Laurie Baker Architecture

The Legacy Continues 

Text: Anisha Rudrani

Laurie Baker was homegrown global brand name for organic architecture. The British-born Indian architect pioneered ethnic homes with local materials rather than importing exotic stuff to build homes incongruous to the surroundings.

He moved to India in 1945 and became an Indian citizen thereafter.

Baker buildings breathe and feel unlike the concrete structure that has no organic life of its own. His structures throb with life and fill the inhabitant with an inexplicable sense of wellbeing.

Much before Kerala or even India talked of maximizing use of space and 3-D and 360 angle view, Baker synthesized home and backdrop using locally grown raw materials for the environ-friendly homes. It was Baker who had taken the lead and showed to people how we could build cost-effective and cool homes that strike a symphony with the surrounding. As he used bricks in raw form and not plastered, his homes are known as a “symphony in red.” He was an admirer of Gandhiji and that is how Baker tried to combine Gandhi’s simplicity with dwelling. He was nicknamed Gandhi of architecture.

Baker’s designs are not copied from anywhere. They are at once humble and majestic—an impossible task for the ordinary but not for a master builder. His sketches usually have traditional Indian slanting roofs and terracotta, Mangalore tile shingling with gables and vents allowing rising hot air to escape. His buildings are designed using natural lighting and ventilation, and he used resources available locally. He often rummaged salvage heaps for anything he could use in his buildings, however unconventional that could be.

Even coloured liquor bottles found their way to create intricate patterns of light on the walls.

Kerala, the southern peninsular state of India, became his karma-bhoomi since 1963 and Thiruvanthapuram boasts of having some of his architectural masterpieces. Do not give a miss if you are planning a trip to this state. Kerala
Travel Explorer takes you on a pictorial journey through some of his works that stand the test of time whose designs are still very much more in vogue. Here are some stops you can’t miss out.

The Hamlet

This is Baker’s own residence at Nalanchira in Thiruvananthapuram. The house, built on a steep slope and rocky landscape, is a marvellous embodiment of sustainable environment with vegetation all around. The freshness is akin to what one feels inside a thick forest. Baker has not cut a single tree to build his house; instead he moulded his design to fit the landscape much like a skilled tailor stitches your coat to your body fit.

Each nook, each niche, each room or attic and foyet—everything has the Baker touch. The murals are made out of stone, waste ceramics and bottles. A home that looks like it is grown from the grounds. 

And, it is in this place where he made his hand-drawn plans for his clients.

A visit to this beautiful yet moody place is like taking a pilgrimage to the lap of nature. It invokes the nature lover in you, and imparts to you some thoughtful lessons on creating a home that is truly natural. Take home a lesson or two on the grounded, relevant and simple methods of home building for there is only one Laurie Baker.

Centre for Development Studies (CDS) campus

Another Baker mark. Sprawling majestically on a 10-acre land, this research institute houses a library, computer centre, auditorium, hostels, guesthouses and residential units for the staff.

Exposed brick walls are used in creative patterns that beautify the structure and at the same time freshen up the air, letting the air in and out. Rubble granite, white in colour, is used for plinths contrastingly matching with the red bricks. The red-oxide flooring gives much needed coolness to your feet. 
The outlines of the buildings are something that awes you; there are no single straight lines, instead the lines go in curves circles and arcs. One reason is the trees that often become an obstacle on the way the building goes. And Baker swerves from his plan a little letting the tree free from being chopped. A win -win for the trees and the architecture.

Little courtyards and pools here and there are Baker’s way of making his creation a living thing. The courtyards are the breathing spaces or the lungs of the building, a rare find in modern architecture. The ponds help in microclimatic control through evaporative cooling. 

The circular library tower is the stand-out feature of the campus. The staircase winds around a circular shaft which runs from the bottom till the top. The shaft provides forced ventilation inside and there are small openings at each floor level. The air is let in through these openings and escapes through the open top of the shaft. The holes in the jaali wall allow plenty of natural light inside and create a beautiful ambience for reading. Baker knows what purpose the building serves.

For an architecture student, CDS is his/her workbook. For others, it’s just another beautiful building one can admire for a lifetime.

The Loyola Complex

The Loyola complex houses a high school and a post-graduate complex, both of them sharing a common chapel and an auditorium. Building the church and auditorium was not an easy task because of the seating capacity it demanded. It was here he devised a wide cavity double wall with cross-bracing brick. The windowless cavity walls are pierced with a floor-to-roof pattern of jalis thus lighting the inside adequately even without electric lamps. The open patterns of brickwork successfully control the reverberations which a church or the auditorium is destined to make.

It is Baker’s mastery over lights that’s evidently visible in the design of the chapel.

Indian Coffee House

If you land in Trivandrum by train or bus, the chances are very rare that you miss the red cylindrical-shaped building in the heart of Thampanoor, courtesy its unusual design. The building is conceived as a continuous spiral ramp where the seating are provided on the outer side and the inner side acts as a staircase but without stairs. Watch out, the slippery slope, when it rains, has endured some slips and falls.

You can never say its storeys, for there are none, but the asymmetrical balance it gives with a small cylindrical volume on top can never be missed. The bold and beautiful design, just like any other of Baker’s, has thoroughly used the natural lights through the brickworks; and acts better as carved artworks. The triangular-cut-in-middle jaali gives splendour to the building. The only drawback is, you are asked to seat yourself somewhere down so that the staff can serve you immediately. This robs you off the opportunity to see the city’s bustle from the top, a rare sight. What can be better is take your plate once served and climb up to get a better view.

Ponmudi Cottages The conical green roofed granite cottages built on the 3000-foot high peak at Ponmudi, almost sixty kilometres from the city, blend beautifully with the scenery that surrounds them. It’s not an exaggeration if one resembles them with small hillocks. The isolated cottages are located 915 metres above the mean sea-level and are visible from the bottom of the hill. 

Inside the cottages are the home-like comforts you look for when travelling. Varying shapes and dimensions act at many levels: a square plan for students, an octagon for a couple and a smaller square for a family. 

There are many more. A day or two is well-spent if you visit Baker’s buildings, especially if you are an architecture enthusiastic. Just adore them, they stand here reminding you of a man who is long gone and missed by many.