Architectural Inspirations: The Work of Laurie Baker

Laurie Baker- An Inspirational Architect

Laurence Wilfred Baker is well-known by the name of Laurie Baker. He was a British-born architect who followed Indian traditional low cost and sustainable building techniques.  He was the man, who combated India's inclination to resemble the West by constructing impressive buildings out of sustainable materials- mud, clamshells and recycled bottles. Born in 1917, Baker graduated from the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design in 1937. He spent more than 40 years of his life in Kerala and became the famous Brick Master of Kerala. SURFACES REPORTER (SR) takes a glimpse into Laurie Baker’s life journey, his architectural ethics that were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and the legacy he leaves behind.

Also Read: This Multifaceted Brick Facade Takes Inspiration from Laurie Bakers Philosophy to Foster Local Brick Industry | The Pirouette House | Trivandrum | WallMakers

laurie-baker pic

The Method

Laurie Baker was a humanitarian who did not believe in building for classes but for the masses. He said, “My feeling as an architect is that you're not after all trying to put up a monument which will be remembered as a 'Laurie Baker Building' but Mohan Singh's house where he can live happily with his family.” 

Laurie is acknowledged for his 'cost reduction' policy in all of his works, which is hard to see in modern-day architectures. He built houses, hospitals, institutes, slum dwellings, and government projects with low-cost construction techniques.

Brick perforated wall at the Laurie Baker Centre .jpgBrick perforated wall at the Laurie Baker Centre .jpg

He made a noteworthy contribution to architecture design and practice by creating buildings that belong to the soil, culture, tradition, and, most importantly, the local people. Baker challenged conventional engineering design practice and wisdom, and adopted sustainable design practice to develop the best prototypes.

sustainable building practiceLaurie Baker- Thatched Roof Eco Tourism Cottage Resort Construction in Rajasthan

Laurie Baker always carried with him his home-made diary fashioned out of old pieces of paper from marriage invitations, envelopes, advertisements and other waste plain papers wherever he went. His sketching knack was one of the prime reasons he never required to become a fluent Indian language speaker. Whenever his client did not understand English, he used to whip out his diary and create a quick sketch to describe what he meant.

Laurie Baker’s personal sketchesLaurie Baker’s personal sketches

Baker was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and his own experience in the remote Himalayas, which led him to promote the revival of the regional building practices and use of local materials. He combined this adoption of sustainable building practice with his design philosophy that stressed on efficient and careful use of energy and resources. That's the reason he is called the "Gandhi of Architecture".
Laurie Bakers Indian Coffee HouseLaurie Baker's Indian Coffee House

Even today, the local craftspersons use his design philosophy, which is a perfect blend of traditional techniques and modern designing principles.

Style of Construction

Laurie Baker was known for his distinct style of constructions. He was a humble architect who always believed in building with honesty. He quoted, “I have my own principles, that is unwilling to abandon. I dislike deceit. A building should be truthful”.

Raw-brick-work-at-the-Laurie-Baker-Centre-for-Habitat-Studies-in-KeralaRaw brick work at the Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies in Kerala

The basic idea to be considered by him was cost reduction, which has been achieved by evolving various techniques: -

  • Rat Trap masonry-style- This allows 25% less use of bricks by leaving a cavity between the surfaces at walls.
  • Use of exposed brickwork in his buildings so that no plastering, painting, and other finishing on walls is required.
  • Use of Brick Jaalis or perforated brick screens reduces the need for windows and let the light and air enter the building
  • Fillers slab to limit the reinforcement.
  • Use of local materials and employment by the local labour for the cost cut.
  • Use of reused materials

He used to say that the modern architecture style amounted to the wastefulness of resources and was inapt for the environment as well. As per him, the modern devices attached to the styling contradict the weather. He said, "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 has much to inspire. In an interview, he said, “There's an old saying: manners maketh the man. I think they also make good architecture.” He said the architect should show good manners and his architecture whoudl be equllay good mannered!

