Laurie Baker in conversation with Gautam Bhatia

Laurie Baker – Architect for the Common Man, an interview with Gautam Bhatia

Laurie Baker - Architect for the Common Man, an interview with Gautam Bhatia
Laurie Baker in conversation with Gautam Bhatia

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“George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and a group of others used to hang out together. One day Shaw laid a bet. ‘I will try,’ he said, ‘to sell ₤5 notes for ₤1. And you will see how many people rush to buy them.’ So the next day, parading about the streets around Picadilly, Shaw shouted, ‘Who will buy my new, crisp ₤5 notes? Only ₤1. Please, madam, only ₤1 for this beautiful new ₤5 note.’ The others watched Shaw peddle but without any success.”

Laurie BakerLaurie Baker, an English architect now settled in India, recalls this story with obvious relish because of the striking parallels it holds to his own situation. “A better building at half the cost” has been Baker’s motto for the 41 years that he has practised in India. And yet, as in Picadilly, there are few takers.

Baker graduated from the School of Architecture in Birmingham in 1937. Shortly afterwards, while an apprentice in a London office, war broke out and being a Quaker he chose to enlist in the Friends Ambulance Unit, as a member of a missionary medical team. Throughout the course of his war service, which took him through areas of active combat and heavy casualties in China and Burma, Baker worked patiently with civilians suffering from leprosy. But six years of hospital work took its toll and in 1943 he chose to return home.


In Bombay while waiting for a ship to England, Baker had a chance encounter with Mahatma Gandhi. He began attending Gandhiji’s lectures and prayer meetings, and the Quaker in him began to imbibe the message of the Mahatma: that real service meant service to the ordinary people. It was for this that a year later Laurie Baker returned to India, never to leave again.

And in the 41 years that he has lived and worked in India, he has built over 1,000 private houses, numerous churches, mission schools and hospitals, several state government housing schemes and shing villages. His life-long preoccupation with the idea of providing shelter for the homeless millions and indeed the successful implementation of his ideas, has brought him international acclaim and numerous awards along with the title of the only Indian architect. Some have gone so far as to proclaim him the Hassan Fathy of India.

Baker is today perhaps the only architect with a real understanding of the needs of the rural poor. Even the government, unable to improve living conditions in the villages, has turned to him for advice on their rural housing programmes. He has served as a consultant to HUDCO (Housing and Urban Development Corporation) and the Planning Commission, and as an adviser on several state and central housing committees.

Although his energies have been mainly directed towards public housing he has worked on several private commissions as well. Yet in all his work – whether house, school or church – there is an uncompromising adherence to local conditions, conditions which recognize the living patterns of the occupants, the nature of the site and materials and the expression of their intrinsic qualities.

The predominant issue in current architectural debate is more of an accusation: Why have modern Indian architects failed to produce a distinctly Indian architecture? In a country of unimaginable diversity and stark contradictions, rich in tradition with enormous reserves of manpower and indigenous materials, the architect still looks to the West for guidance and inspiration; it is not unusual to find contemporary architects still emulating the works of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. But this is an aspect that does not bother Laurie Baker. Even today, at the age of 68, this gentle English expatriate continues to produce an identifiable Indian architecture.

Centre for Development Studies, Laurie Baker
Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, Image by: Vineet Radhakrishnan

His buildings have a distinctly local or regional identity, recognising intuitively the forces that give them shape. In his work concrete is used very sparingly, often in a folded-slab design with broken and discarded tiles used as llers, thereby making the roof light and inexpensive. Innovative bonding techniques for brick allow him to build walls of only a half-brick thickness. In many cases they are stepped and curved for added stiffness. The interiors too are uncompromisingly direct and simple, devoid of super uous comforts, expensive veneers or ashy details. Baker eliminates glass windows and frames, preferring to draw his inspiration from the vernacular. Small openings in brick, like the traditional jaali, fragment the harsh sunlight, ltering in a uniform glow and breeze. Where large openings are required Baker corbels in brick, securing the doors directly to the wall surface.


Perhaps one of Baker’s most innovative contributions to architecture is his method of working. Eliminating the need for detailed working drawings, he improvises according to the situation, re-using material from a demolished building or adding a window in a wall already under construction. Some of his more important projects include: A Campus for the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, St. John’s Cathedral in Tiruvella, and the Krishi Vigyan Kendra at Velland.

Q. What is the philosophy that guides your work and the issues that are important to you?

A. I ask myself: Who are we building for? I am mainly concerned with the lower and lower middle class, simply because they get left out. Previously they all knew how to do their own buildings, all the indigenous styles – the cottages, for instance, are very distinctive wherever you go, in every district. The people themselves took an active part in making them. Now they’ve lost their skills and they look outside for help. People who normally do architec- ture don’t go near such people. Those who do anything for the lower strata – government, the Church and other organisations will ponti cate on what they need but very rarely consult them.

