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“Laurie Baker – Life, Work and Writings” by Gautam Bhatia

The architect who made a difference!

 

Introduction

My aim of writing about the book on Laurie Baker is to make him known to the community for his uniqueness in the field of architecture. This comprises of extract from the book mentioned above.

 

Education, Apprenticeship, Work and Life – a Time Line becoming Timeless Line!

By education Laurie Baker was a graduate from Birmingham School of Architecture. Cutting short his professional apprenticeship, he enrolled in the Friends Ambulance Unit during the Second World War and went to China.

On his way back to England, while waiting for a ship at Bombay, he had a chance encounter with Mahatma Gandhi. This encounter was one of major influences in his life, it is said, in addition to his Quaker background.

When in England, Baker heard of a worldwide organization dealing with leprosy in India. The organization wanted a builder-architect-engineer sort of person, with planning and building experience and with knowledge of leprosy and its treatment, to convert old refugee centers into actual treatment hospitals.

That is how his career started in the year 1945 in India.

He served in the Mission till 1948.

While on a trekking honeymoon at the foothills of Kumaon the Bakers decided to settle down in Pithoragarh in the Himalayas. Baker recalls, ‘After walking and climbing miles from anywhere we stopped to rest and recover and relax in a place a few miles above Pithoragarh. Immediately, people having no access to medical facilities discovered Kuni (Elizabeth) was a doctor. They gave us accommodation and immediately we were in business and set up our first little hospital in a disused tea shop.’

They lived there for 16 years, his wife in the medical field and he in the construction of buildings. They left Pithoragarh in 1963 and moved to a similar hill area in central Kerala.

They made their home there and stayed and continued their work.

 

Baker’s Contribution to Architecture

His approach is said to be unique. His buildings and those based on his approach are referred by the term “Laurie Baker Architecture”.

The biographer writes:

“…He is one of the very few architects who has had the opportunity and the stamina to work on such remarkably varied spectrum of projects ranging from fisherman’s villages to institutional complexes and from low-cost mud-housing schemes to low-cost cathedrals. In Trivandrum alone he has built over a thousand houses. Besides this, his work includes forty churches, numerous schools, institutions and hospitals.

It is not only the number of buildings that Laurie Baker has designed and the range of architectural commissions he has executed that sets him apart from other architects. What makes his work even more remarkable is the way in which he draws creative sustenance from the environment in which he works, absorbing vernacular patterns of construction and individual styles of living to such a degree that he is able to give his clients the comfort and ease of homes and institutions that are firmly rooted in the soil upon which they stand. All this is done keeping in mind the special needs of those who will inhabit or use these places.”

 

The various buildings built by Baker include

The buildings built by Baker includes houses commissioned by the Archbishop of Trivandrum, house for Aniruddhin, house for E. Namboodripad and many more; a residential cooperative, Centre for Development Studies, a Men’s Hostel, a Women’s hostel, a Computer Centre, the Loyola Chapel and Auditorium, the Nalanda State Institute of Languages, Mitraniketan, Corpus Christi School, a Children’s Village, a Fishing Village, Anganwadis and so many other buildings.

 

Baker’s  Style

“The project that is the most representative of baker’s architecture is the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum. All the concerns of his architectural practice – the sensitivity to the natural contours and elements of a site, the honest and optimum utilization of the materials – find an expression in the plan and structures of the Centre.

The buildings of this Centre also incorporate all the elements characteristic of Baker’s style – the jalis, the traditional roofs, the stepped arches, the overhanging eaves and the skylights. The design of the Centre for Development Studies demonstrates how Baker is able to transform vernacular architecture to suit the requirements of a modern academic institution.”

 

A part of a description of one of his buildings by the biographer

“House for Varghese Jacob

……The plan sets up an axiality between the formal spaces of the building: the front office aligning with the court, and the court with the living room beyond. But with the circles making such a pervasive presence the axis becomes secondary and unrealized.

Movement through the house is seen in the nature of a spiraling journey. An entrance along side veranda opens to the circulation along the wall of the courtyard, a split staircase takes one down with the slope of the land into a drawing room that opens onto the rear garden. A great band of doors and windows set up an atmosphere of an open pavilion and allow cross currents into the centre court………….”

 

His approach – same elements, different configurations!

“Though the architecture that supports the production and assembly of traditional building elements is seen as limiting by some, the making of programmatically diverse buildings using the same elements establishes links within Baker’s own work. The peculiarly local forms of the brick-screen wall, the sloping tile-roof and the overhanging eaves assemble to produce an open plan structure that has distinct climatic and environmental references to their setting in Kerala. Since they are used repeatedly in varying configurations, they maintain a fluid constancy of scale and a humane dimension. Baker has built up a vocabulary of these elements over successive projects.”

 

About his writings the biographer says:

” They reflect his attitude towards conservation, of both materials and heritage; they suggest methods of architectural documentation………..”

The writings include the following:

  • – Baker on ‘Laurie Baker Architecture’
  • – Building technology in Pithoragarh
  • – Architectural Anarchy
  • – Is a Modern Indian Architecture Possible?
  • – Architecture and the People
  • – The Industrial designer and Housing
  • – Does Cost-Reduction mean Poor Quality?
  • – We need a Programme
  • – Roofs for Roofless Millions
  • – Proposal for Core House

The above are writings – some are published and some are unpublished; those published are articles, papers and seminar reports. Reading them is nice way to know the architect.

 

Recognition

“Given Baker’s position as an architect with deep understanding of the needs of the rural poor and given his record of successful experiments in housing, the government has sought his advice on its larger projects. He has been nominated to several committees concerned with housing. At various times he has been a member of the governing body of the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) and the National Institute of Design (NID) at Ahmedabad. He has also been on the panel of the Working Group on Housing of the Planning Commission, and on several expert committees at the national and state level.

He has been conferred an honour by the Royal University of Netherlands (1981) for outstanding work in the Third World and was awarded the Padma Shree in 1990. The citizenship of India, the only title that he has actively sought for forty years, was also granted to him then.”

 

Parallels

It is said the work of John Turner in Latin America and Hassan Fathy’s experience in Egypt paralleled the quiet revolution that Laurie Baker was enacting in India.

 

The book

“Laurie Baker – Life, Work & Writings” by Gautam Bhatia, published by Penguin, 1991 (ISBN 0-14-015460-4)

The book contains chapters on the Architect’s Home, Laurie Baker’s Cost-Reduction Manual, and beautiful description of the buildings Baker built. The book is interspersed with Baker’s hand sketches, drawings and photographs of the buildings.

Reading the book is a treat when one is retreating from the regular work! It gives a satisfaction of coming to know a good architect too. It may even make the reader feel to visit the places and interact with the people who inhabit them.

 

For interesting additional details

The following websites may please be visited for greater details.

http://lauriebaker.net/

http://59.92.116.99/website/RDC/docsweb/Booklet-Laurie%20Baker/1stpg-laurie-baker-main.php

 

For a classic writing on Mud by Laurie Baker, please visit:

www.nitc.ac.in/nitc/static_files/arch/Mud-Laurie_Baker.pdf

To know about Trivandrum:

http://www.india9.com/i9show/-Kerala/Thiruvananthapuram/Thiruvananthapuram-13528.htm

 

 

Would like to get a copy and plan a trip to Trivandrum?

 

Sam Anbazhagan

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