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The Gandhi of Spatial Delight

Laurie Baker's creative vision and particular way of approaching a building problem are probably gone with his demise on April 1. The most valuable legacy he has left behind is proven success in the real world of construction and of critical thinking. The biggest challenge is to keep the habit of critical thought alive in everything related to building. A tribute to this remarkable architect.

The Gandhi of Spatial Delight

Laurie Baker’s creative vision and particular way of approaching a building problem are probably gone with his demise on April 1. The most valuable legacy he has left behind is proven success in the real world of construction and of critical thinking. The biggest challenge is to keep the habit of critical thought alive in everything related to building. A tribute to this remarkable architect.


he life and work of Laurie Baker

– the famous practitioner of

cost-effective architecture who died on April 1 at the age of 90 in Thiruvananthapuram – is a story that can be retold from different points of view and will still always be interesting. Baker’s was an eventful and inspiring journey across places, beliefs, occupations, characterised by challenges to wrong-headed conventions often delivered with self-deprecating humour. Thus, among the many booklets that the man – who single-handedly set up a new paradigm of building high quality, low-cost architecture in India – wrote, was one called Rubbish by Baker [Baker, date not mentioned], its back cover added, “as usual”. Another titled Laurie Baker’s Mud had the signed comment on the back cover

– “My name is Mud anyway” [Baker 1993]. Both books were handwritten and deftly illustrated by Baker himself.

For a long time, Baker’s name was mud in Kerala, at least within the construction industry. It sounds unbelievable, but this unfailingly accessible man was never invited to teach in any of the colleges of architecture in Thiruvananthapuram. This is symbolic of the challenge Baker offered to the technocratic establishment as well as of the establishment’s initial response. Baker’s success in building at a really low cost rocked the boat of a profession that is paid a percentage of the money that it spends for a client. However, the deeper challenge that Baker probably presented was implicit, but palpable. Through his example, Baker threatened the exclusive hold a particular technocratic model of professional practice (and development in general) had on the claim to modernity. That he offered this challenge with panache and enjoyment, while also bringing in colour and fresh breezes into architecture, only made him that much more difficult to deal with. That also probably explains the immense attraction his work has always held for students and young professionals as well as for the media. A loose (and occasionally critical) tradition has evolved around Baker’s work and example, and many buildings outside Kerala, in places like Goa, New Delhi, Puducherry and Coimbatore, today have evolved out of a significant conversation with his approach.

Laurence Wifred Baker’s journey began in Birmingham, UK where he was born in 1917 and where he completed his architectural education in 1937. A Quaker, he enlisted for the Friends Ambulance Unit and travelled to China in 1942. He spent three years in western China and Myanmar travelling with the unit tending to soldiers injured in the war with Japan, and also worked with leprosy patients in the civilian population. In 1945, with his health in bad shape, he was asked to return to England to recuperate. On the way back, in Mumbai he found himself with three months to spare before he could board the steamer home. While staying with Quaker friends he was taken along for a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, which was to mark an important turning point.1 After a discussion about Baker’s Chinese shoes (made from waste cloth by the wearer himself), Gandhi advised him to come back to India after recovering, since he said, the country needed his expertise and approach. Baker heeded the advice, and set sail for India mere months after returning home, this time as an architect to an international leprosy mission operating in India.

In India, he met Elizabeth Jacob, a spirited young doctor from Kerala working in the Karimnagar, and Medak districts of Andhra Pradesh, and they got married in 1948 [Deulgaokar 1997]. The couple moved to a remote village in the hills of Kumaon (in today’s Uttarakhand) called Chandag

– which was connected to the district town of Pithoragarh 50 kilometres away only by a walking path – and set up a rural hospital. They lived there for 16 years. During this time, Baker helped run the hospital in every possible way – he was already trained and experienced in the basics of medical care – but slowly also got involved in a large number of building projects in the region around him and further afield in the plains. It was in this period that Baker’s understanding and appreciation of the skill and wisdom of traditional building crafts matured and stabilised. Speaking about the comparison with modern architecture, he said, “To me, this Himalayan domestic architecture was a perfect example of vernacular architecture – simple, efficient, inexpensive. This delightful dignified housing demonstrated hundreds of years of building research on coping with local materials, using them to cope with the local climatic patterns and hazards, and accommodating to the local social pattern of living….The few examples of attempts to ‘modernise’ housing merely demonstrated, only too clearly and adequately, our modern conceit and showed how very

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foolish we are when we attempt to ignore or abandon the hundreds of years of ‘research’ that goes into local building methods” [Bhatia 1991].

