Laurie Baker represented a unique tradition of architecture that blended man and nature. He emphasised local materials and traditional concepts in constructing dwellings, demonstrating a strong commitment to mass, affordable housing. Now a Centre started in his name in Thiruvananthapuram wants to take his work forward.

There are not many architects who have created an idiom of their own or left behind a unique architectural legacy that has had a deep impact on the way people conceive homes and public buildings. Standing tall among the select few is Laurie Baker, who was born and trained in architecture in England, but made India, more specifically Kerala, his home, leaving a deep imprint in the annals of Kerala’s architectural history.

Baker’s body of work is significant both in terms of its volume and sheer diversity and the innovative and practical concepts he introduced. He designed and built fishermen’s huts, hamlets for forest tribes, chapels and churches, factories, schools, film studios, orphanages, residences, technical institutes, leprosy homes, a literacy village, hostels, slum rehabilitation projects, an ornithology centre, government buildings and a museum. He also did pioneering work in earthquake and tsunami-resistant housing. Kerala alone has over 2,000 Baker-designed projects.

Underlying thought

Everything about Laurence Wilfred Baker (1917-2007) was rooted in the idea of co-existence and love towards all —both animate and inanimate. Simplicity and truthfulness were the hallmarks of his life and work. By living out these values, he evolved an unparalleled approach in the practice of architecture and redefined the profession. Baker’s philosophy and methodology have resulted in delightfully built environments, which are responsive to local climate, use energy-efficient materials, methods of construction and operation, remain truthful to the materials and methods used and demonstrate low environmental impact and admirable cost effectiveness.

Baker preferred locally available and renewable materials and enhanced the efficiency of materials used through skill-oriented innovations and quality assurance. He always emphasised conservation and management of vegetation, soil and water. The modest system of functioning that he insisted upon resulted in very low overhead expenses, which made his services more accessible to the poor and he declared his allegiance to the marginalised directly through constant interactions, writings and cartoons and indirectly through a sensitive practice of architecture.

Baker’s is a mission that calls for perpetuation. One major step in that direction is being taken with the formal inauguration of the Laurie Baker Centre (LBC) for Habitat Studies at Vilappilsala on the outskirts of the capital city.

To be managed by a governing council chaired by Baker’s wife, Elizabeth Baker, the not-for-profit centre is being set up at ‘Navayatra,’ the last project that Baker had personally overseen on a 3.42-acre undulating plot with several Baker-built buildings and extensive green cover. Originally set up as a learning centre for children by Baker’s friend and follower Keith Saldanah, ‘Navayatra’ in its new avatar would house the LBC training-cum-resource centre, a Baker archive and act as the nodal point for dissemination of the Baker philosophy of architecture. The Laurie Baker Centre has bought ‘Navayatra’ with financial assistance of Rs.80 lakh provided by the State government.

The Laurie Baker Centre, says P.B. Sajan, its member secretary, would have regular programmes on architectural design and aesthetics with special focus on planning, design and construction of human settlements for socially and economically disadvantaged groups.

Right technology

The Centre will also promote appropriate technology, especially in construction and public works, including development of building materials and technology relevant to green architecture, and will have special programmes on urban and spatial planning, natural resource management, eco restoration, environmental engineering and management and alternative sources of energy.