Laurie Baker was a British-born Indian architect widely recognised as one of the pioneers of sustainable architecture and organic architecture.
In 1943, a young, war-weary British architect arrived in Bombay to board a ship back to England to recuperate. But to his dismay, he found his trip delayed by three months, leaving him stuck in India. It was a twist of fate that would go on to have unlikely and equally inspiring consequences. In the years that followed, he would make India his home, study traditional Indian architecture, and combine it with modern principles and technology to become one of the pioneers of what we now know as sustainable architecture and organic architecture.
But Laurie Baker was a humanitarian before anything else, and one with a deep-seated social consciousness at that. His buildings reflect a deep altruism and respect for nature. His approach was simple and frugal, much like his lifestyle – his ‘office’ consisted of a stack of old envelopes and Christmas cards tucked into his shirt pocket. And yet, he showed us that beauty can be found in simplicity, perhaps even more so than in grandiosity.
Work in India
Following a brief period home, Baker returned to India in 1945 on the calling of the World Leprosy Mission, to create better facilities for lepers in the country. Initially based out of Faizabad in the then United Provinces, Baker found the British lifestyle in India too opulent for his taste and values. Instead, he stayed with an Indian doctor friend, P.J. Chandy, and his family. Here, he fell in love with Chandy’s sister, Elizabeth. After some opposition from both their families, the two married in 1948.
On their honeymoon trip, the couple set out to the hilly district of Pithoragarh in present-day Uttarakhand. On discovering that Elizabeth was a doctor, several tribals from the area came to them for medical help. Seeing the dearth of medical facilities there, Baker and Elizabeth decided to settle down in Pithoragarh and tend to ailing locals.
And so, Baker set out to build a home and a hospital. But he soon found that his English education had not trained him to handle the architectural challenges of the subcontinent. Vernacular methods, he realised, provided the only means to tackle the challenges posed by the monsoons and termites. Thus, laterite, cow dung, and mud walls replaced conventional cement and steel, but he continued to combine traditional methods with modern principles whenever necessary.
Using local material and labour helped lower costs and also revive the local economy. Gradually, schools and chapels followed, but hospitals in particular always demanded Baker’s attention. Medical professionals were only just beginning to understand the role of a patient’s environment on the healing process, a field that Baker knew well.
Sixteen years after they had arrived at Pithoragarh, the war with China broke out. The Bakers, now with three children, were forced to move south to the hilly village of Vagamon in Kerala. In 1969, they moved to Thiruvananthapuram, where Baker worked for the remainder of his life. The city houses some of his most iconic buildings, including the Indian Coffee House, the Centre for Development Studies, the Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies, and the Chitralekha Film Studio.
Baker’s architectural style and legacy
Having witnessed much scarcity during his experiences in India and China, Baker harboured a strong distaste for pomp and wastefulness. To most people, the term ‘low-cost’ is synonymous with ‘low-quality’, an idea that Baker vehemently disagreed with.
“We’ve got to stop thinking big and go back to the idea that small is beautiful,” he once rightly said. It doesn’t take the eye of an architect to recognise the sheer beauty of Baker’s buildings, be it the spiralling edifice of the India Coffee House or his picturesque hill-top house, which he called The Hamlet.
A typical Baker building consisted of exposed and intricately perforated curved brick walls and traditional sloping roofs. His buildings were always designed in such a way as to cause minimal, if at all any, damage to nature, and to use as much natural lighting and ventilation as possible. He often rummaged salvage heaps for anything he could use in his buildings, however unconventional. One building, for instance, contains a window grill created out of a used car clutch plate and a bicycle. He even used coloured glass from used liquor bottles to create intricate patterns of light on the walls.