The biography of architect Laurie Baker penned down by Gautam Bhatia is one of the must-read books for architecture students and young architects. The book starts with an author’s note where Gautam Bhatia writes, “The book was originally intended to be a guide to his method of building, but over the many meetings in the veranda of his home, the Hamlet, and the numerous visits to the sites (occasionally carrying a client’s door on the roof of his car) and watching him communicate with the Malayalee masons with vigorous gestures, I came to realize that Baker’s architecture is a by-product of a larger picture – a picture that recognizes the importance of people’s aspirations for a better life. I began to see that his buildings were merely a direct and honest response to this spirit, this idea. It was after having realized this that the book took a different turn.” (Bhatia, 1991) The book is divided into three parts- Life, Works, and Writings, of Lawrence Wilfred Baker also known as Laurie Baker.
The first part of the book entitled, ‘Life’, starts with an abstract taken from one of the interviews of the architect where he speaks about how he has learned architecture by watching the ordinary people build their dwellings, using the simplest and cheapest methods. He further discusses how his clients have always been Indians and to him, architecture was not about building a masterpiece, spending lots of money on structures upon which he would be remembered, rather it was about building houses for the poor where they can live happily.
The author further writes about the early life of the architect. How in 1945 a young architect from England accidentally came to India onboard a warship that he has served on. The ship got stuck in Mumbai for 3 months and the architect who always wanted to learn and to explore new things thought to utilize his time to see the city and study its architecture. During this time he happened to meet Gandhiji, who changed his life completely. Gandhiji asked him if he could use his skills and build low-cost houses for the poor. The architect went to England but came back within a few months.
In the second part of the book, Bhatia has shown illustrations of simple buildings and its details illustrated by Baker who has simplified drawings to convey precision and to also show the framework with the conceptual edge of each of his projects. The books further tell us about the inclusive manifesto that the architect followed and also the materials and technologies that he used. He used materials to the best of its potential and local technologies but perfected it, and rather improved it. Baker’s design was simple yet attractive and he aimed at energy and environment conservation. Further on the author writes how he got inspired by the works of our ancestors who we thought were backward. Baker held high regard for the locally available materials like terracotta roof tiles, laterite and brick walls, wood lattice work or jaali, etc. as opposed to concrete with glass. His work consisted of a range of projects like Churches, Cathedrals, classrooms, institutional complexes, hospitals, and most of all, low-cost residences. He did not believe in removing contours and plants from a site and regarded it as ‘a waste of money to level a well-molded site’, a principle I also believe in and personally try to follow in my practice. He introduced playfulness in his projects by using organic shapes and forms, making different jaali designs, making light and shadow patterns and really including the surrounding nature within, adding courtyards, making enclosures only where necessary, all these factors resulting in a distinctive final form. He has also written extensively about these aspects along with detailed inferences of cost-cutting materials and techniques. The magnitude and ethics of his work stand to date as a testimony to his beliefs and teachings, and this book conveys them thoroughly. Though this book is written by Gautam Bhatia it speaks the language of Laurie Baker, his philosophies, his ideologies, and also his eagerness to build for the poor and not for himself.
The last section of the book gives us an insight into the housing issue, titled, ‘Architecture ad people’, ‘Proposal for a core house’, etc., which are the unpublished papers and few commentaries by Laurie Baker. Synopsys on an inclusive approach, cost-effective technologies, and also excerpts from Baker’s cost-effective manual with simplified illustrations has also been provided. The book ends with a note with a Letter to the Minister for Works and Housing written by Baker presenting a policy for the need for low-cost and sustainable housing.
Laurie Baker’s work earned him respect and recognition all over the globe. Architecture is an art and science of designing buildings and structures. Through architecture, one can get an understanding of society, culture, and geography. For architects it is a medium of expression, creating something from nothing. For some, architecture is a profession and for some, it is a passion. When it is a passion-driven by the urge to serve society, it becomes a revolution. Laurie Baker was one such architect, passionate about his work, who triggered a revolution.