Laurie Baker, The Gandhian Architect
- By Dr. Ram Ponnu*
India came to me long before I came to India to build houses for the people here. I shall live here, work here and die here.
- Laurie Baker
A Gandhian by nature, Laurie Baker, known as the 'Gandhi of architecture', the ‘master of minimalism’ gave India low-cost building design with maximum efficiency and just the right amount of aesthetics. He offered a unique tradition of architecture that blended man and nature. He re-defined the concept of housing itself, aligning it with the local ecology and surroundings. He emphasized local materials and traditional concepts in constructing dwellings, demonstrating a strong commitment to mass, affordable housing.1 A British-born Indian (He received Indian citizenship in 1989.) architect, Laurie Baker is renowned for his initiatives in cost-effective and 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, 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. The influence of Mahatma Gandhi was visible more on his thought and lifestyle than on his professional practice.2
Laurence Wilfred Baker was born on 2 March 1917 as the youngest the three children of Charles Frederick Baker and Millie Baker in a very staunch Christian Methodist family in Birmingham, England4. Laurie’s father Charles was worked as the chief accountant at the Birmingham Gas Corporation. In his childhood days Laurie Baker would accompany his father every weekend to visit cathedrals and other old buildings and then he would build models and draw pictures of what he had seen. After his matriculation, he joined the Birmingham School of Architecture and became an Associate Member of the Royal Institute of Architects in 1938. Hardly had he got the opportunity to start working in England when World War II broke out just a year later in 1939.
Contact with Quakers
In his youth Laurie came into contact with some Quakers or members of the Society of Friends who believed in the power of non-violence and to live in respect of every person small or big, rich or poor. The Quakers' interpretation of Jesus' teachings attracted Laurie. Later, he would similarly be drawn to the similar beliefs of Mahatma Gandhi who would be a major influence on his work in India. When the Second World War came, Baker became a conscientious objector, choosing instead to aid the war effort through more peaceful means. To this end, he joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, a volunteer ambulance service established by members of the Quaker society. After some time tending to naval casualties on the south coast of England, in 1941, Laurie volunteered to go on a mission to help at a medical camp at Kutsing in inland China as a trained anesthetist to treat civilian casualties. While there, he found himself treating civilians inflicted with leprosy, then a fatal and widely misunderstood disease.
After nearly four years in China, the war had taken its toll on him. And so, he was soon ordered back home to recuperate. En route to England, he stopped at Bombay, where he found his journey home delayed by three months. During this time, Baker attended Mahatma Gandhi’s talks and prayer meetings, and eventually struck up a friendship with him. The first thing that struck Gandhiji about Baker was his shoes, which he had fashioned out of pieces of waste cloth. As the story goes, Gandhiji took the "Chinese cloth shoes" in his hands and, soon after Baker had demonstrated how they were made, asked Baker if he could stay back in India and not return to his native England.3
Baker wrote, “It was also through the influence of Mahatma Gandhi that I learnt that the real people you should be building for, and who are in need, are the ‘ordinary’ people - those living in villages and in the congested areas of our cities,”. “One of the things he said has influenced my thinking - that the ideal house in the ideal village will be built using material that is found within a five-mile radius of the house.” Baker in his own words: “During this period of enforced stay in India, I saw mansions and I saw slums. I met very affluent and famous people and I mixed with many very poor, lowly people. I talked with Gandhiji about my urge to return to work in India even though the British were being urged to get out and was encouraged by him to return to India”.4 Baker returned to England thinking of taking up a life as an architect now that the war was over.
