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Architect Laurie Baker – builder and blythe spirit


Laurie Baker, who came to India to design buildings for the leprosy mission, and was the recipient of international and Indian architectural awards, has just died at 90.

“Transformed" by a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in the 1940s, British architect Laurence Wilfred Baker (Laurie) spent the rest of his life designing durable buildings at low cost that were beautifully responsive to climate and country, to the needs of poorer Indians, and to the tradition of Indian craftsmanship.

"The results," noted the architectural commentator Alan Powers, "are delightful, practical and, in a country where craftsmanship has not yet been systematically effaced, they show exactly the joy in work for the maker and the user that William Morris talked about, combined with low energy consumption in materials and running costs." (Telegraph Obituaries)

Described as “droll” and unassuming, with “no more than four sets of shirts and trousers, all made of handwoven khadi fabric” to his name, Baker lived simply with his Indian wife Elizabeth, a doctor, and their two daughters and son in a home he had built. “His respect for nature, instilled by his Quaker upbringing, guided his on-site improvisations." Two favorite motifs, uniting beauty and function, were his brick towers and pierced Mughal-style brick screens "which allowed natural air movement to cool the interior and create intricate patterns of light and shadow."

“His coup de théatre was his Centre for Development Studies, a 10-acre postgraduate campus built in the early 1970s on a hill above Thiruvananthapuram, and which gave full rein to his ingenuity and imagination. Rippling brick walls coil around trees enclosing shady, circular courtyards, a network of raised walkways, roof terraces and an eight-storey library tower.

“. . . In the 1980s Baker's ideas caught the imagination of a younger, environmentally-aware generation of Indian architects, nearly 100 of whom now work for Costford (the Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development), a non-profit organisation that practises Baker's approach. The Centre has built homes for 10,000 poor families, for which it charged no design fee. (Telegraph)

In a tribute in 2001, Islamic Voice wrote,

“Walls are not plastered. The bricks are exposed. . .Kerala has lot of such modern buildings. Many people in this beautiful state now prefer to build their homes in this style. Most people would tell you that these houses and buildings were first designed by an architect known as Laurie Baker. Now Kerala has several thousand such homes, fishing villages, boat houses, and public buildings. You can spot them by their arches, pyramidal roofs, slender towers and jutting out roofs. Whenever you visit Kerala, try to take a hard look. Even their sight is so pleasing.”