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Life

Read more about his remarkably varied life spanning England, China, the Himalayan foothills, and the tribal forest of Kerala which were to unquestionably influenced his ideas on architecture in the Life Section

All attempts have been made to include as much material written by Baker himself and by his friends from the period. This hopefully helps one better understand how the various experiences in his life have shaped him and better understand the kind of person he was, why he designed and built the way he did and what he was trying to achieve.

1917: Born in Birmingham, England. Educated at King Edwards Grammar School & The Birmingham School of Architecture

1938: Associate of the Royal Institute of Architects (ARIBA)

1945: Came to India as the Chief Architect of the Mission to Lepers

1970: Fellow of the Indian Institute of Architects

1981: D.Litt conferred by the Royal University of Netherlands for outstanding work in the Third World

1983: Order of the British Empire, MBE

1987: Received the first Indian National Habitat Award

1988: Received Indian Citizenship

1989: Indian Institute of Architects Outstanding Architect of the Year

1990: Received the Padma Sri

1990: Great Master Architect of the Year

1992: UNO Habitat Award & UN Roll of Honour

1993: International Union of Architects (IUA) Award

1993: Sir Robert Matthew Prize for Improvement of Human Settlements

1994: People of the Year Award

1995: Awarded Doctorate from the University of Central England

1998: Awarded Doctorate from Sri Venkateshwara University

2001: Coinpar MR Kurup Endowment Award

2003: Basheer Puraskaram

2003: D.Litt from the Kerala University

2005: Kerala Government Certificate of Appreciation

2006: L-Ramp Award of Excellence

2006: Nominated for the Pritzker Award (considered the Nobel Prize for Architecture)

In 1963 the Bakers moved to Kerala, Elizabeth Baker’'s homeland. Laurie happened to meet a Belgian monk Francis who followed the Hindu way of monasticism and had started an ashram at Kurisumala in a place called Vagamon in the Kottayam/Idukki border. When Laurie told him about their work in the Himalayas Acharya Francis convinced Laurie to come stay in Vagamon since the tribal people and poor displaced people here had no medical facilities at all. Both in Pithoragarh and Vagamon, the Bakers started a hospital and several schools. These were opportunities for Laurie to build. The unique and extreme climatic conditions and topographical challenges of the Himalayas and the remote densely wooded hills of South India meant Laurie had to use his ingenuity and skills to utmost.

 


Read more in Baker's own words:



For a number of reasons we pulled up our roots from our Himalayan home and moved south to the State of Kerala with its extremely beautiful local indigenous bamboo style of architecture. Again, at first, we chose a remoter rural area to live and work in, and again, we ourselves built our own home and hospital in the local style with local materials. We settled down to live in a completely different setting from that of north India. I found the relationships of Kerala vs. India very comparable to that of Britain vs. the rest of Europe. The people were 'insular' and proud, and their ways were very different (and in their own eyes superior) to those of others. Many more people were educated and literate, and this was especially true among the women folk. This had both advantages and disadvantages. For example, there were many attractive ways of using local building materials. The coconut palm leaf was split and the fronts plaited together to form a thatch which was pleasing to the eye and of extremely good insulation value. The plaiting work had always been done by the older girls in their spare time, but now almost all girls went to school and more and more of them to college and there was neither the time nor the inclination to make these stock of thatched leaves ready for the annual re-thatching. And so, for similar reasons, there was a strong move in the urban plains especially to abandon 'old-fashioned ways' and go in for 'modern' buildings using plenty of cement and reinforced concrete.

 

Unlike in the Himalayas I had little time to help with my wife's hospital work as I became quite involved in local building activities. Many people and institutions were showing great interest in reducing costs of building. It all started when all the Bishops had agreed to work together at the Kerala Bishops' conference for the good of the common poor man. They had. with great fanfare, agreed that each parish in the state should try and put up at least one inexpensive, small house and give it to the poorest family in that parish, regardless of caste or creed. But after three years only two or three houses had been built. The Archbishop Mar Gregorios of Trivandrum called for a 'post-mortem' seminar to find out the reason for this failure. The explanation given by all was simple enough—: there was no longer any such thing as an 'inexpensive building'! I begged to disagree and offered to demonstrate, rather than to talk about ways of building inexpensive houses and spent the following two weeks putting up a small house of about forty square metres and costing, by request, less than Rs 3,000 (about US $400 at the time). The participants of the conference came to see the result of this demonstration and to our amazement declared the house to be 'too good' for 'the poor'. So the Archbishop asked for a second house to be put up for half the cost!

To continue reading to the next section "Settling Down Finally: Trivandrum" click here

 

 

In 1969, the Bakers family comprising of two daughters Vidya and Heidi and a son Tilak moved to Trivandrum where they have since settled and live with their families. Baker's work in just in Trivandrum includes over 1000 residences and over 40 churches, chapels and other buildings.


Read more about life in Trivandrum in Baker's own words:


Unlike in the Himalayas I had little time to help with my wife's hospital work as I became quite involved in local building activities. Many people and institutions were showing great interest in reducing costs of building. It all started when all the Bishops had agreed to work together at the Kerala Bishops' conference for the good of the common poor man. They had. with great fanfare, agreed that each parish in the state should try and put up at least one inexpensive, small house and give it to the poorest family in that parish, regardless of caste or creed. But after three years only two or three houses had been built. The Archbishop Mar Gregorios of Trivandrum called for a 'post-mortem' seminar to find out the reason for this failure. The explanation given by all was simple enough—: there was no longer any such thing as an 'inexpensive building'! I begged to disagree and offered to demonstrate, rather than to talk about ways of building inexpensive houses and spent the following two weeks putting up a small house of about forty square metres and costing, by request, less than Rs 3,000 (about US $400 at the time). The participants of the conference came to see the result of this demonstration and to our amazement declared the house to be 'too good' for 'the poor'. So the Archbishop asked for a second house to be put up for half the cost!

