Tribute to Laurie Baker: Attukal Pongala to go 'Beyond Bricks'
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Full text of "LAURIE BAKER - A TRIBUTE" - Internet Archive

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April 2, 2007 Laurie Baker: A Tribute Himanshu Burte Laurie Baker, an Indian architect of British origin, passed away last Sunday at the age of ninety at home in Thiruvananthapuram. The conscience keeper of Indian architecture, and a widely admired (but imperfectly appreciated) icon of alternative practices of modernity in ...

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April 2, 2007 



Laurie Baker: A Tribute 

Himanshu Burte 

Laurie Baker, an Indian architect of British origin, passed away last Sunday at the age of 
ninety at home in Thiruvananthapuram. The conscience keeper of Indian architecture, 
and a widely admired (but imperfectly appreciated) icon of alternative practices of 
modernity in Indian life, also had a great sense of humour. Was the departure on April 1- 
that had us scrambling for confirmation after the first sms- his little parting joke then? 

For over four decades, Baker has been kn own for his pioneering practice of cost-effective 
architecture in Kerala. Famous as the builder of affordable homes for the poor, Baker was 
(is it already ‘was’?) also a unique creative artist whose originality, technical control and 
a unique sense of whimsy made low cost yield high architectural quality for everyone. 
His greatest contribution was showing that cost-effective and ecologically sustainable 
construction does not automatically imply shoddy building and reduced creative freedom. 
Baker showed, in fact, that sustainable technologies when adopted with care and 
creativity, could lead to a unique architectural expression, one that moved the expert and 
the layman alike. 

Born into a Quaker family in Birmingham in 1917, Laurence W. Baker trained as an 
architect in the same city, and traveled to China as a volunteer in the ambulance service 
during World War II. On the way back to England in 1945, he passed through India. A 
chance encounter with Mahatma Gandhi in Mumbai, while staying with Quaker friends 
waiting for his steamer home, convinced him that his expertise was needed in India. He 
returned to India within a few months, where he met Elizabeth Jacob, a doctor, whom he 
married in 1948. For the next fifteen years they lived in a remote village in the hills of 
Pithoragarh in Uttar Pradesh and ran a hospital. It was only after the couple returned to 
Elizabeth’s home state Kerala, and specifically to Thiruvananthapuram in the late sixties, 
that Baker began a full-fledged practice as an architect who also built his own projects. 
His reputation, thus, is built entirely upon work that he did after his fiftieth birthday! 

Baker’s life and practice were often marked by strategic inversions of conventions in the 
pursuit of foundational ideals. His method of practice was the very opposite of the 
statutory model in India which followed the British system. Thus, while Indian architects 
around him followed the British way of designing and directing operations from their 
drawing boards as ‘consultants’ far removed from the bustle of the site, Baker organized 
his work as a designer-builder in the manner of the traditional Indian master craftsman. 
He never maintained a regular office or a battalion of assistants, often sketched on waste 
paper, and designed largely on site. Unlike most practicing architects, he kn ew the trades 
well enough to train his workers himself and be open enough to learn from them at the 
same time. Every project was thus design-built with teams of craftsmen he had himself 
trained. This hands-on approach made it possible for him to pursue cost-effectiveness in 
design, otherwise impossible in the normal professional mode. 



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Baker’s work is characterized by a fairly consistent system of design principles, building 
methods, and equally consistent but evolving set of idiosyncrasies. Baker always treated 
factors like climate, the peculiarities of site, and the high consumption of scarce energy 
and capital in construction as basic components of the matrix of ‘givens’ that defined the 
solution space of every project. The functional and habitational demands of individuals or 
organizations who dwelt in his spaces governed the specific configuration and character 
of each project. And yet, these ‘external’ factors to which he paid close attention, never 
appeared to constrain his instinct for producing sensuous, dramatic and engaging spaces 
that had a great ‘fit’ with the lives led in them. A large number of buildings he designed - 
an astounding two thousand of them by one account- including iconic houses like those 
for Abu Abraham, T.C. Alexander, Nalini Nayak and K.N. Raj, testify to this fact. 
Gautam Bhatia, the New Delhi based architect and writer, who wrote probably the first 
book on Baker in 1991, recalls being amazed when he had gone to stay with friends in 
Kerala who lived in a Baker house. ‘Every detail in the house was innovative and freshly 
thought of right down to the W.C. in the middle of the toilet, with the basin behind it, the 
kind of thing heritage hotels do today. It was almost an instantaneous decision for me to 
explore the work of this man further, which then led to the book’, he says. The Centre 
for Development Studies (CDS) in Thiruvananthapuram, the project that secured Baker’s 
reputation in the 1970s, is built using his innovative system of cavity walls in un- 
plastered brick, reinforced concrete ‘filler slabs’ (where recycled clay tiles replaced a fair 
bit of the concrete), and brick jalis (patterns of perforation) instead of expensive 
windows. The buildings are sited carefully and laid out at different levels on a sloping 
site to minimize excavation and earth filling. As elsewhere, Baker keeps out the rain, lets 
in the breeze and modulates daylight by controlling openings, introducing jalis, 
providing roof overhangs, and wrapping internal spaces around intimate courtyards. 
These same functional devices also form the unique visual identity of his buildings. In 
this early project, Baker’s capacity to combine social consciousness and expressive 
freedom in a witty and vivid manner is already clearly evident. 

