What was supposed to be a temporary job in the remote isolated leper colony in inland china became a four-year stay. Baker finally returned to England thinking of taking up a life as an architect now that the war was over. One day while on a walk through the city he happened to see a board that said, "Mission to Lepers". Baker's interest and curiosity were aroused, especially as he had just spent a considerable amount of time dealing with leprosy. He decided to go in and see what it was all about. He spent a few hours in this nondescript building learning more about the Mission and its goals. By the time he came out he had made a life changing decision: he had agreed to go to India!
The Mission had been in dire need of an architect. Advances in medicine meant leprosy was no longer an untreatable disease. Instead of the existing asylums and colonies they now needed to build many new hospitals to treat these leprosy patients. For Laurie, this was finally a chance to use his architectural skills to help people in need. Laurie had no second thoughts and true to his word he arrived in India in 1945.
In British India, missionaries led a relatively luxurious lifestyle living in bungalows and were attended to by several servants and helpers. Laurie felt uncomfortable in these surroundings into which he was pushed into and decided to stay instead with Dr. P.J Chandy who ran one of the leprosy hospitals in Faizabad. Dr Chandy was a kindred spirit, who spent all his time and energy serving the poor and had therefore naturally become one of his closest friends. It was here that he met his future wife Elizabeth, also a doctor. She had decided to come to Faizabad to perform an operation on her brother and look after the hospital while he recuperated.
Read the whole story of Baker's early experiences in India in his own words as follows:
I stayed with Quaker friends who were close to Gandhiji and had the thrill and the blessing of talking with him about the lives of people in India and China. It was strange to spend time demonstrating and explaining to him how my Chinese cloth shoes were made and then later to have 'Quit India' shouted after me as I returned through the streets to the house where I was staying. During this period of enforced stay in India, I saw mansions and I saw slums. I met very affluent and famous people and I mixed with many very poor, lowly people. I talked with Gandhiji about my urge to return to work in India even though the British were being urged to get out and was encouraged by him to return to India. However, I finally decided to return to war-torn Birmingham. Obviously there was going to be a major requirement of architects in Britain now that the war was coming to an end. However I kept thinking about India. The housing needs of many of the millions in India seemed to be far greater and their chances of getting people to help them build extensively seemed far lesser than those in Britain.
(Here, as an aside, I would like to mention that I believe that Gandhiji is the only leader in our country who has talked consistently with common-sense about the building needs of our country. What he said many years ago is even more pertinent now. One of the things he 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. What clearer explanation is there of what appropriate building technology means than this advice by Gandhiji? I confess that as a young architect, born, brought up, educated and qualified in the West, I thought at first Gandhiji's ideal was a bit 'far-fetched' and I used to argue to myself that of course he probably did not intend us to take this ideal too literally. But now, in my seventies and with forty years of building behind me, I have come to the conclusion that he was right, literally word for word, and that he did not mean that there could be exceptions. If only I had not been so proud and sure of my learning and my training as an architect, I could have seen clearly wonderful examples of Gandhiji's wisdom all round me throughout the entire period I lived in the Himalayas and later in Kerala's tribal hill ranges)
So anyway, within a few months, I found myself on board a ship bound for India. I had been enrolled as an architect for a Mission which was international and interdenominational and whose sole purpose was the care of those suffering from leprosy. Once I reached India, I was sent to live in what were then known as the United Provinces in North India with an elderly missionary couple who were to 'teach me the ropes'. To my horror I found that I was labelled a 'Sahib', a 'White Man', and an Imperialist'! I had to live in a large bungalow with lots of servants and 'had to 'dress for dinner' and there was a rigid code of what 'was Done' and what 'was Not Done'. Under this code I could ride a horse but not a bicycle. After two weeks I rebelled, bought a bicycle, and rode off to live with an Indian doctor at the leprosy-hospital seven miles away.
There were immediate problems for me. My work was exciting. It took me all over rural India. People who contracted the disease of leprosy were called 'lepers', with all the stigma and terror that the word carries with it. They were segregated and herded away to asylums, probably never again to mix with ordinary people. But during the Second World War a range of new 'modern' drugs were produced and some of them were found to be helpful in the treatment of leprosy. At the same time there also came about a new approach for the treatment of the unfortunate victims of the dreaded disease. If a cure was possible then hospitals were needed where they could go to with hope for treatment. Then eventually, perhaps, they could return to normal life, instead of being ostracized for the rest of their lives.