The work that Baker, who got his valued Indian citizenship only in 1989 almost as a preparation for the Padmashri in 1990, is most known for was all done after the age of 50 in Kerala. In 1963, for a variety of reasons, the Baker family moved from Pithoragarh, to the hilly area of Vagamon in Kerala, Elizabeth’s home state, and after a few years settled on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram. By 1972, when he was 55, construction work at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram had already begun. This was Baker’s early masterpiece employing most of his innovative building techniques and his unique architectural vision. The first phase, including the towering library block, was completed in 1974. E F Schumacher’s book, Small Is Beautiful, which popularised the term “intermediate technology”, the appellation most often applied to Baker’s work in later years, had been published only the year before.2 In the course of the next decade and a half, Baker produced a stunning body of work. His clientele ranged across classes, and the clients were sometimes fishermen and at others IAS officers. The work included a large number of houses of all sizes – including iconic ones like those for Abu Abraham, T C Alexander, Nalini Nayak and A Vaidyanathan, all in or around Thiruvananthapuram. It also included churches (the demolished one at Thiruvalla, being a classic), schools (like the Corpus Christi School, Kottayam, with a remarkable free-form plan, that Baker believed to be friendlier to the child), factories, a film studio and even a tourist centre in the hills for the state government.

Work and Achievement

The range, diversity, geographical spread and just the sheer number of buildings that Baker designed is staggering. In fact, we do not have any accurate published documentation of the entire oeuvre.3 We also do not have any published records of the many buildings he designed during the 16 years or so that the family spent in Pithoragarh. Baker himself was not a great documenter of his own work, either before or after it was built, since the whole point of architecture for him appears to have been (almost exclusively) the building, not the academic or bureaucratic record. His way of working did not require more than a minimal set of drawings, sketches even. As is well known, he designed largely on site with a creative opportunism that addressed the real strengths and weaknesses of a site. Many of his designs would probably have not been possible to conceive of on two-dimensional drawing paper. Of course, such a method of work, attractive though it sounds, could only be practised successfully by someone with an impeccable craftsmanly understanding of space, human behavioural needs and the strength and potential of materials.

Baker’s achievement in architecture is as multidimensional as it can get. In his practice, he innovated simultaneously along the ethical, technical, processual and aesthetic dimensions of architecture. It is difficult to think of another architect who has also then designed and built (not merely supervised) two thousand buildings, most of them customised, and eminently habitable.4 In Baker’s work, innovation along one dimension – say, the technical – depends upon, and strengthens innovation (and the possibility of a desirable outcome) along every other.

Baker’s name has, in the last three decades, come to be associated first with his technical achievements – what is called low-cost, but which, for good reasons, he preferred calling “cost effective” architecture. The fame as a gifted technical innovator is well-deserved, but the low cost of his buildings is not an adequate index of his technical ability. The ease with which he manipulated innovative techniques like the “filler slab” (a reinforced concrete slab in which a third of the concrete is replaced with discarded clay roof tiles in the lower part of the thickness) or rat trap bond (an arrangement of bricks to create a nine inch thick wall with an insulating warren of hollows built into it) is only a part of the picture. Baker combined conceptual creativity and clarity in engineering with a detailed understanding of the limits (and therefore, the possibilities) of every component of available construction systems. He often consulted structural engineers in his larger projects, though rarely in the houses he built. But his apparent daring, as in the use of fourand-a-half inch thick load bearing brick walls (where the norm was double that thickness), is as dependent upon his conceptual clarity as upon his command over bonding patterns (the arrangement of bricks in every layer, or “course”, of a wall) and mortar mixes. This same command also

Economic and Political Weekly May 5, 2007

led him to develop various aesthetic effects that enriched the visual character of a building along the way. For instance, a number of his buildings have colourful and glowing “stained glass” patterns in walls. These are actually arrangements of old bottles placed in the brickwork, which create a unique aesthetic experience out of an ethical (or pragmatic) interest in recycling.

