Sustainable, Organic, and Vernacular Architecture all synonymous to one of the greatest pioneers of this style, Lawrence Wilfred Baker, a British born architect. Also known as the Gandhi of architecture, he reminds us that the true meaning of architecture lies in the responsible and prudent use of limited resources and imbibing the characteristics that surround it.
His work reflects the same and inspires us to incorporate and build unique, personal structures among the ocean of highly commercialized, look-alike buildings with no personality.
Baker believed that the building to be designed derives its personality from the clients who use it. “You will be putting up their building, not yours”, he often told his students.
Visualizing the building as a completed dynamic state with the clients utilizing it, is the ultimate goal of an Architect. Baker comparing his profession to that of a Musical conductor who controls all the musical instruments in his orchestra and has an overall view of how it sounds together to create the perfect symphony makes much sense when as an architect, we realize that it is our responsibility to coordinate and supervise all the technical aspects of building construction to achieve the perfect composition for our client.
He stressed the use of “Common Sense”, while designing which emphasizes avoiding the excess and the extravagance. The duty of an architect is to accept a brief that he is capable of performing while encouraging his client to renounce that which is not necessary. As an architect, we must research and study our site, its advantages, and its shortcomings, and make the most we can in an honest and efficient manner. His philosophies of cost-effective, energy-efficient designs using indigenous materials were assimilated through the various experiences that taught him the importance of these aspects.
Born into a strict Christian Methodist family, Laurie spent his early days devoted to the church and all its activities. His interest in the traditional church teachings reduced during the teen years and he was introduced to Quaker beliefs, very similar to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. It was Gandhi who said that ideal houses in the ideal village will be built using materials which are all found within a 5-mile radius of the house and it is this principle Laurie incorporated in all his projects. His affinity to Gandhi’s teachings is what gave him the title that he is known for now.
After a 4 year stint in China volunteering in a medical camp, Laurie returned to England only to move to India in 1945 to build hospitals that could treat leprosy patients. He was finally ready to use his architectural skills to help the people in need.
Despite being a RIBA qualified architect, he faced unexpected obstacles. Inspecting and building new structures in the remote areas of India meant having the knowledge of local materials like Laterite, mud, and cow dung building construction techniques and dealing with problems like torrential rain, termites, and even Bed bugs. Learning about the local materials and its building techniques to use them in a manner that would please his clients and also fit into the local styles was the emergence of what we call now as the “Laurie Baker Architecture”.
During his days in Pithoragarh, he learned that dealing with real-world problems like poverty was essential while designing, and learning to build inexpensively was the way to coping with housing needs in a world where people lived in extreme dearth. His principles of cost efficiency, conscious designing, and durability in structures have been integrated after serving the people living on these Himalayan foothills. “Small is not only beautiful but is often essential and more important than Large” is an important characteristic of Baker Architecture.
His final stop in Kerala showcases his maximum work in Architecture. With his principles set and his acquired local knowledge to support his beliefs, Laurie Baker set out to build more than 1000 residences, 40 churches, and other institutional buildings during his stay in Trivandrum. The famous brickwork construction that has become the trademark of Baker architecture was developed while solving the problem of low-cost building techniques during this era. “Bricks to me are like faces”, a quote that intrigues us while learning about this material came from the creator of the ‘Rat Trap Bond’. Keeping the materials in its raw state was essential for him and building unique patterns with the natural texture it provides is what brings out the character in each of his buildings.
Most people associate Laurie Baker Architecture with Brick construction but Laurie rightfully points out that, it is only his most recent and known buildings in Kerala that have bricks as its primary building material. Baker Style is not specific to one single material but various indigenous materials based on its Building location. Baker style in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and West Bengal all vary as per their location but their core philosophy remains the same.
Laurie Baker’s residence situated along the slope of a rocky hill in Trivandrum is a unique house suited to his family’s needs and way of life. It consisted of a living room, bedroom, library, and kitchen, all built using the traditional brick and timber resources. Rooms were modest and equipped with maximum natural ventilation achieved due to an open room design, jaali walls, gables, tilted, and louvered windows. Discarded colored bottles were used as decoration to give a stained glass effect, Mangalore tiles on the roof as per the vernacular style and bits and pieces of metal to create beautiful grill patterns. The site as Laurie insisted on all his works would be modified to the minimum. The building was designed around the trees and steps leading to his house were cut into the rocks existing in its path. Even the door of his house was created by using traditional doors discarded from a building that was initially torn down. His house embodies his legacy and defines what he truly believes in.
The Centre of Development Studies, Trivandrum
This 10-acre campus situated on the outskirts of Trivandrum in a residential area is one of Baker’s most noted designs. A Library and computer center, Auditoriums, Hostels, and residential quarters for staff, this green campus is also noted for its famous garden.
Buildings were designed to suit the contoured land and molded around the trees that obstructed its path. This created interesting wall shapes and spaces that accommodate courtyards and pools that not only added to the aesthetics about also temperature control. Roofs of various shapes with openings towards the wind direction acted as gables. Baker’s trademark brick jali, filler slab roof of Mangalore tiles and exposed material was evident on this campus. Granite aggregates in the shape of flowers and leaves can be seen in the concrete pavements outside, which reflected the mason’s creativity that Baker encouraged during the building process. Careful consideration and techniques like double walls and perforated brick jaalis were incorporated to achieve climate control and create comfortable spaces within the building at all times to achieve an efficient and ideal campus.
Laurie Baker’s legacy now lives through his Centre for Habitat studies located in Kerala. The various Programmes and Summer schools organized his teachings and encouraged his sustainable style of Architecture. In an era where Nature itself rebels against the atrocities that have prevailed partly due to building construction techniques, we realize the importance of Laurie Baker’s sustainable approach for a secure and comfortable future.