So, I’ve always been more interested in working for people down at the bottom end – nothing fancy or saintly – but when I came to India during the war I became interested in leprosy for various reasons. There’s an organisation called Mission to the Lepers. They were just realising that the old homes were out of date and what they needed were hospitals where they treated leprosy like any other disease. Here they had such homes, which they wanted to convert and I came out to do that. So right from the word go I was involved with the lowly, the small town people, the depressed, and the question was always of trying to make a little money go as far as possible. Whether I wanted or not, I got into low-cost design but I got more and more interested in it. And all the while I realised that although this was a specialist’s bit of India, it (leprosy) was very little different from all the other forms of poverty, with its stigma and isolation, and the same thing applies to slums and housing. So I’ve never been interested in big high-rise buildings, or stadia for Asiad. Not that anyone would dream of asking me.

From this I also realised it was equally stupid to do all this low-cost housing only for the poor.

Nobody really has the right to throw so much money around when there’s so much need. That’s why at the same time I got interested in doing things for people in the upper strata who wanted to get their money’s worth without unnecessary waste of material. And in that way all sorts of things came along including big industrial commissions.


Q. One way of perhaps demonstrating to the poor that low-cost building doesn’t necessarily mean poor quality is to do similar things for the rich, is that right?

A. Yes! Why plaster, indeed, when you can get better effects from the actual building materials. So if I’m only building for “the poor” it would seem that I would not want to put the plaster on for them; but if Rajiv Gandhi wants a house then, of course, I’d put the plaster on for him. When I do it for people whom they aspire to imitate then they feel better about it. Actually I’ve never found the need to do this because they know the meaning of money, so they can understand the cost reduction principles better than the middle and upper middle class. I think the most satisfactory jobs for me are those for the lower middle class – the NGO’s, accountants, teachers – people who do interesting jobs and are important for the country, but get paid miserably. And they’re very open to new ideas, or adjustments.

Q: Would that apply to the fishing village in Trivendrum?

A. Well, that was an unusual project. Every year some village or the other in Kerala gets washed away and every year they get an enormous amount in compensation, money for clothing and blankets and maybe even some for the replacement of huts. For the amount spent year after year they could easily build pucca houses if they were put in sensible places. So I approached the Chief Minister to say, why waste Rs. 3,000 like this on compensation, why not build pucca houses? The C.M. agreed and we acquired land just behind the beach. So we went ahead and did it. But it was very dif cult. The shermen are quarrelsome people and I didn’t have much time to study the project or think about it.

I hate long rows, a colony of rows, so I staggered the housing in a way that (a) they catch the breeze; and (b) they get a view of the sea; at the same time leaving little private triangles of land in between houses where they could dry the nets and kids could play; they were all distressed over the storm damage and we had to get them up as quickly as possible and we mainly wanted to demonstrate that such permanent structures could be put up quickly. In some, they’ve taken out the jaalis and put windows, which is a good thing. I don’t see why 800 houses in rows should all be the same; if one person wants widows, why not, if someone wants to plaster it and paint it blue and green, ne. Let them do it. It always raises this question: are you building a Laurie Baker building, a Corbusier building or are you building for the client? You should be building only what the client wants, but clients often have terrible taste. Of course, that only means it’s something you don’t like.

Q. Have you ever been approached for a conventional project with limitless funding?

A. No, I don’t want jobs. I only take on what I find interesting and limitless funding I always find suspect and I’d probably tell them most of what they want is totally unnecessary anyway. It may have been a temptation 30 years ago. I had one such client – a missionary group in North Kerala approached me for a church. So I asked them what do you want and they said, “Actually, you needn’t bother with the church at all. We’ve got an engineer who will do the church for Rs. 3/4 lakh and you can have Rs. 1 lakh to do a nice front.” I met their committee and told them what I thought of their project. So of course they got an architect who did them a nice front with pink and green and purple stripes and their engineer did do an asbestos barn behind.


Q. You’ve been called the only “Indian” architect, why is that?

A. Yes, I don’t know quite what that means. I think very little of my foreignness shows in the buildings I do and I’ve never ever said, “We do it this way.” In any case my clients have always been very Indian, I’ve not even had the foreign-returned to deal with since I work with the poor primarily. And my feeling as an architect is that you’re not after all trying to put up a monument which will be remembered as “a Laurie Baker building” but Mohan Singh’s house where he can live happily with his family. But there must be thousands of others. I don’t know why I should be singled out for the honour of being the only Indian architect.

Q. Partly perhaps because you’re a foreigner, but more so because your buildings use elements that are essentially Indian – like jaalis and courtyards.