The ethical dimension of his work is closely tied to its technical creativity and excellence, as also to Quakerism. His ethical orientation manifested itself in three important ways – through his focus on responding to the challenge of poverty; his commitment to minimising consumption of non-renewable resources and energy in building; and finally his engagement with state and society through writing and activism. His published essays, the delightfully illustrated manuals he produced for the Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development (COSTFORD), and the letters he wrote to newspapers and government consistently underscored the various social and ecological responsibilities that all of us carry when we build for ourselves or for others.

Baker was able to build cost-effective architecture only because of the technical control he gained by first unlearning much of modern construction he had learnt in England. He had to go through much despair to arrive at his famed mastery. New to a country where cow-dung was thought of as an important building material, in his early period in India he remembers feeling “increasingly ignorant and helpless. I felt less knowledgeable than the stupidest village idiot for he seemed to know what a termite and a monsoon and black cotton soil were. I had brought with me my text books, reference books and construction manuals, but a bundle of comic strips would have been as helpful” [Bhatia op cit, p 225]. But the fascination Baker felt for the knowledge embedded in the practices around him, quickly led him to become an excellent student of the building “vernacular”. This combined with an innate technical felicity made it possible for him to answer the challenge of building for the poor with his own innovations. What makes his work exemplary, however, is the dignity and delight he brought into costeffective construction for the poor. Baker turned the condescension in the term “low-cost” on its head by making strategies of cost-effective building the crux of a habitable architecture of delight, whose popularity travelled upwards along the class hierarchy. No wonder, then, that a middle and upper class clientele quickly lined up for his attention, even as his popularity made “Baker style”, a prestigious (if often purely decorative) building strategy with a difference, within the elite building culture of Kerala.

The significance of his commitment to lowering energy consumption – especially embodied energy – in building cannot be overstated. When he began building in Kerala (during the second phase of his building career, it must be noted), ecological consciousness was not a big issue of popular or media discourse that it sometimes is today. The international oil crisis of 1973 was some years away. Baker, however, appears to have been already highly sensitised to the ecological question. By the time CDS was under construction in 1972, his energy efficient construction system was already in place. As in that project, Baker always attempted to build in a manner that reduced the total amount of energy consumed in construction. As a matter of (seriously followed) principle, he minimised the use of materials like cement and steel – whose production is an energy-intensive process subsidised by the state – which are, naturally, more expensive than materials like brick, which consume lesser energy. By the time ecological consciousness began to well up within the Indian architectural community in the 1980s, Baker had already shown that eco-sensitive buildings were not only necessary, but also delightfully desirable.

It is ironical that the extent of Baker’s achievement along technical and ethical dimensions appears to have put his considerable aesthetic achievement somewhat into the shade, at least in public discourse. Let it be said. Baker was a rare poet of space, who had the spectre of “form” firmly under control (and not the other way round). Order and discipline appear like the “means” that they truly are, in his work, rather than the “ends” that they had often tended to become in the canonical mainstream of 20th century architecture everywhere. His paradigm of architecture was much more convincingly centred on

Economic and Political Weekly May 5, 2007

the joy of play, than on any abstract teleological schemas of the kind propagated by otherwise great architects like Le Corbusier in Europe.5 At the same time, in Baker’s work, architectural form and space were primarily shaped to fit the lifestyle of the inhabitants. An eminently habitable exuberance is, thus, the defining quality of his work – a remarkable fact, given that he deliberately worked within tight budgets and built for people too “ordinary” to be easily thought of as enlightened patrons of great architecture.

Baker’s work has generally been discussed within the limited context of the “alternative” to modernism in architecture [Bhatt and Scriver 1990]. This partly explains the difficulty in attending squarely to his aesthetic contribution. That dimension has tended to remain the domain of canonical modernism in India which traces its roots to architects like Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, and to some extent, to Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright. Baker’s work prompts us to question the arbitrariness of this exclusive hold over the title to modernity that modernism has enjoyed. Baker’s work appears to concretise the very values that were (often inconsistently) espoused by modernism for self-legitimation. Much modernist rhetoric indicates a foundational dependence upon values like rationality, economy, equity and transparency (or honesty of expression). It could be argued that Baker’s work has concretised these values much more convincingly than much work of modernist derivation in India. Intriguingly, even as he is regarded as being an “outsider” to the mainstream, he uses the words to describe his own work that modernism used to mark itself off from what was around it and what went before. Thus, his insistence on honesty of expression (show the brick or stone the wall is built of), his recourse to empirical observation and rational argument to arrive at the minimum amount of space required for a family, and of course, his concern for economy as a route to equity. On all these counts it appears that he was more modern than many modernists.

