Laurie Baker, pioneer of low-cost houses, passes away

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A TITAN: Laurie Baker during an interaction in Thiruvananthapuram. File Photo: S. Gopakumar
A TITAN: Laurie Baker during an interaction in Thiruvananthapuram. File Photo: S. Gopakumar

T. Nandakumar

His approach to architecture redefined the concept of housing for the masses

Thiruvananthapuram: Veteran architect and pioneer of the low-cost, eco- friendly housing technology, Laurence Wilfred Baker, passed away here on Sunday. He was 90.

`Laurie' Baker had been ailing for some months. His condition worsened two days ago. The end came at 7.20 in the morning. Mr. Baker's unconventional approach to architecture redefined the concept of housing for the masses and earned him the name of `architect of the poor.' His no-frills style drew heavily on traditional Kerala architecture. "A building is 10 to 15 per cent technical knowhow and the rest commonsense," he told The Hindu in an interview in 1997.

Born in Birmingham in England in 1917, Mr. Baker came to India as an architect to the World Leprosy Mission in 1945. He spent two decades in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats, working among rural and tribal folk, and finally settled down in Thiruvananthapuram with his wife Dr. Elizabeth Jacob in 1970. He received Indian citizenship from the President in 1989.

His work included housing for the middle and lower classes and construction of educational and health institutions, industrial and religious buildings. He believed that a house should blend with the environment, without disturbing the natural features. Most of his creations feature unplastered brick walls, jalis or trellises in the brickwork and frameless doors and windows that let in natural light and air.

A Gandhian by nature, Mr. Baker disapproved of extravagance. He used locally available building materials like mud, brick, stone, terracotta tile and coconut thatch. He used as little steel and cement as possible, not only because they are costly, but also because their manufacture is eco-unfriendly.

He has designed more than 2000 houses since 1970. In 1985, he teamed up with former Chief Minister C. Achutha Menon, noted economist K.N. Raj and T.R. Chandradutt to set up the Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development (COSTFORD) to popularise low cost housing in the country. In 1990, the country honoured him with the Padma Shri.

Mr. Baker has won several other awards such as the Babu Radmaitae gold medal, UNO Habitat award and U.N. roll of honour, International Union of Architects award and People of the Year award, 1994. The University of Central England presented him with an honorary doctorate in 1994. He also won the D.Litt of the University of Kerala in 2002.

In 2006, Mr. Baker was nominated for the Pfitzer prize, considered the Nobel prize in architecture.

He has written several books on cost effective construction technology, rural housing, alternative building materials, slum improvement, garbage disposal, water harvesting and earthquake resistant design.

He is survived by wife Elizabeth, son Tilak and daughters Vidya and Heidi. The funeral will be held at the Christ Church, Palayam, at 11 a.m. on Monday with official honours.

A Gandhian

In his condolence message, Governor R.L. Bhatia termed Baker a Gandhian in word and deed who revolutionised the concept of housing through his affordable, eco-friendly style. "An Englishman by birth, he was more Indian than most Indians," he said.

Mr. Bhatia recalled Mr. Baker's efforts to create down-to-earth dwellings for the common man. "Adopting Kerala as his second home for nearly half a century, he brought housing within the reach of the lower class of society. Little wonder, he was endearingly called the architect of the poor." The Governor said Mr. Baker's buildings and his writings and sketches would remain standing monuments to his rare competence and commitment.

A genius

Kerala Chief Minister V.S.Achuthanandan said Mr. Baker was a genius who revolutionised the construction sector. He said Mr. Baker's simple, eco-friendly approach made housing affordable to the masses. "In the process, he generated a new literacy movement in architecture."



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