Baker’s must also rank among the ‘freest’ of architectural imaginations in 
contemporarylndian architecture. His India Coffee House, a small building for an 
inexpensive restaurant outside the main bus stand at Thiruvananthapuram, shows how 
free he was from pre-conceived ideas as well as from any fear of the apparent strangeness 
of his own solutions. Here the dining area is a curving ramp that rises about two floors 
and winds tightly about a functional service core housing the pantry and stores. Built-in 
seats and tables hug the curving outer jali wall, whose perforations throw a playful 
pattern of light on the spiraling floor while lending a tapestry-like feel to the wall when 
viewed from outside. 

It was in one of the last houses that he built in his usual hands-on manner, however, that I 
came to appreciate to the fullest, the sheer poetry, quirkiness and humanity of his 
architectural imagination. The house for Suresh and Neerada is built around a mango 
shaped open courtyard. A continuous filler slab roof spirals up from the lowest level to 
the highest in a continuous sweep. There is not a single straight line in the plan. The 
living room has a little window seat with a rare luxury - an almost traditional wooden 



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window seat with a trellis. The living space curves deeper into the house and the glowing 
darkness at the other end is leavened by a dramatically lit nook to one side. And at the 
centre of it all, the long rising, curving wall has what looks like a large scatter of stained 
glass, but is actually a multi-coloured pattern of recycled bottles built into the brickwork. 
The experiential richness of that space has not dimmed in my memory for seven years. 

That experiential richness is one connection Baker’s architecture has often shared with 
the traditional architecture of Kerala that he learnt so much from, but from which his 
work differs so much. Baker has often been described in the popular media as an 
upholder of local craft traditions. Actually, though, he was neither a traditionalist nor a 
modernist in the usual narrow sense of either tenn. His keenness to learn from the 
wisdom of traditional building systems of a place always matched his very modern thrust 
towards economy and structural efficiency. He was more modern than many avowed 
modernists in the honesty and austerity of material means, even as he achieved 
exuberance in expression. He departed from the nostrums of tradition in the freedom and 
expressiveness of his forms and ornament. Visually, his use of exposed brick construction 
can be considered a big break with architectural tradition in Kerala. And yet his work fits 
into the landscape with an ease that belies the ’strangeness' of the aesthetic he brought 
into it. 

It is a commentary on our understanding of what it means to be modern, that Baker’s 
approach has often been thought of as only an ‘alternative’ to modern architecture. That 
may simply mirror the fact that we view the Nehruvian direction of modernization as the 
only possible one. In reality, the sheer intelligence, social aptness, and technical, aesthetic 
and constructional innovativeness of Baker’s work contrasts starkly with the standardized 
processes of producing waste and alienation followed by the mainstream. If we accept 
that among the core values of a desirable modernity are optimization, equity, and 
scalability, Baker’s work appears more modern than that of most modernists. This 
parallels the manner in which, from the point of view of sustainability, Gandhi’s vision of 
progress appears closer to a more convincing project for Indian modernity than Nehru’s. 
Even if it is a true uniqueness of aesthetic vision we seek, Baker’s work offers a look and 
feel that is strikingly personal and yet very habitable for the people he built for. At the 
very least then, Baker illuminated the difference between being a modern and a modernist 
architect. 

