An architect of British origin, Baker was a widely admired (but imperfectly appreciated) icon of alternative practices of modernity in Indian life, and also gifted with a great sense of humour. Was the departure on 1 April — that had us scrambling for confirmation after the first SMS—his little parting joke?
For over four decades, Laurie Baker has been known for his pioneering practice of cost-effective architecture in Kerala. Famous as the builder of affordable homes for the poor, Baker was (is it already ‘was’?) also a unique creative artist whose originality, technical control and unique sense of whimsy married low-cost construction and high architectural quality. His greatest contribution was in demonstrating that cost-effective and ecologically-sustainable construction does not automatically imply shoddy building techniques and reduced creative freedom. Baker showed, in fact, that sustainable technologies, when adopted with care and creativity, could lead to a unique architectural expression, one capable of moving both the expert and the layman alike.
Born into a Quaker family in Birmingham in 1917, Laurence W. Baker trained as an architect in the same city, and travelled to China as a volunteer in the ambulance service during World War II. On the way back to England in 1945, he passed through India. A chance encounter with Mahatma Gandhi in Mumbai, while he waited for a steamer home, convinced him that his expertise was needed in India. He returned to India within a few months, where he met Elizabeth Jacob, a doctor, whom he married in 1948. For the next 15 years, they lived in a remote village in the hills of Pithoragarh in Uttar Pradesh and ran a hospital. It was only after the couple returned to Elizabeth’s home state Kerala, and specifically to Thiruvananthapuram, in the late 1960s that Baker began a full-fledged practice as an architect. His reputation, thus, is built entirely upon work that he did after his 50th birthday!
Baker’s life and practice were often marked by strategic inversions of conventions in the pursuit of foundational ideals. His method of practice was the very opposite of the statutory architectural model in India which followed the British system. Thus, while Indian architects around him followed the British way of designing and directing operations from their drawing boards as ‘consultants’ far removed from the bustle of the site, Baker organized his work as a designer-builder in the manner of the traditional Indian master craftsman. He never maintained a regular office or a battalion of assistants, often sketched on waste paper, and designed largely on site. Unlike most practising architects, he knew the trade well enough to train his workers himself and be open enough to learn from them at the same time. Every project was thus design-built with his own team of construction workers. This hands-on approach made it possible for him to pursue cost-effectiveness in design, otherwise impossible in the normal professional mode.
Baker’s work is characterized by a fairly consistent system of design principles, building methods, and equally consistent but evolving set of idiosyncrasies. He always treated factors like climate, the peculiarities of site, the high consumption of scarce energy and capital in construction as basic components of the matrix of ‘givens’ that defined the solution space of every project.
The functional and habitational demands of individuals or organizations which were to dwell in his spaces governed the specific configuration and character of each. And yet, these ‘external’ factors never appeared to constrain his instinct for producing sensuous, dramatic and engaging spaces that had a great ‘fit’ with the lives being led in them.
The large number of buildings he designed—an astounding 2,000, by one account, including iconic houses like those he did for late cartoonist Abu Abraham, activist Nalini Nayak, economist K.N. Raj and T.C. Alexander, a retired auditor, now deceased—testify to this. Gautam Bhatia, the New Delhi-based architect and writer, recalls his first experience of a Baker house. “Every detail was innovative. I instantly decided to explore the work of this man further, which then led to my book.”
The Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Thiruvananthapuram, the project that secured Baker’s reputation in the 1970s, was built using an innovative system of cavity walls in unplastered brick, reinforced concrete ‘filler slabs’ (where recycled clay tiles replaced a fair bit of the concrete), and brick jalis (patterns of perforation) instead of expensive windows. The buildings are sited carefully and laid out at different levels on a sloping site to minimize excavation and earth filling. The rain is kept out, breeze let in, and daylight modulated by controlling openings, introducing jalis, providing roof overhangs, and wrapping internal spaces around intimate courtyards. These same functional devices also form the unique visual identity of his buildings.
Baker’s must also rank among the most free of architectural imaginations in contemporary Indian architecture. The India Coffee House, a small building housing an inexpensive restaurant in Thiruvananthapuram, shows how free he was of pre-conceived ideas. Here the dining area is a curving ramp that rises about two floors and winds tightly about a functional service core housing the pantry and stores. Built-in seats and tables hug the curving outer jali wall, whose perforations throw a playful pattern of light on the spiralling floor.
It was in one of the last houses that he built in his usual hands-on manner, however, that one can really appreciate to the fullest the quirkiness and humanity of his architectural imagination. The house for Suresh and Neerada is built around a mango-shaped open courtyard. A continuous filler slab roof spirals from the lowest level to the highest in a continuous sweep. There is not a single straight line in the plan. The living room has a rare luxury—an almost traditional wooden window seat with a trellis. The space curves deeper into the house and the glowing darkness at the other end is leavened by a dramatically-lit nook to one side. At the centre of it all, the long rising, curving wall has what looks like a large scatter of stained glass, but is actually a multicoloured pattern of recycled bottles built into the brickwork. Once seen, the experiential richness of this space remains in the mind’s eye.
That richness is the one connection Baker’s architecture has often shared with the traditional architecture of Kerala that he learnt so much from, but from which his work also differs. Baker has often been described as an upholder of local craft traditions.
Actually, though, he was neither a traditionalist nor a modernist in the usual narrow sense of either term. His keenness to learn from the wisdom of traditional building systems of a place always matched his very modern thrust towards economy and structural efficiency. He was more modern than many avowed modernists in the honesty and austerity of material means, even as he achieved exuberance in expression. He departed from the nostrums of tradition in the freedom and expressiveness of his forms and ornament. Visually, his use of exposed brick construction can be considered a big break with architectural tradition in Kerala. And, yet, his work fits into the landscape with an ease that belies the ‘strangeness’ of the aesthetic he brought into it.
It is a commentary on our strange understanding of what it means to be modern that Baker’s approach has often been thought of as only an ‘alternative’ to modern architecture. That may simply mirror the fact that we view the Nehruvian direction of modernization as the only possible one. In reality, the sheer intelligence, social aptness, and technical, aesthetic and constructional innovativeness of Baker’s work contrasts starkly with the standardized processes of producing waste and alienation followed by the mainstream. If we accept that among the core values of a desirable modernity are optimization, equity, and scalability, Baker’s work appears more modern than that of most modernists. This parallels the manner in which, from the point of view of sustainability, Gandhi’s vision of progress appears closer to a more convincing understanding of modernity than Nehru’s.
Even if it is a true uniqueness of aesthetic vision we seek, Baker’s work offers a look and feel that is strikingly personal and yet very habitable for the people he built for. At the very least then, Baker’s work illuminates the difference between a modern and a modernist architect.
Baker consistently refused to have assistants. And yet, it is heartening to note that a fairly vibrant tradition of building upon, and with, his ideas has taken root in Kerala and elsewhere, through the work of various individual architects as well as agencies like the Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development, set up specifically to disseminate his approach through building practice. A large number of architects outside Kerala have been inspired by his vision, and buildings in places as far away as Goa, Puducherry, and New Delhi show evidence of his influence. Today, the construction industry in India is booming and the explosion of new choices threatens to overcome the sense and sensibility of experts and consumers.
What better time then to pay close heed again to the architect who showed, really showed, that less is much much more than one can ever imagine.
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