To be informed of upcoming screening dates of the film Uncommon Sense: The Life and Work of Laurie Baker in your city and country, and to get notifications when the film and upcoming Baker book are available for purchase please provide your email address. You will be added to the Baker Mailing List. To request a screening email lauriebakerfilm[at)gmail(d0t)com

Down to Earth: Baker on what Architecture means to him

Most people have very differing ideas about what an architect is. The dictionaries say that an architect is one who practises architecture and architecture is the art and science of building! After I qualified as an architect I worked in two or three well known architects' offices but it was deadly dull work. I was relieved when World War II broke out and I was posted, after a time, to China, of all places. After a few years there in medical work I tried to return to England via India but I had to wait for a boat for three months. Everyone was telling me to quit India, which was very foolish because if anyone tells me to quit, I stay.


Looking back I realise that my architectural education was very different from that which is given to the architectural students here. My school of architecture was allied to the school of art and shared the same building. We rubbed shoulders with painters, sculptors, potters, fabric designers, stained glass window makers. Not only did we rub shoulders but in the evenings we budding architects had to take art courses. I did pottery, ceramics, stone carving and so on. Our engineering professors came to us from time to time and did what they had to and went away again. But here in Trivandrum the college of architecture is a branch of the engineering college, and as far as I know they have no connection with the college of art. I preferred my way and I have never run a proper architect's office. I have close to my bed a small, old drawing board— the same one I had in school. I broke my T square quite a long time ago and never bought another. I have an old brass pair of compasses which belonged to my older brother and it was passed on to me when I first went to school. So I don't look the part at all!


To me probably the most interesting part of designing a building is dealing with the clients—, getting to know them, how they live and work and finding out what sort of a building they dream of. It is exciting to put on to paper what you think is in their heads, and then to go on altering or adding or deleting until you think you have put down what they want. We were taught very firmly and consistently that the client should always be our prime consideration and, indeed, our inspiration. 'You will be putting up their building not yours,' we were often told. An equally interesting and absorbing part of practicing architecture is translating your two-dimensional drawings into three-dimensional 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.


From a practical point of view also, while I clamber about on the scaffolding, I suddenly realise that I will get a much better view, or more breeze, if I move the window or make it bigger. And so on. I like to make the most of the colour and texture of materials, rather than to plaster everything over and then paint on colours. To do this I have to work with the masons and other workers to show them how I want them to use materials;— not necessarily the same way in each building. So, to me, involvement in the construction work is a must and far more important than desk work.

Another aspect was drummed into us as students: we were told we were the only ones who had a complete overall view and understanding of our building— as a unified product. 'You are not just doing a plan or an elevation, you even know how you hope to see your clients in their building after it is up and finished.' Our professor likened us to the conductor of an orchestra. He has the full score and he knows the musical item being performed. Each instrument player only has the music he is to play and the conductor controls his playing. Most famous conductors can even take over almost any instrument and show how they want it to sound at a particular time and place in the performance. Likewise the engineer may have perfect knowledge of his bit of the design— and his specialized knowledge may be essential— but he knows nothing of the client's needs and desires, or of the total effect the whole completed building will have on its surroundings and on all who pass by. Similarly, with the plumber and sanitary man, the electrician, the paving expert, but overall, controlling and using to good effect all these, is the architect— the conductor.


Finally, in my day it was rubbed into us that the architect should have and show good manners and his architecture should be similarly good mannered! Very occasionally we are invited to design an isolated monumental building, all on its own in the middle of a park or campus with its own special surroundings. But 99 out of every 100 buildings we do will be in a row, or a block, or a nagar. The other buildings may be new, or indifferent, or good, or commonplace but we have to take our place among them and we must not show bad manners by competing or showing off, or by being defiant.


Again we were told, and how true it is, that a painter or sculptor will produce his masterpiece and it will be bought by someone and put in a room or a gallery— but only those who desire to, will go and see it. But our artistry is there before all who pass along that road and they have little option but to look at what we have done. So we architects have to ask ourselves— is the building we have created going to stick out like a sore thumb? Or will it give joy and pleasure? Will it add to our culture? There's an old saying: manners maketh the man. I think they also make good architecture.