Baker consistently refused to have assistants. He was also, as Bhatia says, ‘someone with 
no aspect of standardization in his personality’. And yet, a fairly vibrant tradition of 
building upon and with his ideas has taken root in Kerala and elsewhere, through the 
work of various architects and agencies like Centre of Science and Technology for Rural 
Development (COSTFORD) set up specifically to disseminate his approach through 
building practice. Speaking about the future of Baker’s legacy, Sajan PB, Joint Director, 
COSTFORD, who worked closely with Baker for over a decade, says that Baker was a 
master, and ‘no single person can take his place’. He, however, reveals that a number of 
like-minded people are planning to start a school of architecture in Kerala to teach 
Baker’s philosophy and practice of architecture. 



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A large number of architects outside Kerala have been inspired by his vision, and 
buildings in places as far away as Goa, Pondicherry, and New Delhi show evidence of his 
influence. Today, the construction industry in India is booming and the explosion of new 
choices threatens to overcome the sense and sensibility of experts and consumers. What 
better time then to pay close heed again to the architect who showed, really showed, that 
less is much-much more than one can ever imagine? 
 
 
 
 

On Father's Day, a grandson's tribute to his grandfather, Laurie Baker ...

https://www.architecturaldigest.in › Lifestyle › Film
Jun 16, 2017 - Gandhian architect Laurie Baker passed away in 2007, but his legacy is unique in the history of Indian architecture. In an interview with his grandson, filmmaker and photographer Vineet Radhakrishnan, AD discovers insights into his grandfather's life.
 
 
 
 

On Father’s Day, a grandson’s tribute to his grandfather, Laurie Baker

Gandhian architect Laurie Baker passed away in 2007, but his legacy is unique in the history of Indian architecture. In an interview with his grandson, filmmaker and photographer Vineet Radhakrishnan, AD discovers insights into his grandfather's life.

