A symphony in brick and humility: The work of architect Laurie Baker

On his birth anniversary, STIR remembers the ‘Gandhi of Architecture’ and brings an insight into his works that questioned the elitist way of life.

by Jincy Iype Published on : Mar 02, 2020

British born Indian architect, Lawrence Wilfred ‘Laurie’ Baker (March 2, 1917 – April 1, 2007) is regarded for his unassuming honesty in both his life and exemplary works. 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 upheld the Gandhian ideals of simplicity and extending to the less fortunate, of respecting natural resources and building memories with them. His works employed raw brick masonry, building beauty in functionality, and channelling the concept of sustainability in the 1960s, at a time when the term did not exist. STIR remembers the ‘Gandhi of Architecture’ on his birth anniversary, celebrating his beliefs and commitment to living a simple life.

Raw brick masonry seen at the Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies in Kerala, India, designed by Laurie Baker | Laurie Baker | STIRworld
Raw brick masonry seen at the Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies in Kerala, India, designed by Laurie Baker Image Credit: Tushar Mondal

Laurie Baker, humble as the brick he built with, questioned the elitist way of life throughout his prolific career. His works are far removed from the norm and the built narrative, and prove that there isn’t necessarily a connection between money and beauty. His design philosophy did not differentiate between the rich and the poor – a wall is a wall, regardless of whether it’s a wall in a rich man’s house or a pauper’s one-bedroom dwelling. He famously exclaims – “Discourage extravagance and snobbery. Avoid opulence and show-off. Look closely at your prejudices and question them. Above all – use common sense!’

Brick perforated wall at the Laurie Baker Centre | Laurie Baker | STIRworld
Brick perforated wall at the Laurie Baker Centre Image Credit: Tushar Mondal

Having spent most of his life in Kerala, India, the Padma Shri awardee designed buildings keeping in mind the Indian state’s tropical climate. The English architect was granted citizenship of India in 1988, something he had actively sought his entire life.

Some of his noteworthy works include the Laurie Baker Centre, the Indian Coffee House, and the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, Kerala. Baker advocated modest materials such as brick and lime surkhi mortar (powdered, burnt brick mixed with lime) by employing them in courtyards and walls formed with rat trap bonds. These brought down the cost of the project significantly and lowered temperature. He also employed local, durable materials such as rice husk, bamboo and bamboo husk, palm fibre, laterite and cow dung.

“Bricks to me are like faces. All of them are made of burnt mud, but they vary slightly in shape and colour. I think these small variations give tremendous character to a wall, so I never dream of covering such a unique and characterful creation with plaster, which is mainly dull and characterless. I like the contrast of textures of brick, of stone, of concrete, of wood.”

  • Raw brick masonry and wall perforations channel the concept of sustainability | Laurie Baker | STIRworld
    Raw brick masonry and wall perforations channel the concept of sustainability Image Credit: Tushar Mondal
  • Baker employed local, durable materials such as rice husk, bamboo and bamboo husk, palm fibre, laterite and cow dung in construction | Laurie Baker | STIRworld
    Baker employed local, durable materials such as rice husk, bamboo and bamboo husk, palm fibre, laterite and cow dung in construction Image Credit: Tushar Mondal
  • Staircase constructed with bamboo, at Laurie Baker Centre | Laurie Baker | STIRworld
    Staircase constructed with bamboo, at Laurie Baker Centre Image Credit: Tushar Mondal

His works are marked with beautiful jaalis (“honeycombed wall”), bringing forth effortless ornamentation and providing visual relief. These screens allowed for a gentle flow of air and sunlight along with forming interesting patterns of light and shadow. Baker reasoned, “Windows are costly. One square foot of window can cost up to ten times the cost of a simple brick or stone wall it replaces. A window has varied functions – to look out of, to let light inside a room, to let in fresh air, or to let out stale air and so on. In many of these situations a ‘jaali’ or ‘honeycombed’ wall is just as effective. Far from being a lot more costly than the basic wall, if made of brick it can be less costly than the house wall!”

Another characteristic of Baker is the use of organic, flowy roofs | Laurie Baker | STIRworld
Another characteristic of Baker is the use of organic, flowy roofs Image Credit: Tushar Mondal

Another characteristic that defines Baker’s works is the use of organic, flowy roofs, often resembling pyramids, in addition to curved walls. His buildings also seamlessly blend into the natural surroundings, with the landscape being a prime feature of the design.

  • Laurie Baker’s personal sketches  | Laurie Baker | STIRworld
    Laurie Baker’s personal sketches Image Credit: Courtesy of Gautam Bhatia
  • Sketch by Architect Laurie Baker | Laurie Baker | STIRworld
    Sketch by Architect Laurie Baker Image Credit: Courtesy of Gautam Bhatia
  • Symphonies in brick - the Laurie Baker Centre | Laurie Baker | STIRworld
    Symphonies in brick - the Laurie Baker CentreImage Credit: Tushar Mondal

Baker was also regarded for being an attentive and active architect – he was often present on site, finalising designs through his hand-drawn instructions to the labourers, and teaching them how to attain certain design solutions. He firmly believed that chasing luxury and wishing for fame was a sloppy way of living, draining the earth of resources and borrowing from others’ existence. “We should put all our efforts into a lot of small things rather than one or two big masterpieces. We’ve got to stop thinking big, and go back to the idea that small is beautiful.”

A true pioneer of organic, sustainable architecture, Laurie Baker is a role model for architects and non-architects alike. His designs incorporated rain-water harvesting, energy efficient building materials, maximised space light and ventilation in brilliant harmony. Baker’s oeuvre stood for his relentless pursuit of the question - “Is it necessary? If it is not necessary, don’t do it!”

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About Author

Jincy Iype

Jincy Iype

Iype is a trained architect, who often indulges in writing and amateur photography. She was a cinephile and a melophile even before she knew what those words meant. She is inclined towards architecture journalism, and can usually be found curled up reading a book, or cooking for therapeutic relief.

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