Beauty and honesty laid bare in brick: A tribute to the legacy of Laurie Baker

On the 15th anniversary of the late architect's passing, Vinu Daniel reflects on the enduring impact of a fortuitous run-in with the man known as the 'Gandhi of Architecture'.

by Vinu DanielPublished on : Apr 01, 2022

I wish to share a small anecdote from a chance encounter that my classmate at that time, Leena Sai and I had with Ar. Laurie Baker. The meeting was to understand his philosophy and Leena was the one who asked most of the questions. She had many queries regarding what was happening at the ‘Hamlet’ (his residence at that time), but at the end of the day, we were just pre-third year novices who were nowhere close to understanding his architectural language or philosophies. Now, over the course of this discussion, we asked what I feel today to be a typical stupid question to pose to Laurie Baker: "Why are the wires in your house exposed?"

Neerada Suresh Residence by Laurie Baker | Laurie Baker Tribute | STIRworld
Neerada Suresh Residence by Laurie Baker Image: Courtesy of Wallmakers

All the conduit wires of this particular project in question were exposed. But on looking closer, I saw that the wires had been taken between the bricks along the mortar in a random, snake-like pattern. I came to realise that it was indeed a beautiful pattern. But somehow a regular person’s mind might not be ready to comprehend the beauty of it, since we were taught in college to hide and conceal such 'ugly' things. I remember Laurie Baker replying very nonchalantly, "I thought the wires were already sleeved and protected so we didn’t have to do any concealing. If there’s something that is a necessity why should we hide it?" This was a question that hounded me long after the meeting, until I started my practice.

  • Neerada Suresh Residence Interior: Baker’s propensity towards leaving materials and services exposed is a defining feature of his distinctive style | Laurie Baker Tribute | STIRworld
    Neerada Suresh Residence Interior: Baker’s propensity towards leaving materials and services exposed is a defining feature of his distinctive style Image: Courtesy of Wallmakers
  • Interior of the Loyola Chapel in Trivandrum: perforated walls and the play of light within a space are essential features of Baker’s work | Laurie Baker Tribute | STIRworld
    Interior of the Loyola Chapel in Trivandrum: perforated walls and the play of light within a space are essential features of Baker’s work Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Doctor Casino, Creative Commons
  • Loyola Women’s Hostel in Kerala | Laurie Baker Tribute | STIRworld
    Loyola Women’s Hostel in Kerala Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Iqbal Aalam, Creative Commons

Studying in Trivandrum meant that there would be a Laurie Baker building around almost every corner. The Loyola Chapel was the one that intrigued me the most. It was a classic example of how a building could be congruent with its surroundings, yet have a spatial quality to it that is still appealing every single time you visit. The clever play of light through his masonry improvisations enhances the spaces which are bare and honest to the materials he uses. Another one of his principles that stuck with me when I started my practice was one he adopted from Gandhiji, of procuring building materials for construction from the 'five mile radius' of the site.

  • Courtyard at the Centre for Development Studies Trivandrum | Laurie Baker Tribute | STIRworld
    Courtyard at the Centre for Development Studies Trivandrum Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Santappa Kaliyan, Creative Commons
  • Centre for Development Studies Trivandrum: Baker’s masonry improvisations enhance the bare and honest materiality of brick | Laurie Baker Tribute | STIRworld
    Centre for Development Studies Trivandrum: Baker’s masonry improvisations enhance the bare and honest materiality of brick Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Iqbal Aalam, Creative Commons

But today, 20 years later, it no longer seems possible to build only with mud, timber, etc. as the urban landscape of our cities have changed even more. Waste is what is abundantly and easily available within a five mile radius and hence, we are teaching ourselves to build with tires, scrap and construction debris as well. However, when I got a project in the context of the city of Trivandrum - that stands as a testimonial to many of Laurie Baker’s masterpieces - it seemed fit to modify one of his own introductions - the 'rat trap' bond masonry technique.

  • Indian Coffee House in Trivandrum, one of Baker’s most widely known projects | Laurie Baker Tribute | STIRworld
    Indian Coffee House in Trivandrum, one of Baker’s most widely known projects Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Ryan, Creative Commons
  • Brick structures at the Laurie Baker Center for Habitat Studies | Laurie Baker Tribute | STIRworld
    Brick structures at the Laurie Baker Center for Habitat Studies Image: IM3847, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

The rat trap bond is a brick masonry method of wall construction in which bricks are placed in a vertical position instead of the conventional horizontal position, thus creating a cavity within the wall that increases thermal efficiency, cuts down on the total volume of bricks used, and is ideal for concealing structural members and service ducts. This idea was further developed to form a series of slanting walls that danced left and right, converging only to support the ferrocement shell roof of the home - which would come to be known as the 'Pirouette House'. Each staggered wall has been tailor-made to suit the issue of deficiency in space that this residence faced, aiming to create larger volumes and a feeling of privacy.

  • Exterior of the Pirouette House in Trivandrum, Kerala | Laurie Baker Tribute | STIRworld
    Exterior of the Pirouette House in Trivandrum, Kerala Image: Jino Sam
  • Wallmakers made use of Baker’s famous rat-trap bond to fashion twisting exposed brick walls | Laurie Baker Tribute | STIRworld
    Wallmakers made use of Baker’s famous rat-trap bond to fashion twisting exposed brick walls Image: Jino Sam
  • The dining area inside Pirouette House: Fired bricks define much of the structure’s materiality, in an ode to a dying local industry | Laurie Baker Tribute | STIRworld
    The dining area inside Pirouette House: Fired bricks define much of the structure’s materiality, in an ode to a dying local industry Image: Jino Sam

The site didn’t offer an opportunity for soil excavation or making mud blocks, by virtue of being situated in an urban neighbourhood. Keeping in mind that brick kilns in Trivandrum are a dying industry, with people opting out for wire-cut machine-made bricks, this was also an attempt to promote a local agriculture-based industry that is on the brink of extinction. In this vein, the Pirouette House features the 'Last of the Mohicans' fired bricks as my ode to the stellar practice of Laurie Baker, with spaces that are made beautiful by the pure geometry and patterns created by the walls that seem to be coming alive and pirouetting around.

  • View from the courtyard of Pirouette House | Laurie Baker Tribute | STIRworld
    View from the courtyard of Pirouette House Image: Jino Sam
  • The design also made use of waste from the scaffolding used during construction to fashion the central staircase and grillwork | Laurie Baker Tribute | STIRworld
    The design also made use of waste from the scaffolding used during construction to fashion the central staircase and grillwork Image: Jino Sam

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