Vineet Radhakrishnan
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Grandson to British-born Indian architect Laurie Baker and Elizabeth Chandy Baker, Bengaluru-based Vineet Radhakrishnan made the film “Uncommon Sense” as a tribute to his grandfather. He holds degrees from IIT-Delhi and INSEAD, France. After completing his MBA in 2013, and after much introspection, he decided to pursue his passion for filmmaking instead of a corporate job.
(Right) Vineet with Laurie Baker and Elizabeth Baker, his grandparents; (Left) Laurie Baker and his wife Elizabeth Chandy Baker while on their honeymoon in the Himalayas in the Pithoragarh region of Uttarakhand.
(Right) Vineet with Laurie Baker and Elizabeth Baker, his grandparents; (Left) Laurie Baker and his wife Elizabeth Chandy Baker while on their honeymoon in the Himalayas in the Pithoragarh region of Uttarakhand. Elizabeth was a trained doctor, provided the villagers with medical care, while Baker worked on the design and construction of hospitals and clinics. They decided to make the mountains their home for the next 19 years and serve the community. Photo Courtesy: Vineet Radhakrishnan
The raison d’ĂȘtre behind the film—which was four years in the making—was not only to document, but also to take forward the legacy of Baker. To make known to people, a more holistic picture of the man and his works—his beliefs, motives and approach to life that impacted and influenced his work, in turn.
Deepthi Radhakrishnan in an interview with Vineet Radhakrishnan.
Deepthi Radhakrishnan (DR): What has your journey been, through the making of this film?
Vineet Radhakrishnan (VR): It has been a journey of rediscovering my grandfather through the eyes, thoughts and memories of dozens of people. In many ways, the two–the architect and the grandfather—were very different.
He was very forceful, vocal and determined when it came to calling out things in the architecture and construction industry, which he felt were wasteful and wrong.
The campus for the research institute, Centre for Development Studies, is one of Laurie Baker’s best campus designs, located in a residential area on the northern outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram.
The campus for the research institute, Centre for Development Studies, is one of Laurie Baker’s best campus designs, located in a residential area on the northern outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram.
On the other hand, at home, he was laid-back and easygoing. Yet there were other areas where the architect and the grandfather were the one and the same—his belief in simplicity, truthfulness and helping others.
He didn’t see himself as an architect in the conventional sense—his goal was to help others, and the skills he had, meant he could do that through designing and building. He believed that the benefits of good design were not exclusively for the rich and the common man too deserved to have a strong, durable, aesthetic and green house.
The spiral staircase at CDS, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala
The spiral staircase at CDS, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala
DR: What were the influences that helped define the narrative or storyline for ‘Uncommon Sense’?
VR: There are various facets to my grandfather’s life. There was the rather unique personal story: of being a conscientious objector, refusing to fight in World War II, and instead electing to drive an ambulance onto the battlefield braving bombs and attacks from the enemy; of spending four years in extreme isolation in China single-handedly taking care of lepers (at a time when leprosy was a contagious and fatal disease); His meeting with Gandhiji who asked him to come to India and the subsequent 16 years he spent with my grandmother who was one of India’s first female doctors in the Himalayas, bringing modern medical care to the much neglected people in those remote areas—all of it makes for a highly engaging biographical story which appeals to a large layman audience.
Architect Laurie Baker pioneered vernacular, sustainable, eco-friendly green architecture in India with brick mud and other local materials. Seen here: Baker's home in Trivandrum
Architect Laurie Baker pioneered vernacular, sustainable, eco-friendly green architecture in India with brick mud and other local materials. Seen here: Baker’s home in Trivandrum
At the same time his radical and innovative ideas about architecture, of course, had to be covered. Then I realized that his architecture had its origins in the man, his values and his early experiences. There are direct correlations between him being a Quaker and his aesthetic preference for simplicity, functionality and minimal ornamentation.
There have been numerous articles written and short films made about Baker, but none of them have been in the long movie format that you see in Vineet Radhakrishnan's—Laurie Baker's grandson— film, Uncommon Sense.
There have been numerous articles written and short films made about Baker, but none of them have been in the long movie format that you see in Vineet Radhakrishnan’s—Laurie Baker’s grandson— film, Uncommon Sense.
DR: You have been screening the film in over 20 countries and various cities in India, for sometime now. What is the kind of impact you see generated by the film?
VR: People, especially abroad, are surprised to know about someone who was quietly not just theorising, but actually practicing, what is now popularly referred to as “green architecture”—all the way back in the 1950s at a time when the terms probably didn’t even exist. The very concept of an architect having a social responsibility and not just being a monument builder was again something he pioneered.
Loyola Chapel (1971) in Thiruvananthapuram by Laurie Baker
Loyola Chapel (1971) in Thiruvananthapuram by Laurie Baker
Secondly, they are surprised by how much of what he was saying so many decades ago is still relevant—and in fact, is more relevant now than in the past. The big impact I see the film making, both in India and abroad, is showing people how it is possible to live simply, coexisting with our environment. In fact my grandfather says it best, “We need to go back to the idea that small is beautiful”. I think this is a very powerful thought.
Tucked away from the maddening world of city life, CDS is housed in Prasanth Nagar, a serene, picturesque hamlet off the Thiruvananthapuram city.
CDS is housed in Prasanth Nagar, a serene, picturesque hamlet off the Thiruvananthapuram city.
DR: Through the making of ‘Uncommon Sense’, have you become aware of or come across architects whose work has been influenced by Baker?
VR: Several in different parts of the country–Rajasthan, Andaman, the North East but…I would prefer to respect their privacy. The important thing to note is that often, people tend to focus on the superficial elements of my grandfather’s architecture—the use of exposed brick, jalis, arches, filler slabs, and so on.
Abu Abraham residence by Laurie Baker. Photo Courtesy: Vineet Radhakrishnan
Abu Abraham residence by Laurie Baker. 
However, what is important is not these superficialities, but to understand the underlying building philosophy—respect for nature, being careful about using only the resources one requires, focusing on functionality that is still aesthetically pleasing, having a social conscience as an architect, and devising methods to use local alternative materials whatever the region one is building in, and integrating local traditional building practices and techniques.
CDS director's office
CDS director’s office
Many architects are doing this successfully and bringing in their own innovative ideas, and what is important to understand is their buildings will look very different from a “Baker” building because they are following the same principles in a different environment and different group of people and are not imitating the visual elements of a “Baker” building. That’s why I feel these ideas are quite universal.
CDS grand spiral stairway
CDS grand spiral stairway
DR: During your film screening, you mentioned the release of a book and the film DVD. What is the book about? When and where will it be available for all? 
VR: The book will be a compilation of my grandfather’s architectural writing, sketches, plans, cartoons, paintings, and other material, most of which is unpublished currently. It will also include his instructional construction booklets and cover other aspects of his life that could not be included in the film or that translate better to a book format than film.
For upcoming film screenings, DVD and book release, visit Vineet’s Laurie Baker-devoted website.