local craftsmanship, traditional techniques and materials but then combined it with modern design principles and technology wherever it made sense to do so. This prudent adoption of modern technology helped local architecture retain its cultural identity and kept costs low due to the use of local materials. It also revived the local economy due to the use of local labor for both construction of the buildings and for manufacture of construction materials such as brick and lime plaster.
Baker built several schools, chapels and hospitals in the hills. Eventually, as word spread of his cost-effective buildings more clients from the plains started to contact Baker. One of the early clients was Welthy Fisher, 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 ageing woman who risked her health to visit Laurie and 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.
Method, material and signature
Throughout 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. It can be seen in the perforated brick walls which invite a natural air flow to cool the buildings' interiors, 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’s direction. 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 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. Various features of his work such as using recycled material, natural environment control and frugality of design may be seen as sustainable architecture or green building with its emphasis on sustainability. His responsiveness to never-identical site conditions quite obviously allowed for the variegation that permeates his work.
Awards and Legacy
Baker had no interest in awards and fame. Nevertheless his work was recognised by numerous national and international organisations and institutions. In 1981, the Royal University of the Netherlands conferred an honour (the previous recipient of this honour, in 1980, was Hassan Fathy of Egypt) upon him for outstanding work in a Third World country. In 1983 he was conferred with an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) at Buckingham Palace. In 1990, the Government of India awarded him the Padma Shri (the fourth-highest civilian award) for his meritorious service in the field of architecture. In 1992, he was awarded the Roll of Honour by the United Nations. In 2006 Baker was nominated for the Pritzker Prize. In 1988, he was granted Indian citizenship, the only honour he actively pursued in his life.
Baker was admittedly a Gandhi of architecture and yet like Gandhi he is understood more superficially than through the depths of his ideologies. Laurie Baker did not believe in a "Baker model" house that was based on his elements like- perforated brick walls, arches and exposed brick - using these does not mean you are following Baker's design philosophy. His creations and his ideas live on, in the form of timeless buildings and the large body of young architects who are influenced by him.
All our texts and many of our images appear under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License (CC BY-SA). All our content is written and edited by our community.