Laurie Baker – Living for a cause
Our perceived thought that architecture is a profession that can be practiced only with enough money, has limited this noble profession to metropolitan cities. While doctors, on the other hand, are practicing in rural areas and have made their profession well known all over the country, irrespective of the economical background of the people. Construction could be a means to achieve fame, records and grandiosity irrespective of its location, and this has been proved by the great Indian architect Laurence W. Baker, popularly known as Laurie Baker.
Laurie Baker was born in Birmingham, England on 2nd March 1917, as the youngest child with two elder brothers Leonard and Norman and a sister Edna. His father was the chief accountant with the Birmingham Gas Distribution Authority. At the age of 15, he passed out from the Edward Grammar School in Aston, England; he was an ordinary student with an adventurous life.
The principal of his school persuaded his father to make Laurie Baker opt for architecture as profession and send him to the Birmingham School of Architecture. Baker’s adventure continued and while he was doing his architecture, he went on a cycling tour of Europe with his friends. The unfolding vistas of nature, landscape, cities, the different life patterns of people and the differences in the houses from place to place fascinated him, and that tour proved to be a turning point in his life.
He graduated in 1937, and thereafter became an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). In 1939, the Japan-China war was at its peak and Baker went to China to help the wounded as a volunteer with a group called Quakers, after resigning from RIBA. He worked there for 3 years but his ill health made him to return to England via India.
He reached Bombay to board a ship but Baker had to wait for 3 months. Through Quaker associates, he was introduced to Gandhi Ji who at that time was there; Gandhi Ji expressed his concern over the state of Indian architecture and asserted that much good could be done in rural India by committed architects. Gandhi Ji’s philosophy and his charismatic personality thrilled Baker.
Baker returned to England briefly and then, taking Gandhi Ji’s words to heart, returned to India in 1945 after the World War II, to see how his skills might best serve the people of India. For the first three years he traveled all over the country helping the leprosy mission, and in the process he got exposed to indigenous architecture and was amazed at the way in which simple materials could be exploited to produce buildings with refined aesthetics and lasting qualities. These formative years laid the foundation of Baker's approach to architecture.
Baker met and married an Indian medical doctor, Elizabeth Jacob, and the two of them worked for years in the Himalayas, building and operating schools and hospitals, working with lepers and the poor. In 1963, Baker and his wife moved to the southern state of Kerala, Elizabeth’s homeland, establishing themselves in the city of Trivandrum in 1970. Working with local materials and exploring indigenous architectural traditions, Baker’s adventure in architecture started realizing.
Baker has been able to transform the Gandhian philosophy through architecture by practicing it for people who actually needed it. His every project is like a small scale industry within itself, changing lives of people. Laurie Baker has been committed to not only learning from and using traditional Indian architectural techniques and technology, but also building with traditional Indian materials.
He worked on a varied spectrum of projects ranging from fishermen’s villages to institutional complexes and from low cost mud housing schemes to low cost cathedrals. In Trivandrum, he has built over a thousand houses. Besides this, his work includes forty churches, numerous schools, institutions, and hospitals. His great passion in life was not the grand museums or concerts halls by which architects usually make their mark, but low-cost housing for the millions of Indians who, quite literally, do not have a real roof over their heads.
According to Baker, he learnt the actual way of practicing architecture by observing the methods used by the rural people to build their houses. These methods were the cheapest and the simplest and what’s more; these people did not even employ expert workers, but built them on their own. His education and the skills acquired during his professional practice in England became decidedly insignificant when he realized that the ordinary people knew how to use the local materials in response to the climatic and social needs better than he did.
Thus, in his future years of practice he was mostly to be found working on his building sites or training workers in their own remote territories to use twenty first century techniques while maintaining principles acquired over centuries to effectively cope with the Indian climate, materials, terrain, culture, economy and also population.
Following the principle of ‘Less is More’, Baker repeatedly made good houses for a small sum of Rs.3000/- to Rs.5000/- only. At first it was difficult for the authorities to recognize Baker’s pursuit. Certainly, these two trades seldom agree. Yet they came to see his creations and were left amazed and speechless. Later he was called for various State funded projects and to be on advisory committees on low-cost housing.
In India, low-cost is very often misunderstood as a compromise to quality. That is why many architects failed to venture mass-housing for the poor and lower-middle class. What should have been everybody’s business turned out to be nobody’s business. But this was Baker’s concern. He cleared the popular doubts related to the subject. As he put it, “Low-cost does not reduce or lessen structural stability and durability.” Indeed, the words stood the test of time and in practice also. Baker’s minimal use of steel and cement in construction not only brought down the embodied energy of the buildings but also the respective cost involved.
Baker’s masterpiece, the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Kerala, is a ten-acre campus of buildings that houses a research institute and a graduate school dedicated to utilizing the study of economics to help the poor. Some of his remarkable projects are Loyola Graduate Women’s Hostel, Corpus Christi School, Residential Co-operative of IAS, Chitralekha Studio Complex and many others.
There would be very few residents of Trivandrum who would be as concerned for their own city as Baker is. We can have debates over Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party, for her non-Indian origins, but for Baker we would probably hate to have a debate on this issue.
A person, humble at heart, has tried to reach across to people in a silent but persuasive manner the message of cultural identity and professional integrity. He has not only preached but more than that has consistently put his beliefs into practice through his buildings.
He is a person who has remained unmoved by the conventional set-up norms; he has been so sensitive and humane that in spite of being a westerner he decided to work with and for the poor in India. Courageous to all alone practice his down to earth techniques and ideologies in an alien country. He can be compared to none other than Mother Teresa.
Even in his mid eighties, a time when most people relax in their laid back years of retirement and inactivity, Baker was in the most creative stage of his life. His particular role as a master builder in the traditional sense has been that of a craftsman and a contractor apart from an architect.
Today, in his nineties, he now lies on his deathbed and one never knows when the ugly darkness has to arrive. But his followers and students are religiously carrying forward his work in Kerala. Training courses that give knowledge about Baker’s innovative techniques and alternative energy systems related to building are being carried out throughout the year.
“My feeling as an architect is that you are not after all trying to put up a monument that will be remembered as a Laurie Baker Building but Mohan Singh’s house where he can live happily with his family”.
“I have never doubted that in a country like ours any of us has any right to squander or waste, or use unnecessarily money, materials or energy.”
– Laurie Baker
Undoubtedly, he stands alone as the greatest craftsman of brick modern India has witnessed.
Mr. Mahendra Sethi, Architect
Presently Mr. Sethi is working with DKS Consultant, New Delhi and pursuing an independent research on the subject. He is contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com