Stay in Pithoragarh
He arrived in India in 1945 and he had an opportunity to use his architectural skills to help people in need. He enrolled as an architect for a Mission whose sole purpose was the care of those suffering from leprosy. Hospitals were needed where they could go to with hope for treatment. His job was mainly to convert or replace these old dreaded asylums with proper modern hospitals and to create the necessary rehabilitation and occupation centres. In India, he stayed with Dr. P.J. Chandy who ran one of the leprosy hospitals in Faizabad. Dr Chandy was a kindred spirit, who become one of his closest friends. It was here that he met Elizabeth, also a doctor. They found themselves sharing common beliefs and decided to marry. However, as there was considerable resistance from both their families they decided to wait. Work and travel allowed them only brief periods together but they finally got married in 1948.5
For their honeymoon they went to Chandag, in the Himalayan foothills where they set up their own small hospital in a nearby village called Pithoragarh. The hospital, which started in an abandoned teashop, grew and patients came in increasing numbers. This remote and neglected hilly area had their first doctor and the news spread like wildfire. There, in mainly truly local indigenous style, they built their home, hospital and schools, and lived there for more than a decade-and-a-half. He became cost-conscious and spent a lot of time trying to find ways of reducing building costs in general whether he was using local indigenous methods or building with the 'normal' twentieth century materials and techniques. Seeing millions of people living a hand-to-mouth existence made him come to abhor all forms of extravagance and waste. He learnt more about the more acceptable local materials, with new ways of using burnt brick, stone, tiles and timber. He also used new kinds of mortar and plaster and, as much as possible, tried to design his buildings in such a way that they would not be offensive or unacceptable to his real clients, the users of the buildings, and so that they would fit in with the local styles and not be an offence to the eyes of the people with whom he had chosen to live with. He thought this was probably the second biggest step towards what (if there really is such a thing) is described as a 'Laurie Baker Architecture'.6
Laurie met a Belgian monk Acharya Francis who followed the Hindu way of monasticism and had started an ashram at Kurisumala in Vagamon, about 65 km from Kottayam, a hill station in Idukki district of Kerala. When Laurie told him about their work in the Himalayas Francis convinced Laurie to come stay in Vagamon since the poor tribal people there had no medical facilities at all. In 1963 the Bakers moved to Kerala, Elizabeth Baker's homeland. They built their own home and hospital in the local style with local materials.
In Kerala during the 1960s and subsequently, Baker developed and applied an approach to architecture derived from an intimate understanding of the local climate, available building materials and craft skills, as well as from the detailed attention he paid to the specific needs of his individual, often relatively poor, clients. He applied this approach to designing many hundreds of homes, hospitals, schools, and religious and government buildings, and in the process created an elegant, simple and essentially Indian architecture for the late 20th century, one in stark contrast to the western-influenced, resource-intensive architecture of the time.
To build cheaply, he ruthlessly pruned all non-local materials. Thus cement plasters were eliminated, while flat concrete slab roofs, window glass and bars were replaced by inventive uses of local bricks, clay tiles, timber and lime. Window openings were replaced by patterns of small openings (brick jali) in the brickwork, providing adequate light, ventilation and security.7
Gandhian principles infused his work, as they did his life. “I now think Gandhi was right,” he wrote in 1975, “when he said that all the building materials should be found within five miles of the site”, and “Low-cost techniques should not be considered only for the poor - our aim should be to design only the simplest of buildings for all.”
Most often he came to the work-site wearing a khadi shirt, frayed baggy trousers, shoes giving way at the toes, and grandpa glasses resting lightly at the tip of his nose.8
There was absolutely no pretense to his ideas. His architecture was the same whether he was building for a poor man or a rich man. He didn’t behave one way in public and then come home and become a different person. For instance, not wasting resources translated into not wasting water, electricity, paper, etc. around the house. The extra effort of redesigning a building to save a few trees was worth it because he truly believed in it. Almost 80% of The Hamlet (Baker's home in Trivandrum) is built using recycled materials. Belief in the joy and beauty of simple building also meant living a simple life, wearing simple clothes, respecting nature and people irrespective of social class.9
He designed and built fishermen’s huts, hamlets for forest tribes, chapels and churches, factories, schools, film studios, orphanages, residences, technical institutes, leprosy homes, a literacy village, hostels, slum rehabilitation projects, an ornithology centre, government buildings and a museum. He also did pioneering work in earthquake and tsunami-resistant housing. Kerala alone has over 2,000 Baker-designed projects.10
Laurie's buildings spoke, they articulated a vision, and they suggested a revolution. Laurie's work is designed to be a part of Nature, of the environment, of the trees and landscape that is already there. How exactly right they were, the ashram, first to be built, then the huts, the Gandhian loos and the shed. The shape of everything, the paths, Maun Kutir (The Silent hut), where the community building should be placed, and so much more were just right. The whole fitted our needs and our vision for our ashram life so perfectly.