 

From this beginning there followed many small houses, schools, clinics, hospitals and churches and then the government moved in to examine what was going on. The Chief Minister of the state Sri Achutha Menon became a convert and I built the State Institute of Languages, at his request, for a small sum of money which the Works and Housing Department had declared was impossible. But my work for government and semi-government institutions continued, notably with a fairly large and prestigious complex known as the Centre for Development Studies, staffed and run by world-known economists of repute. The Chief Minister launched the scheme by challenging them to demonstrate and prove their economic theories by the way in which they built and ran their institution.

 

At this time, my greatest problems came from the vested interests of most categories of people concerned with the building industry. Most of them were paid on a percentage basis of the total or partial cost of a building. Clearly they did not wish to reduce costs! The craftsmen also were similarly paid and they too did not want any changes. It became increasingly tiresome when people who asked me to design a building for them for a certain sum of money, would return to say that the builders said it could not be done even for double the figure I had given. There was only one thing to do and that was to get together a band of masons and carpenters who would do what was asked of them and who would learn new techniques and un-learn old, wasteful ones. It was rewarding for my clients, for me and for the workmen. For example, some of them became excellent brick-workers who got enormous satisfaction from producing beautiful brickwork. Much of what has come to be described as Baker Architecture I owe to these craftsmen. Because of them it became easy for me to construct almost any type of building, and these ranged from the smallest houses to a large cathedral seating three thousand people. I was particularly pleased that three housing groups were taking advantage of these ideas. A whole fishing village for example, was built after many of its old huts had been washed away by the sea in a gale. Several institutions also built houses for their poor at comparatively very little cost. Then the so-called 'upper strata' of society came forward with interest which proved to be genuine, when quite a lot of them asked me to build their houses for them using these simple, cost-reducing techniques.

 

Low-cost housing techniques were the most rewarding for the group of people who came under the label of the 'lower middle class'. They feel they have certain standards of living to keep up, matters relating to dress and to the education and marriage of their children, but their salaries leave them very little to save for house-building—, an activity which they had always considered well beyond their reach. Now they could build. They were quick to understand the principles involved in cost-reduction. They were quick to understand the real priorities of building a home. They had and expressed their faith in the 'expert', and would sometimes actually help where they felt they could.

 

Again the government showed further interest and called for a report on the methods of cost-reduction. There was strong opposition to the idea of requesting a private individual with 'funny' ideas to present an official report to the government. Three outside government experts joined me and the report was presented, and, accepted, after the Chief Minister had organized a seminar in which all the suggestions and recommendations in the report were thrashed out and either agreed upon as possible and feasible, or, if impossible, rejected. Finally everything in the report was accepted, but over the years very little of it has been implemented.

 

Industrialists are often hard realists and the principles of cost-reduction have been taken up by some of them in different parts of the country. It seems a far cry from small low-cost houses' to big foundries and factories, but that is what has happened. The wheel seems to have turned a full circle because it is these industrialists who are now employing many handicapped persons and my work for the industrialists includes hostels and training-centres for these handicapped people, along with their huge factory buildings.

 

Lastly, I have found, consistently, throughout my working life, that the whole business of planning and designing is intensely absorbing and fun! Always living close to nature I learnt many lessons from the design of God's creations. Very rarely do we find the square or the rectangle but very often the circle is used. The straight line is rare, but the graceful curve is frequently seen. An interesting scientific observation is that the length of the wall enclosing a given area is shorter if the shape is circular and longer if the shape around the same area is a square or a rectangle. This is an important factor in cost-reducing exercises! Furthermore, I have found the answer to many spatial and planning problems by using the circle and the curve instead of the square and the straight line—and building becomes much more fun with the circle!

 

Final Note:


The Baker's lived a fulfilling, happy and productive life in Trivandrum for over 35 years. Elizabeth Baker worked tirelessly in several slums in Trivandrum, providing much needed medical expertise to neglected sections of society. Laurie Baker worked well into his 80s and continued his philosophy of being on the construction site with his workers reworking and adding design elements to fit the terrain and customer perfectly. Even in his late 80s, confined to his house, he continued to exercise his creativity through sketches, cartoons and writing till the very end.

Baker passed away on 1st  April 2007 at his home, "The Hamlet" in Trivandrum. He was 90. His wife Elizabeth (whom he called Kuni) passed away on March 11 2011 at the age of 95. The Bakers are survived by their son Tilak who continues to live at Nalanchira in an extension to the original Hamlet residence that Baker designed for his son and his family. Laurie and Elizabeth's daughters Vidya and Heidi live elsewhere in Trivandrum with their respective families. Tilak and Vidya's husband L Radhakrishnan are members of the governing board of the Laurie Baker Centre (website - opens in new window) an organization setup by his friends, students and admirers to propagate his philosophy of the concept of sustainable development through research, extension, training, documentation, dissemination and networking.

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 natura—I 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 people’s 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