My job was mainly to convert or replace these old dreaded asylums with proper modern hospitals and to create the necessary rehabilitation and occupation centres. But there was no precedent for this new approach of treatment. Medical experts were few and far between and inevitably had varying and even conflicting ideas about how to go about things leading to a whole new set of problems. Who was to guide me in my work? To whom should I turn to for instructions? Who actually were my clients? Was my client the Mission which paid my salary? Or were they the doctors and dedicated workers who worked selflessly for the relief of the suffering of those caught up by this most dreaded of diseases? Or were the clients the patients themselves?
At this crossroads of my career, I had already made my choice by going on the bicycle to live in the hospital. It was the Mission that paid my salary and they also decided how much money was to be used for each project. The doctors had a fair idea of what they required for their work. But finally it were the patients themselves who would actually live in my buildings, and in them regain not only their health but their hope and self-respect, and finally gain a new entry into life. What better clients could one hope for?
Soon I was swamped by a new set of problems. The buildings I was sent to inspect, their construction techniques and materials used, were nothing like the buildings I had been taught about and designed at the School of Architecture. I was expected to deal with mud walls and huge cracks. I was confronted with materials I had never heard of, such as laterite. People seemed to think that even cow-dung was an important building material! I was expected to know how to deal with termites and even bed hugs. I was warned that in a short time the monsoon would come. The word was spoken with such awe and fear as though a monsoon were a ferocious, wild beast ready to pounce on me without warning. And, true enough, it was like a ferocious, wild beast and it did pounce on me with a vengeance!
In fact, during those first few months I felt increasingly ignorant and helpless. I felt less knowledgeable than the stupidest village idiot for he seemed to know what a termite and a monsoon and black cotton soil were. I had brought with me my text books, reference hooks and construction manuals, but a bundle of comic strips would have been as helpful. What should I do? Go back home where I belonged? The cry of 'Quit India' was louder and stronger now than ever before, would it not be better to quit?
But it was already too late to quit. I might be snowed under with all these impossible and ridiculous problems (were they really the concern of a proper qualified Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects?), but I was increasingly fascinated by the skills of ordinary, poor, village people working with the most unpromising and crude materials with apparently almost no recognizable tools to make useful everyday buildings and articles. I spent most of my time watching these people build beautiful houses for themselves with mud and bamboo and dried grass and the poorest quality of timber I had ever seen. I saw round conical houses, up to six metres in diameter, built with pieces of timber no longer than a metre-and-a-half. Furthermore, these houses were built in areas that faced devastating cyclones every year and very often this type of indigenous architecture had a better chance of survival than the more 'proper' type of structure of bricks, mortar and reinforced concrete slabs. I had, up till then, heard of 'stabilized earth', but all over the country I saw mud houses which were treated with a wide variety of materials: from rice husks, bamboo strips and palm fibres to prevent cracks, and calcium (lime) water to pigs' urine for coping with other problems related to the use of mud for construction.
The incredible and fascinating part about all this new education I was having was that these strange systems were effective, and slowly I realised that many of the answers to my problems, which I thought I could never solve, lay before me and all round me wherever I went. I suppose it took many years before I really understood and wholeheartedly believed that wherever I went I saw, in the local indigenous style of architecture, the results of thousands of years of research on how to use only immediately-available, local materials to make structurally stable buildings that could cope with the local climatic conditions, with the local geography and topography, with all the hazards of nature (whether mineral, vegetable, insect, bird or animal), with the possible hostility of neighbours, and that could accommodate all the requirements of local religious, social and cultural patterns of living. This was an astounding, wonderful and incredible achievement which no modern, twentieth century architect, or people I know of, has ever made.
Columbus is reputed to have discovered America, but a large number of people had been already living there without the publicity of his discovery for a very long time. Similarly, when I made my own little personal discoveries, I realized that I had merely chanced to find an extensive set of building systems which were in no way 'discoveries' to more than five hundred million people! I wanted to make use of this new knowledge in my own work. Perhaps it was as well that my employers brushed it all aside as a romantic notion for I realized I was merely a witness to these apparently endless indigenous skills and was in no way capable of implementing them so early after my 'discoveries'.
Rather reluctantly I had to return to my drawing board and design 'proper' buildings. However I can't say that the result of my latest education was completely wasted. I learnt more about the more acceptable local materials, with new (to me) ways of using burnt brick, stone, tiles and timber. I also used new kinds of mortar and plaster and, as much as possible, tried to design my buildings in such a way that they would not be offensive or unacceptable to my real clients, the users of the buildings, and so that they would fit in with the local styles and not be an offence to the eyes of the people with whom I had chosen to live with. I think this was probably the second biggest step towards what (if there really is such a thing) is described as a 'Laurie Baker Architecture'.
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