LAURIE BAKER: THE GANDHI OF INDIAN ARCHITECTURE

An Architect who designed buildings as simple and humble as himself, Lawrence Wilfred ‘Laurie’ Baker is widely regarded for redefining the essence of low-cost yet sustainable vernacular buildings in rural India. The British born architect dedicated more than 40 years of his life in the country, working for the ‘real Indians’ (the locals and poor), thus congregating a vast architectural portfolio with numerous notable projects under his name. Such honorable was his work, that Laurie Baker was bestowed with the prestigious Padma Shri by the Indian Government.

GANDHINIAN ARCHITECTURE:

For Baker, the authentic spirit of architecture is reflected in the prudent utilization of the given minimum resources to conceive a space for the actual users while imbibing the characteristics that surround it. His design principles which employed raw use of local materials, honest structures, and simplicity in design were truly an effort by the Master to connect architecture with those in need of it. For the same reasons, he is often called the ‘Gandhi of Architecture’- who worked, lived, and built for the less fortunate. Adopting only the locally available materials and craftmanship, Baker set up a benchmark in traditional Indian Architecture with his extra-ordinary buildings, built with the most ordinary materials. As much as he was a Gandhi in this approach, Laurie Baker’s work spoke out in terms of Gaudi!

LEARNINGS AND RE-LEARNINGS AT EACH STEP:

Laurie Baker received his architectural education from the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, England. Upon his arrival in the developing country of India, he quickly realized that his modern learnings could not be put to use in the country’s scenario, where poverty, sickness, and illiteracy were the primary concerns to be catered to while erecting a structure. Determined to build, Baker started his process of ‘re-learning’ architecture from the local builders and masons, who in his view, were the true-architects. Grasping a new concept, a new style, and a new technique with each new project, and each learning different from the previous one, Baker slowly developed his distinctive style and architecture vocabulary whilst working first in Pithoragarh (Himalayan foothills), and later in Kerala, India.

ARCHITECTURAL STYLE AND PRINCIPLES:

By going against Modernist dogma, Laurie Baker displayed that learning from ingenious, traditional architectural wisdom could widen the horizon of creative freedom for the modern architect. Through his works, he endorsed local craftsmanship, traditional techniques, and materials but then combined it with modern design principles and technology wherever it made sense to do so. Baker’s low-cost, energy-efficient architecture looked at buildings and sought to give them soul – without aspiring for praise. Each brick façade and free-flowing roof brought out a pleasant amalgamation of beauty and functionality and thus channeling the concept of ‘sustainability’- a term which was non-existent in the India of 1960s. The Indian Master Architect followed a simple, yet strict set of principles that emphasized on prioritizing the user, site topography, local vegetation and materials, and most importantly, low-cost in order to create structures that were honest, unique, and true to the region.

BAKER’S BUILDING CONSTRUCTION:

Baker’s contribution to architecture is not only limited to his buildings but is also found in the innovative construction techniques that the Architect introduced which apart from being aesthetically appealing, also resulted in lower cost and material used. Using his self-learned, seminal techniques, Laurie Baker was able to bring about a new revolution in how local materials were being used in construction. His methods ranged from bringing in under-used building materials such as bamboo and terracotta tiles to discarding newer, expensive materials such as steel and concrete which were completely unknown to the locals, and even re-using the existing, discarded materials and incorporating building components from the dilapidated and damaged building into a new project. The core idea behind all these approaches was to lower down the construction cost and integrating the vernacular elements with the people who are using the buildings.

His buildings tend to emphasize masonry construction, instilling a sense of privacy, yet evoking curiosity with brick jali– walls (perforated brick screen) which invite a natural airflow to cool the buildings’ interior, in addition to creating intricate patterns of light and shadow. Another significant Baker feature is irregular, pyramid-like structures on roofs, which invariably have traditional Indian sloping roofs. Terracotta Mangalore tiles are another significant feature noticed in Baker’s designs. These locally-made, heat-reducing tiles were fixed on the floor as well as ceilings which ultimately reduced the interior temperature of the space.

Curved walls also enter Baker’s architectural vocabulary as a means to enclose more volume at lower material cost than straight walls, and in the architect’s own words, “building became more fun with the circle!”

Filler Slabs-a construction technique by Baker

Other construction techniques which are attribute to Laurie Baker is Rat-Trap brick bonds, which significantly reduces the cost of construction, minimizes material and mortar usage, and helps achieve greater thermal efficiency without compromising on the strength of the wall. He advocated the use of low energy consuming mud walls, using holes in the wall to get light, using overlaid brick over doorways, incorporating places to sit into the structure, simpler windows and a variety of roof construction approaches. He liked bare brick surfaces and considered plastering and other embellishments as superfluous. Laurie Baker, humble as the brick he built with, questioned the elitist way of life throughout his prolific career.

PRACTICE AND WORKING STYLE:

Often seen as the ‘One Man Army’, Laurie Baker played the part of Architect, Draftsman, and engineer all by himself in his projects. He was always found working along, in his office (which as just a small table next to his bedroom), carrying just a notebook full of sketches (which documented his work beginning from his college days till his last built project) and mostly on the building site itself, mixed amongst the masons. Baker never drafted any formal, full-fledged plans for his designs. Baker kept no formal record of his projects, no detailed plans or working drawings, no specifications or elaborate perspectives; often the building was directly conceived on the back of an envelope, drawn and discussed with the client while being driven to the construction site. He became well known for his constant presence on the construction sites of all his projects, often finalizing designs through hand-drawn instructions to masons and laborers on how to achieve certain design solutions. Baker appreciated the raw, roughness of each site and never altered the given site. In fact, all his buildings have been constructed in a way that they minge with the natural slope and vegetation of the site.

Without leaving behind any records of work, Laurie Baker managed to leave behind a legacy, far greater than mere drawings. Beyond his workplace, lies his buildings, still standing strong in the testimony of time. Today, years after his demise, Baker’s vision lives through his teachings, buildings, and learning he imparted into the Indian Architectural scenario. A Britisher by birth, he came to India in 1945, a time when Indians were fighting for their freedom from the British, and embraced the Indian traditions into his practice so well that he was later granted Indian Citizenship. Such was the grandeur of Laurie Baker- the Gandhi of Indian Architecture.

Principles by Laurie Baker
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