Laurie Baker and Mahatma Gandhi

Laurie Baker was deeply inspired by the ethics and thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi, whom he met in the 1940s in Mumbai. The meeting changed Baker’s life and philosophy towards architecture. Gandhi gave Baker his idea for building low-cost houses. In Laurie's own words, “One of the things he(Gandhi) said that impressed me and has influenced my thinking more than anything else was that the ideal houses in the ideal village will be built using materials which are all found within a five-mile radius of the house.” 

All this inspired Laurie to design buildings using local and naturally occurring materials. 

Organic, flowy roofs in one of Laurie’s Architectural ProjectOrganic, flowy roofs in one of Laurie’s Architectural Project

Laurie Baker guided people to see all the architecture aspects with affordability, accessibility, and sustainability.

Laurie Baker holding bricks

Laurie Baker is an inspiration to many especially to the next gen architects. The great architect believed that architecture is a noble profession. It combines both art and science. While culture & technology are its two main pillars. Also, architecture embraces both vision and reality with creativity.

Laurie Baker is not with us now, but we can proudly remember him for his work, philosophy, techniques, and unique architectural legacy. Isn't this great, especially for the students, upcoming architects, and the young generation architects, to shape better buildings, better villages, and cities.

His Most Famous Work

Laurie spent most of his life in the south of India. His life and work in Kerala won him the Padma Shri award.

He designed buildings that could withstand the Indian climate, conditions and weather.

use of bamboo in Library cum Research Centre of Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Use of Bamboo in Library cum Research Centre of Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat 

The English architect was granted India's citizenship in 1988, something he had actively sought his entire life.

His notable works include the Laurie Baker Centre, the Indian Coffee House, and the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, Kerala.

Laurie Baker advocated modest materials such as brick and lime surkhi mortar by employing them in courtyards and walls formed with rat-trap bonds. These brought down the cost of the project significantly and lowered temperature.

"Bricks to me are like faces. All of them are made of burnt mud, but they vary slightly in shape and colour. I think these small variations give tremendous character to a wall, so I never dream of covering such a unique and characterful creation with plaster, which is mainly dull and characterless. I like the contrast of textures of brick, of stone, of concrete, of wood." He spoke.

Spiral Staircase designed by Laurie Baker

Another one of the most famous works formed by Laurie Baker was The Hamlet; this is Baker’s home in Trivandrum. It is a remarkable and unique house built on a land plot with a slope on a rocky hill. Various design strategies can be seen in these designs.

Architects Who Followed His Footsteps

Laurie Baker is a great inspiration for those who are taking architecture as a career. He has created beautiful architecture with low-cost construction and hence you can take inspiration from it to design affordable houses and low-cost buildings.

Kerala-based architect G Shankar, who advocates sustainable architecture, says, “Baker’s life and work were in sync. I have seen nobody like him before or nobody like him after.”

neerda suresh residence-laurie bakerNeerda Suresh Residence-Laurie Baker

“Baker thought of all aspects of architecture. But a lot of his work can’t be codified into practice, purely because they are labour intensive. With the rise in wages, it will prove to be more expensive to build a Baker-style house today. But his life teaches us that economics is a self-referential game, where the high demand for material reduces their price to their most economical level,” says Delhi-based architect Sanjay Prakash.

Among those who landed at Baker’s door were Goa-based architect Gerard da Cunha, who built Protima Bedi’s Nrityagram in Bangalore; Jaigopal Rao of Kochi-based firm Inspiration, who worked with Baker on his Latur earthquake relief housing; and Chennai-based Benny Kuriakose, who built Dakshinchitra, a museum of Tamil Nadu. In Delhi, Anil Laul, RD Padmakumar and Gautam Bhatia were key architects at the Laurie Baker Building Centre, RK Puram.

Laurie Baker’s personal sketchesLaurie Baker’s personal sketches

Laurie Baker said, “An equally interesting and absorbing part of practising architecture is translating your two-dimension drawings into three-dimension buildings. I have to be on the site to enjoy this transition from drawings to buildings. Not to be involved in building would be, to me, as foolish as buying a camera and film, viewing and clicking the trigger, getting a negative done, but not getting the print.”

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