Laurence Wilfred “Laurie” Baker, born on 2 March 1917 , a British by birth was a practising Indian architect, renowned for his initiatives in cost-effective energy-efficient architecture and designs that maximized space, ventilation and light and maintained an uncluttered yet striking aesthetic sensibility. He effectively combined traditional techniques, with indigenous innovations to bring down the cost of construction dramatically.
Baker studied architecture in Birmingham Institute of Art and Design and graduated in 1937, at the age of 20 and became an Associate Member of the Royal Institute of Architects (ARIBA) in 1938 in a period of political unrest in Europe. Baker always had very strong convictions about religion, the privileged and the under privileged, war and peace, jails and freedom . A chance meeting with Mahatma Gandhi inspired and introduced him to India.
Baker was conscious of the wastage involved in using energy-intensive materials which are also socially and financially costly. He was not only a designer and builder but also someone who had a holistic vision of the need to live in harmony with nature. For him habitat included the physical and social environment to lead a healthy as well as purposeful life. He was also an accomplished artist and cartoonist. He obtained Indian citizenship in 1989 and resided in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala. In 1990, the Government of India awarded him with the Padma Shri in recognition of his meritorious service in the field of architecture.
During the Second World War, Laurie Baker served in the Friends Ambulance Unit in China and Burma. Moving to India in 1945, Baker began to work on buildings leprosy centres across the country basing himself out of Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh. Baker quickly found the missionary lifestyle; ostentatious bungalows, socialite gatherings, and the plethora of servants waiting hand and foot too luxurious and not in line with his values and instead decided to stay with an Indian doctor P.J. Chandy and his family.
He was a pioneer of sustainable architecture as well as of organic architecture, incorporating in his designs even in the late 1960s, concepts such as rain-water harvesting, minimizing usage of energy-inefficient building materials, minimizing damage to the building site and seamlessly merging with the surroundings. Due to his social and humanitarian efforts to bring architecture and design to the common man, his honest use of materials, his belief in simplicity in design and in life, and his stauch belief in non-violence, he has been called the “Gandhi of architecture”.
Throughout his practice, Baker became well known for designing and building low cost, high quality, beautiful homes, with a great portion of his work suited to, or built for lower-middle to lower class clients. His buildings tend to emphasize prolific – at times virtuosic – masonry construction, instilling privacy and evoking history with brick jali walls, a perforated brick screen which invites a natural air flow to cool the buildings’ interior, in addition to creating intricate patterns of light and shadow.
Baker found his English construction education to be inadequate for the types of issues and materials he was faced with: termites and the yearly monsoon, as well as laterite , cow dung, and mud walls, respectively, Baker had no choice but to observe and learn from the methods and practices of vernacular architecture. He soon learned that the indigenous architecture and methods of these places were in fact the only viable means to deal with local problems.
Laurie Baker died on 1 April 2007, aged 90, survived by wife Elizabeth, son Tilak, daughters Vidya and Heidi and his grandchildren. Until the end he continued to work in and around his home in Trivandrum, though health concerns had kept his famous on-site physical presence to a minimum. His designing and writing were done mostly at his home. His approach to architecture steadily gained appreciation as architectural sentiment creaks towards place-making over modernizing or stylizing. As a result of this more widespread acceptance, however, the “Baker Style” home has gained popularity.
Baker’s advice on architectural techniques and methods stem from this practical approach and respect for the local building culture of the land and he often said that architecture is mostly common sense.