This is an account of his early life in Pithoragarh in the Himalayan foothills in Baker's own words:
By the late 1940s, the British had quit India and Gandhiji had been assassinated, and I was settled in independent India. I got most of my encouragement and more than a little inspiration from the wonderful doctor, P.J. Chandy, who had taken me into his home when I had cycled away from the sahib's bungalow in Faizabad. He had an equally wonderful Doctor sister and I married her and we settled down in a remote area of the Himalayas on the borders of Tibet and Nepal.
For our honeymoon we decided to go to Chandag, in the Himalayan foothills where there was a leprosy hospital. The doctor in charge could go to the plains for a holiday and we (my wife being a doctor and I a trained anesthetist and nurse) could take care of the hospital in the meantime and also enjoy a holiday in the scenic and picturesque hills. Local tribal and hill people heard about the new doctor and started to come in droves from all around since there was no other doctor for many miles. However, there were strict orders to not treat non-leprosy patients. So we decided to set up our own small hospital in a nearby village called Pithoragarh.
The hospital, which started in an abandoned teashop, grew and patients came in increasing numbers. This remote and neglected hilly area had their first doctor and the news spread like wildfire. There was a need now for new buildings for our home and the hospital.
There, in mainly truly local indigenous style, we built our home, hospital and schools, and we lived there for more than a decade-and-a-half. During this time I did manage to acquire quite a lot of those skills which had so fascinated me. Slowly I began to be drawn back into the more sophisticated world because, strangely enough, as I was busy absorbing these local skills, clients from the outside world came up into the Himalayas to get my help. Among them was a wonderful elderly American lady, Welthy Honsinger Fisher, who was concerned about spreading the teaching of adult literacy throughout India. She had the vision of a village which she'd planned to call 'Literacy Village' and it was here she would teach how to educate adult illiterates. She would train writers on how to write for the newly-literate adults. She would teach how to use drama, puppetry, music and art as teaching methods. But she wanted, what she described as a real 'Indian villagesque set-up'. Although crippled, and in her seventies, she'd made the long and difficult journey to our hospital Iii the Himalayas and stayed with us until she had her plans for her Literacy Village. Later I went down and helped her to lay out the site and start building.
Some of her friends were trying to start psychiatric work in India. They were an international team but were going to work with and for Indians (the second member of the team was a south Indian psychoanalyst). They too came and dragged me away from my house in the Himalayas because, although they needed up-to-date modern hospital equipment and surroundings, they also needed buildings and an atmosphere that would be acceptable and 'right' for the mentally-disturbed Indian patients. Thus my work on hospitals and medical institutions, especially those in rural areas, grew.
In out-of-the-way districts, among the scattered and neglected population, the buildings needed were small but essential, more essential and necessary than even those in the densely-populated cities where plenty of alternative facilities are available. Furthermore, those living in these remote rural areas traded by the barter system rather than by buying and selling with money. This meant that it was extremely difficult to find money to pay for the building material, and so it was of the utmost importance to design and make buildings that were strong and durable, and as inexpensive as possible. For this and other similar reasons I became then, cost-conscious and spent a lot of time trying to find ways of reducing building costs in general whether I was using local indigenous methods or building with the 'normal' twentieth century materials and techniques. Seeing millions of people living a hand-to-mouth existence made me come to abhor all forms of extravagance and waste.
This brings us to the two important characteristics of a so-called Baker Architecture that 'small' is not only 'beautiful' but is often essential and even more important than `large'; and that if we architects are even to start coping effectively with the real building problems and the housing needs of the world, we must learn how to build as inexpensively as possible.
And so my interest and work spread. The medical world was cautiously interested and the world of formal education followed suit. There were village schools and colleges and even urban colleges that wanted libraries, auditoria, etc. Designing for these various institutions became my bread-and-butter. For the dessert I could never resist the invitation to design religious buildings. So, often, there were ashrams, houses of prayer and churches on my drawing board but always on the condition that there must be no ostentation or 'facade-ism'. I am often puzzled by the dichotomy in my naturaI claim to believe in democracy but I can find myself wanting to be an architectural dictator! I think I am more than normally tolerant about other peoples religious beliefs and practices, and yet I can find myself decrying the requests of a religious group for something which I feel is wrong or inconsistent with their beliefs. I claim that the client's needs and desires should come first and that he or she requires a 'client-based' building, not a 'Baker' building but when expressions of his religious beliefs offend me I find myself unable to design for him or her.
If the above statement sounds a bit harsh perhaps a bit of background on my Quaker religious beliefs might help explain why I feel this way. Very briefly, the Quaker ideal is that there is a form of direct unity with the Creator. Man experiences this at any time, in any place and under any circumstances. Special 'religious' surroundings and appurtenances are not essential though many people find them a help. However much we hoodwink our fellowmen, it is impossible to be deceitful or put up a false front to the Creator. So all efforts to 'put on a big show' or indulge in deceit to make ourselves look greater than we are, seem to be quite pointless. A house has to be designed as a home for a particular group of people to live together as a family in their own inimitable style and if this planning and designing for them is done well it is highly unlikely that the outside of the building will be ostentatious or showy. It is even more so with religious buildings where people usually gather together for purposes of worship and prayer, with their own particular form of ritual or liturgy. The architect will do his utmost to provide the 'right' space in which these acts of worship can be made. As this mainly concerns our search for union with the Eternal it seems particularly 'not right' to indulge in a pretentious façade with these buildings. This anti-façade-ism has definitely been a very noticeable and is a deliberate characteristic of Laurie Baker's architecture, no matter what type of building is being designed.
It was towards the end of our stay in Pithoragarh and while these interesting, special buildings were being built that the government itself started mild enquiries, especially concerning the possibilities of cost-reduction in building. Several upright senior government secretaries were showing genuine concern at architectural practices which were apparently not actually essential or even desirable, but which they were assured as necessary by public work civil engineers . At first I was only unofficially asked whether there were in fact any possible ways of reducing costs for government buildings done by Government agencies.
My unpopularity among fellow professionals probably started at this time. I remember being shown drawings of a monumental façade to the proposed State Archival Buildings. The entrance portico looked very much like St. Paul's Cathedral West Facade with a huge flight of steps and rows of ornate columns. The public would not use this building and those who were to work in it would number less than forty. I asked for the reason for the great entrance portico. The only answer I received was that it was because Mr Nehru himself would declare the building open! Needless to say I enjoyed these skirmishes with the government personnel and eventually became an official adviser!
(Note: The Bakers stayed in Pithoragarh from 1948 to 1963)
To continue reading to the next section "Rural Kerala: Vagamon" click here
[Opens in a new window] To read a piece on Pithoragarh life by the Rogers who were one of the many set of friends who used to routinely stay with the Bakers in their Himalayan home on holidays click here