I was a second year student of architecture when I walked into a brick building designed by Laurie Baker for the first time. I had read about him and his works but reading about architecture just doesn't cut it for me. As an architect I have learned to visualize spaces but in the end architecture is about tangible spaces (and don't even get me started on the dying art of building study models vs the cool 3d computer models). The trip was part of our architectural school trip - one of the perks of being an architecture student. It was a long time back but I still remember one of the architects from Mr. baker's office took us for a tour of a building under construction. We saw the filler slabs, the brick lintels, brick screen walls but what stuck with me were the RCC columns with brickwork around that also served as the column formwork (shuttering). I don't know why, but back then I thought it was cool. And I still do.
Laurence Wilfred "Laurie" Baker was born in Birmingham, England in 1917. In 1945 he travelled to India as an architect for World Leprosy Mission and and made India his home for the rest of his life. His job was to create rehab centers for the patients that involved inspecting and converting old asylums into modern hospitals. It was a difficult task for a British educated architect in rural pre-independence India. In his own words:
"Soon I was swamped by a new set of problems. The buildings I was sent to inspect, their construction techniques and materials used, were nothing like the buildings I had been taught about and designed at the School of Architecture. I was expected to deal with mud walls and huge cracks. I was confronted with materials I had never heard of, such as laterite. People seemed to think that even cow-dung was an important building material! I was expected to know how to deal with termites and even bed hugs. I was warned that in a short time the monsoon would come. The word was spoken with such awe and fear as though a monsoon were a ferocious, wild beast ready to pounce on me without warning. And, true enough, it was like a ferocious, wild beast and it did pounce on me with a vengeance!
In fact, during those first few months I felt 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 hooks and construction manuals, but a bundle of comic strips would have been as helpful. What should I do? Go back home where I belonged? The cry of 'Quit India' was louder and stronger now than ever before—would it not be better to quit?"
In the next several years he developed a style of architecture that embraced indigenous materials and techniques. His no nonsense approach to low cost architecture also led him to assemble a team of masons and carpenters to work on his projects. The 'Laurie baker Architecture' style according to him is about two principles:
1. 'small' is not only 'beautiful' but is often essential and even more important than `large'
2. if we architects are even to start coping effectively with the real building problems and the housing needs of the world, we must learn how to build as inexpensively as possible.
My favorite works:
Some of Lauri baker's best works do not need the limelight but there are a few that most students of architecture in India learn about and are worth visiting:
Loyola Chapel and Auditorium, 1971, Sreekaryam
The Indian Coffee House, at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India
To sum it up I would like to quote laurie baker again on his inspiration-
"I have found, consistently, throughout my working life, that the whole business of planning and designing is intensely absorbing and fun! Always living close to nature I learnt many lessons from the design of God's creations. Very rarely do we find the square or the rectangle but very often the circle is used. The straight line is rare, but the graceful curve is frequently seen. An interesting scientific observation is that the length of the wall enclosing a given area is shorter if the shape is circular and longer if the shape around the same area is a square or a rectangle. This is an important factor in cost-reducing exercises! Furthermore, I have found the answer to many spatial and planning problems by using the circle and the curve instead of the square and the straight line—and building becomes much more fun with the circle!"