Green Architects: The Vernacular Architecture of Laurie Baker

This year, 2017, marks the centenary birth anniversary of arguably India’s greenest architect, Laurie Baker, who was often called the ‘father of sustainable architecture.’ Laurence Wilfred Baker, born on 2nd March 1917 in Birmingham, England, moved to India at the peak of the Indian Independence struggle against the British. A ‘Mission to Lepers’ sign that he saw in London piqued his interest and he was soon on a ship headed to India. The Mission was looking for an architect to rebuild existing leper asylums and colonies into hospitals, since by that time leprosy had become treatable thanks to medical advances. Baker’s education in architecture and his previous work in helping a leper colony in China with medical aid meant the assignment in India was custom-made just for him.

Working at the Mission, Baker fell in love with a young Indian doctor named Elizabeth Chandy and remained in India until his death in 2007.

Baker’s aesthetic and love for sustainable architecture cannot be understood without understanding his close relationships with the people and places in India that he travelled to. For an architecture student, he found that his textbook knowledge was close to pointless in a country far away from his home. The architecture was as foreign as the country he was in. In his own words, he describes his experience, “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 bugs.”

But he learnt the language of vernacular architecture soon… “I realised that I had merely chanced to find an extensive set of building systems which were in no way ‘discoveries’ to more than five hundred million people! I wanted to make use of this new knowledge in my own work.” Baker also met Mahatma Gandhi who encouraged him to stay on in India and continue his work.

For 16 years, he lived in the hills of Uttarakhand, later moving to tribal Kerala in Vagamon and finally to the city of Trivandrum where he lived with his family until his passing away.

He noticed the different materials used for architecture in each of these places and came to believe that low cost, vernacular architecture was possible. His signature style derived creatively from preexisting local building knowledge. Where machines and modern techniques began to take over, Baker remained a minimalist using resources judiciously and frugally. This careful use of resources meant that he was able to produce buildings at minimal costs.

He incorporated various touches to cut costs –  among them are his typical rat-trap masonry style that conserved as much as 25% of the construction costs. He preferred to leave his buildings without plastering for a natural, earthy look. His other judicious techniques included frameless doors, jaalis instead of windows, oxide flooring to replace marble and salvaged wood that would be recycled into lampstands or other switchboards.  His walls meandered and turned. He believed leaving the building site as unspoilt as possible, making his architecture ‘grow’ on the land rather than levelling his site intensely. Any dug out soil from the site would be used back into construction.

His buildings incorporated rainwater harvesting and used as little energy as possible. Brick ‘jaalis’ or perforated brick screens made his building breezy as well as allowed light to seep through. For his roofs, he preferred the aesthetic of the traditional sloped roof.

In 1988, Baker finally received Indian citizenship after four decades of service here.

Baker summarised his architectural principles in 20 points titled, ‘My Feelings About Being an Architect’. True to his simplicity and honesty, his principles are as good for life as they are for architecture.

Here are a few to keep in mind –

  1. Always STUDY YOUR SITE– soil, topography, water climate + neighbours (noisy temples, smelly factories, etc.)
  2. STUDY & KNOW LOCAL MATERIALS– their availability, performance, costs, techniques + workmen who know how to use them.
  3. STUDY & KNOW ENERGY used in the manufacture and transport of materials, avoiding using energy intensive materials where possible.
  4. Every building should be UNIQUE. No two people, or families etc. are alike, so why should their homes all be the same?
  5. Get your CONSCIENCE out of deep freeze + USE IT. Let ALL YOU DO be honest + truthful – not only your buildings.
  6. Look closely at YOUR OWN PREJUDICES. Question them and see if they are still justifiable.
  7. HAVE FAITH IN YOUR OWN CONVICTIONS+ have the courage to stick to them – but respect those of other people.

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Elizabeth Raj | Blogger

Picture: The Centre for Development Studies; Courtesy – lauriebaker.net.

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