Low-cost housing techniques are the most rewarding for the lower middle class people. Baker taught the need to relate to clients; about truthfulness in architecture; the importance of cost-effective, energy-efficient building materials; about cutting corners; and of making truthful choices. He taught us to say no to cement, to the cutting down of trees and to expensive materials. He told us not to squander money, materials or energy; never to design buildings by sitting in isolation at a desk in an office; and to trust and learn from the "inherited ability" of local people to build effectively and well for themselves with limited resources.11 Despite his work's special relevance for the poor, the government's large-scale housing programmes, including flagship schemes like the Indira Awas Yojana, have not sought to adopt as standard practice his cost-effective and environment-friendly techniques and designs.12
Baker lived a fulfilling, happy and productive life in Trivandrum for over 35 years from 1969. Even in his late 80s, he worked and continued to exercise his creativity through sketches, cartoons and writing till the very end. He passed away at 7:30 am on 1 April 2007 at his home, "The Hamlet" in Trivandrum.
Baker's unconventional approach to architecture redefined the concept of housing for the masses and earned him the name of ‘architect of the poor’.13 Today two organisations continue to work on Laurie Baker’s legacy. COSTFORD (The Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development) is an architectural practice in Kerala founded by those who had worked with the man himself. The office is in Laurie’s old house, and few people outside India have ever heard of it. Yet the practice has built over 40,000 robust, low cost buildings in India under very trying circumstances. In the past 15 years, COSTFORD has built homes for 10,000 low cost houses, for which it charges no design fee. Another one, the Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies is devoted to education, research and training. It was created by his friends, students and admirers to propagate his philosophy of the concept of sustainable development through research, extension, training, documentation, dissemination and networking. At its core, it is intended to include such areas as design and use of appropriate materials for buildings, creation of support facilities such as sanitation and drinking water, waste treatment, water harvesting and management, land development, promotion of non-conventional and eco-friendly sources of energy and creation of awareness of the need for sustainable development.
Titled Uncommon Sense: The Life & Architecture of Laurie Baker, the biographical film made by Baker’s grandson Vineet Radhakrishnan is the first ever Indian film to be listed by Arch Daily, one of the most visited architecture websites worldwide with over 500,000 daily readers, 60,000 member architects worldwide and 160 million page views a month.14
In 1990, India honoured Baker with the Padma Shri. He won several awards such as the Babu Radmaitae gold medal, UNO Habitat award and U.N. roll of honour, International Union of Architects award and People of the Year award, 1994. The University of Central England presented him with an honorary doctorate in 1994.The University of Kerala honoured him, by conferring on him the honorary D.Litt. degree on 29 November 2003. In 2006, Mr. Baker was nominated for the Pfitzer prize, considered the Nobel Prize in architecture.
A Gandhian in word and deed, Baker revolutionized the concept of housing through his affordable, eco-friendly style. His contribution to the nation in construction techniques will remain unparalleled, which can only be followed, not replaced. His work is not about "low-cost." It's about "cost-effectiveness." As M.S. Swaminathan remarks, “Laurie Baker was truly a green architect, with considerable concern for harmony with nature as well as low maintenance cost. He was an “architect’s architect” and he has left his footprints on the sands of time in relation to architecture with a human face”.
* Dr. Ram Ponnu Principal (Retd.), Kamarajar Govts. Arts College, Surandai, Tirunelveli Dist., Tamil Nadu. Email: email@example.com