A. Yes, but again these are not things that architects have sat down and designed. In Kerala nice curled- up roofs or nice jaali patterns were a slow evolution, an R + D and empirical development to meet your needs with limited means, to also suit the climate and the cultural patterns, to cope with wild beasts or wild neighbours. What we see in indigenous architecture is this response. That of course is very, very Indian and sometimes local to just one particular district. To me obviously an ordinary English window in a hot climate without winds and torrential rains can be a real horror.


So I learn my architecture by watching what ordinary people do; in any case it’s always the cheapest and the simplest. They didn’t even employ builders but families did it themselves. And it works – you can see it in the old buildings, wood jaalis, in particular, with a lot of little holes ltering the light and glare. I’m absolutely certain that concrete frames lled with glass panels is not the answer. There are better alternatives. In places that are running short of wood and stone, there are other materials available and other principles to follow. Life-styles, living patterns and the availability of materials and skills do change, but the weather hasn’t changed, the temperature hasn’t changed, it still rains…but where we should have just improved what was not entirely satisfactory we’ve introduced something completely alien.


Q. Now with the requirements for housing on such a large scale is it possible to build the traditional way?

A. Well, yes and no, there are a number of things that have changed but the whole social pattern is changing as well. Kerala is very different from the rest of India. It’s like a chess-board. Each square has one family. There are none of the dense village settlements of Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh. Except for the commercial development at the crossroads there are only paddy elds and coconut groves. Now this is changing and with larger numbers few can live off the land and with more people moving into the cities we have to make changes. Gulf houses have started appearing in the paddy fields.


Q. Traditional architecture is very direct and simple in the way it solves a problem or is suited to a climate. At the same time it is rich and complex because it varies from region to region. Isn’t this what we are really losing?


A. I can never understand an architect designing 500 houses all exactly the same. It doesn’t take much to put all the components into at least half a dozen other combinations. If only we didn’t level sites and eliminate trees, instead plan to go around them. Then we wouldn’t get the long monotonous rows. With variation of materials in Kerala nearly every- where – well, either you have laterite and granite, or brick and laterite, or laterite and mud – it’s perfectly easy to mix up materials on any given site, so the possibilities for variety are endless.

I was doing a colony for civil servants, all from different parts of the country now retiring and wanting to settle in Kerala; they are honest people with not much money, so they formed a co-operative, got land from the government and divided it into different plots. They asked me to build because I build individually for a person. What I usually do is talk with the client, the family, ask what they want, what kind of building they are likely to be happy in. If they are fairly orthodox I give a straight-forward plan. Then I’ll do a plan that I think will be good for them. If I think they are more adventurous, I do an outlandish plan – a round one or a triangular one. And I present all three and leave it to them to make the choice. If they had their own individual plot I’m sure they’d have selected the simple unimaginative house, but because they’re all together in a small colony they’ve all picked the outrageous one. Now there are circular houses, moon-shaped and heart- shaped houses…but all exposed brick outside with ller tile slab roofs.

The filler slab works out cheaper than the tile and timber roof and it satis es this craze for being modern. With people in a thatch house wanting a tile roof, those with tile roofs want concrete, so they have their aspirations, but the wood and tile roof is still by far the best one.

Q. But people can no longer build the traditional way because timber is scarce. Couldn’t a government policy make it possible for some forests to be planted speci cally of building species?

A. Yes! I keep bringing this up at planning meetings, why we don’t deliberately plant timber with quick- growing trees for building material. It’s ridiculous that timber which is a renewable material has no clear-cut policy. We have some teak forests in Kerala but they are for commercial purposes, not for individual house builders.


Q. That’s rather lopsided, that industry can get bamboo and other material at a subsidised rate but a man who wants a few odd pieces for a house must pay market prices?

A. It’s very sad. My nicest work is in wood, big trusses in houses, halls, but I can’t afford it anymore.

Q. Do you admire a building for its exterior, the composition of its facade, or its proportions?

A. I’ve never consciously used any system of proportion, nor for that matter does “architecture without architects”. Really, a door is a standard, it sets the scale of a building, its shape and size is taken from the shape and size of a person, and the rest follows from there.

The age of the individual architect is gone. There are a few architects – Correa, Doshi among others. I’ve no great feeling for modern works. They are interesting as individual buildings, as feats of engineering. A lot of good modern buildings remind me of furniture. There’s one particular one in Trivandrum that looks like a harmonium. About other buildings, I just don’t know. I am completely outside the mainstream of current architecture.

Q. People have started talking of mud housing as the great liberator, perhaps the only solution to the one-family, one-home idea. Do you see it that way, as well?

A. People who can pay for their buildings, I usually sound them about compressed earth blocks. They always say, it’s very interesting but, Mr. Baker, you’ve got to realise this represents my whole life’s savings and I’d want the house passed on to my son, etc., etc.