Future of His Vision

As a rule (which fortunately had a few exceptions) Baker never took on assistants. Yet, the power of his example has mobilised organisations – especially in Kerala – and catalysed a large number of individual architects, engineers and craftspeople, to build on his ideas. Among the organisations, COSTFORD has made a significant impact upon the larger-built landscape of Kerala by disseminating Baker’s techniques, and also vision to some extent, across the state. The Nirmithi Kendra (building centres) movement has also taken an inspiration from his work.

Baker was not only a technologist, but a socially engaged thinker and artist as well. Some part of his legacy includes imitable technical tools, which are important in themselves, and which probably have reached the critical mass of dissemination to survive on their own at least as an alternative building system in Kerala. His particular way of approaching a building problem and the creative vision he could bring to particular projects are probably gone. But what remains as the most valuable legacy he has left behind is the proven success in the real world of construction, of critical thinking. The biggest challenge, and possibly the most meaningful task, that presents itself after his demise is to keep that habit of criticality alive in everything related to building. Nowhere is it more important than in assessing his work and contribution systematically.

Baker is owed an extended critical examination. His work has not been evaluated with enough rigour outside of limiting frameworks that follow labels like “alternative” or “appropriate”. A closer analysis of his aesthetics is necessary, for instance, and his own gentle impatience with extended abstract discussion need not prevent us from examining his work systematically. On the other hand, it is important to understand how the same fecundity of imagination and ethical ambition could often lead to buildings that were sometimes not perfectly suited to their purposes. The school of drama in Thrissur that he designed has many acoustic problems, many of which admittedly can be traced to his attempt at producing a theatre space at an absurdly low cost. There is also a housing project in Lalur, near Thrissur, where residents appear to have had difficulty fitting the right-angled hardware of everyday life into the curved (because economical) spaces. In both these cases, at least one central architectural attribute of Baker’s palette has appeared to obstruct or distort the practice of life within them. These are of course, first impressions that sustained examination may disprove. However, they also suggest that we should not ritualise a live and reflective practice into a set of limiting “rules”, now that the man who made them by breaking many others is not around anymore. We definitely owe ourselves a larger project of rigorous critical appraisal of Baker’s life and work. We owe it equally to the memory of a man who was himself creative and more importantly, (with apologies to John Berger) nothing if not critical.




[I would like to acknowledge the fact that many of my insights about the work of Laurie Baker and the tradition that follows him emerged in discussion with Malini Krishnankutty.]

1 See p 21, Atul Deulgaokar, Laurie Baker (Akshar Prakashan, Mumbai (Marathi), 1997), for an account of Baker’s interactions with Gandhi. Also see Gautam Bhatia, Laurie Baker, Life Work, Writings, Viking, New Delhi, 1991 pp 15-17, for a discussion of Gandhi’s influence as well as the significance of Baker’s Quakerism on his work.

2 Schumacher is reported to have introduced the term “intermediate technology” much earlier in 1965 in an article in the Observer, London. However, Baker does not refer to knowledge of this term before he had already practised what it denoted.

3 Over the last few years Baker’s work in Kerala as well as in north India, has been fairly extensively documented by individual architects and also by the COSTFORD. However, this documentation is yet to be published in print or in any other form.

4 If we include buildings designed by Baker and built by COSTFORD, says Sajan P B, its joint director and also an architect, the number goes up to 10,000 (telephonic conversation, April 18, 2007).

5 See Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, (trans Frederick Etchells); (original French title Vers une Architecture, first published in 1923) New York: Dover Publications, Inc 1986 (Unabridged and unaltered re-publication of the English translation of the thirteenth French edition originally published by John Rodker, London: 1931).


Baker, Laurie (date not mentioned): Rubbish by Baker, Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development, Thrissur.

– (1993): Laurie Baker’s Mud, Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development, Thrissur.

Bhatt, Vikram and Peter Scriver (1990): Contemporary Indian Architecture: After the Masters, Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad.

Bhatia, Gautam (1991): Laurie Baker, Life Work, Writings, Viking, New Delhi, p 235-36. Deulgaokar, Atul (1997): Laurie Baker, Akshar

Prakashan, Mumbai (Marathi), p 24.

Economic and Political Weekly May 5, 2007

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