Laurie Baker – A Genius in Architecture

I stumbled across this here. It’s a really good post. Particularly for people who building their homes and people in the field of architecture..!!!

Laurie Baker, who has died in India aged 90, was a passionate architectural innovator who faced fierce criticism for advocating construction using only local materials

With the death of Laurie Baker in Kerala, India, on April 1, architecture has lost an extraordinary man of principle who showed through his work in the subcontinent that decent housing could be affordable for millions of people. In doing so, he became an inspiration to a younger generation of architects in India and Europe.

In Kerala during the 1960s and subsequently, Baker developed and applied an approach to architecture derived from an intimate understanding of the local climate, available building materials and craft skills, as well as from the detailed attention he paid to the specific needs of his individual, often relatively poor, clients. He applied this approach to designing many hundreds of homes, hospitals, schools, and religious and government buildings, and in the process created an elegant, simple and essentially Indian architecture for the late 20th century, one in stark contrast to the western-influenced, resource-intensive architecture of the time.

Reading Material: Archiplanet | Laurie baker official site | Photos of Baker’s works

Gandhian principles infused his work, as they did his life. “I now think Gandhi was right,” he wrote in 1975, “when he said that all the building materials should be found within five miles of the site”, and “Low-cost techniques should not be considered only for the poor — our aim should be to design only the simplest of buildings for all.”

To build cheaply, he ruthlessly pruned all non-local materials. Thus cement plasters were eliminated, while flat concrete slab roofs, window glass and bars were replaced by inventive uses of local bricks, clay tiles, timber and lime. Window openings were replaced by patterns of small openings (brick jali) in the brickwork, providing adequate light, ventilation and security.

Professional opposition
But all this was not achieved without controversy. Personally warm, generous and unassuming, Laurie Baker was outspoken and persistent as a professional: when builders refused to adopt his techniques, he recruited his own team of masons and organised their work on site himself; his design office became a stack of postcards in his shirt pocket as he travelled from site to site. Inevitably, his techniques sparked professional opposition. Public works department engineers pilloried his work as a kind of “loincloth architecture” which could not possibly last. In return, in newspaper articles he was a savage critic of the derivative “mock-modern” style of architecture adopted by so many architects in India — both for its wastefulness of resources and inappropriateness to the climate.

“In 1944 Baker had a chance encounter with Gandhi which was to shape his subsequent life and work”

Laurie Baker’s confidence to build and write in this manner was developed through the hard experience of several decades of work as a designer and builder of rural hospitals. Born on March 2, 1917, in Birmingham, he trained as an architect at Birmingham School of Architecture. He was a lifelong Quaker, and served in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in China during the second world war. On his way back to England in 1944, he had the chance encounter with Gandhi which was to shape his subsequent life and work. Gandhi, promoting Quit India at the time, told him that anyone willing to come to India to work with the rural poor would always be welcomed.

Baker worked initially in India as architect to a medical mission, and through this work met his wife, Elizabeth (Kuni). For the next two decades they worked together, building and running their own independent hospitals and schools in remote rural areas, first on the Tibetan border and then in the southern hills of Kerala, Kuni’s home state. He later wrote of this period: “Wherever I went I saw the local indigenous style of architecture, the result of thousands of years of research on how to use only locally available materials… this was an incredible achievement.”

All his later architecture bears the marks of that early experience: the clever appreciation of the opportunities of the site; uncompromising simplicity; delight in the naturalness of local materials and craftsmanship; the happy incorporation of whatever useable materials nature, accident or demolition happen to provide; and a willingness to be boldly experimental in pursuit of cost reduction.

During the 1970s as his reputation spread throughout India he acted as an adviser to many government committees concerned with housing, and as a teacher. A series of natural disasters in India brought him in touch with disaster mitigation and relief, and he wrote valuable guidance on how local construction techniques could be adapted to be disaster-resistant. In 1990 Baker, who had become an Indian citizen the previous year, was awarded the Gold Medal of the Indian Institute of Architects.

Over the past 20 years promotion of his architectural approach has been undertaken by the non-profit Centre of Science & Technology for Rural Development (Costford) founded in the 1980s in Kerala by a group of supporters. Outside India, however, Baker’s achievement remains less well known than it deserves to be. His driving motivation was always to develop a simple way of building that would enable millions of poor Indians to afford decent housing. He was less concerned with planetary issues, yet as we struggle globally to understand what form a sustainable architecture might take, we can take inspiration from the work and writings of this remarkable pioneer.

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  1. #1 by Architects India on January 28, 2008 - 10:16 am

    Interesting post.The likes of Laurie Baker have helped initiate an open minded approach towards architecture .I think its should be encouraged.

  2. #2 by Michael on May 7, 2008 - 9:54 am

    I have been involved with humanitarian work, construction managment, and fine woodworking. Now I am looking at studying architecture, but have found myself a bit blocked by my desire to also include the culturally and people-centric aspect of appropriate design.

    Thanks for leading me in the direction of Laurie Baker. There is something there that is very interesting to me.

    What area do you work in? Information technologies?

    All the best,
    Michael

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