It’s very, very dif cult to get clients for mud buildings. When it comes to the poor, who’ve already been living on mud, they know it only for its disadvantages. Their dream is a brick and cement home. A school I’m doing for the deaf and dumb near Cape Comorin is a mud building using compressed blocks and concrete roofs. My client in this case is an Englishman married to an Indian. And he is a teacher and very keen on the rugged rural look. What I’ve wanted to do is a colony for fancy people. And I think we should do buildings in mud but the clients just don’t come my way – they are just not prepared to take the risks.


Q. Perhaps it should start at the top with the upper middle class, moneyed people, living in mud buildings.


A. Yes, may be the Prime Minister’s residence… that’s why I hesitate when I am offered a commission, because what I’ve got left of a working life I’d like to concentrate on mud. Not something rural and folksy but proper decent mud building. My dream is to get hold of some realty industrialist who will produce a piece of land and allow me to put up a mix of housing all in mud and rent them out. I’m very keen to develop this idea of rental building; at the moment we have them only for of ces; but say someone is working in the city he should be able to rent a mud apartment.


Q. It raises a lot of questions about ownership of land in the city. After all, why should one man own an acre in the centre of town, the other nothing – it’s not equitable.


A. It’s ridiculous for the government to announce “a house for everybody before the 21st century.” They won’t get it anyway. Of course my main interest in mud is not just that it makes better buildings but also how much energy is involved in producing the material. To me, if we are going to meet the challenge of 25 million needing a house in the 21st century, I’m sure it’s not possible in the conventional way whereas I think it could be done in mud.


Q. But it would require a lot of changes in building policy byelaws, etc.

A. Yes. Mud buildings are not allowed in urban areas. There’s a school that ASTRA (Application of Science and Technology for Rural Areas) has done in Bangalore for the children of the Indian Institute of Science staff – a big complex of buildings using compressed earth blocks. In the city it was approved by the Bangalore authorities, which is a very big step. It works very well – after all, what more destructive clients can you have than children?


Q. A recent article suggested that your method of working is rather unique and that you spend your afternoons rummaging through junk, recycling waste.

A. A lot of material can be recycled, even if it’s old fashioned. One of my clients pulled down an old house and we built a new house, bigger than the original and still had bricks left over. Of course in those days, people built thick walls and the bricks were much stronger. So we built nearly twice the oor area in about half the material. The old tiles and wood were all of superior quality.

Quite often clients do have old property which is dif cult to upkeep. They are no longer living there – so they end up pulling it down and rebuilding at half the cost of the building. I think a lot of the need for new housing is exaggerated because a lot could be done to upgrade what’s already there. Of course, the easiest thing is to bulldoze and rebuild, but less so now because of labour costs.

Q. When you were designing this room, for instance, what were the decisions that occurred on paper and which were spot on-site decisions?

A. I draw something mostly for the bene t of the authorities but on the whole I design as I go along (shows me bits of paper in pocket). What’s the point of drawing everything really? Most of my drawings are done when I’m driving along.


Q. You make a number of decisions that most architects could never make without an engineer. At times it seems that you are almost testing or teasing the material – the thin brick walls, for instance – by taking it to the very edge. The way Maillart did for concrete. Nobody could realise that concrete could be so delicate till he built all those bridges.


A. Well, I’ve been brought up with the idea that they (engineers) are people you can consult if you’re in a hole or if you are designing something special. Now we think of air-conditioning as something you apply to a building. You run a duct through a false ceiling or stick a box in the window, but the architect no longer cares. He knows if he can’t do something he can always fall back on the mechanical engineer.


Q. Do you change your method of working, design and construction when you build outside Kerala – in U.P. or Gujarat, for instance?

A. Oh, yes. Very much so. I have to go along with the local style to which I bring my own adjustments and variations. I think it’s foolish to impose your own ideas when you’re dealing with people who know what their problems are, and you can’t know these till you’ve actually lived in a place. The soil may be riddled with white ants, or the wind may blow in a particular direction. Of course, if I see they are doing a lot of concrete boxes, and I can make something better, I’ll demonstrate it to them. I don’t expect any innovations to take hold for a long time. It’s a very slow process. Now, for instance, in Trivandrum, I nd a lot of jaali walls. When I rst came (some 20 years ago) the at concrete roof was everywhere; now the sloping ller tile roof which I do is becoming fashionable. Of course, it’s taken 16 years.


Q. You are the adviser to the Kerala Government on housing. To what degree do you in uence the design of new housing colonies?


A. I do get on these housing committees, but our interests are different. They don’t want to cut down cost; I try to build cheaply, using elements from traditional architecture but updating them to 20th century technology and life-styles. So I go on and on, year after year; they listen and do just what they want.

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