Laurie Baker: the Gandhian Architect Who Constructed for Sustainable Development

Laurence Wilfred Baker, fondly called as Laurie Baker, was a British-born architect who pioneer traditional and low-cost construction in India. Born in 1917, he graduated from Birmingham Institute of Art and Design but made India, more specifically Kerala, his home. He spent more than 40 years of his life in Kerala, and became famous here as the Brick Master of Kerala.

Laurie Baker believed in building for masses. He built houses, schools, institutes, hospitals, slum dwellings and government buildings and became renowned for his low-cost construction techniques. Perhaps with a focus on sustainability, he used to say, “Cost-effective houses are not just for the poor, they are for everyone.” If you are an architecture student or enthusiasts, then you must read Laurie Baker: Truth in Architecture which is a handy book that will even help you make your own eco-friendly house.

Moving to India

After spending four years in a remote leper colony in China, he moved to India after hearing about the Mission to Lepers, and about a dire need of an architect in India. He took this as a chance to use his architectural skills to help people in need after arriving in India in 1945. The Mission aimed at the conversion of old asylums into modern hospitals to shelter people suffering from the Leprosy, for which Laurie Baker was the Chief Architect.

Laurie Baker was new to India. What he was taught in England was very different from the needs in India, where he was expected to deal with mud walls and huge cracks and thus faced large set of problems. Soon, fascinated by the skills of ordinary poor villagers, Laurie made that his inspiration. He watched them work with the most unpromising and crude materials with apparently almost no recognizable tools to make useful everyday buildings and articles. He saw people building mud houses treated with a wide variety of materials; from rice husks, bamboo strips and palm fibres for preventing cracks, and calcium (lime) water to pigs’ urine for coping with other problems related to the use of mud. He was amazed to realize how effective these systems were.

For 16 years, he lived in the hills of Uttarakhand and later moving to tribal Kerala in Vagamon, before shifting his home in Trivandrum where he lived with his family until his last (2007). Laurie Baker closely observed the architecture of all these places, and realized the value of the local indigenous style of architecture which has resulted from thousands of years of research. In India, Laurie Baker learnt how to use readily-available, local materials to make structurally stable buildings that could cope with the local climatic conditions, and gelled well with the local geography and topography and could even withstand the hazards of nature.

All these ultimately inspired Baker to design and make buildings that were strong and durable, and as inexpensive as possible. And led him to being cost-conscious even at later stage.

Laurie Baker and Mahatma Gandhi

Laurie Baker was greatly inspired by Gandhi whom he met in the early 1940s in Bombay. It was the meeting that changed his life, and his philosophy towards architecture.

During their meeting, Gandhiji had said, “You are bringing knowledge and qualifications from the West, but they will be useless unless you try to understand our needs here.” Gandhi gave Baker his idea of building low cost houses, saying that the materials needed to build a house should be acquired from within 5 miles of the site. This became one of the lifelong inspirations for Laurie Baker to design with low cost for the people.

Style of Construction

Laurie Baker was known to be a humble architect, who believed in constructing with honesty, revealing the true materials through his architecture. He used to say, “I have my own principles, which I am unwilling to abandon. I dislike falsehood and deceit. A building should be truthful.” His idea of construction was cost reduction at its best. He achieved that through various techniques like:

  • Rat-trap masonry style that conserved as much as 25% of the construction costs by leaving a cavity between the wall surfaces.
  • Use of exposed brickwork in his buildings requiring no plastering, painting and other finishings on walls.
  • Brick ‘jaalis’ or perforated brick screens were inventive, allowing light and breeze negating the need of windows making his building breezy as well as allowed light to seep through.
  • Techniques like masonry domes to span large rooms, arches over a door opening helped in great amount to reduce reinforcement materials like steel, concrete and also shuttering material in the building.
  • Filler slabs to reduce reinforcement.
  • Use of local materials and employment of local labour ultimately cut down the cost further.
  • Use of salvaged or reused materials. e.g. Old roof tiles in the filling of concrete roof and application of frameless doors.

According to Laurie Baker, the modern-style of architecture, unlike his style, amounted to wastefulness of resources and was inappropriate to the climate. He said, “They involve all those `modern’ devices like air conditioning and big glass windows. The one contradicts the other, the big glass window lets in more heat as well as the light it does, but the heat is more. And then, of course, they have to have their curtains and air conditioners and all the very expensive things and use a continual amount of public energy, which isn’t getting to the ordinary millions of people at all. So to me it’s just bad! I don’t see anything particularly beautiful about it.”

Laurie Baker is also the person behind guiding people to see all others aspects of architecture viz., the accessibility, affordability and the sustainability, and influencing many architects like Benny Kuriakose, the home talents from Kerala who learnt and grew watching him.

The Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, was set up in 2009 to propagate his philosophy and principles of sustainable development. It is an institution solely devoted to education and research. Laurie Baker may have passed away, but through his buildings and his writings, cartoons and green thoughts, he will always be alive in people’s heart.

Image by U. Fauzia via Flickr

Nimisha Negi

Nimisha Negi is an architect with the solemn belief that we have no time left to undo our actions against nature; we must act now.

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