Column: When a British-origin Keralite revolutionised Indian architecture

Column: When a British-origin Keralite revolutionised Indian architecture
Laurie Baker, the British-origin Keralite architect. Photo: Manorama Archives

It’s impossible to walk near the main railway station in Thiruvananthapuram and not notice the unconventional brick building that houses the Indian Coffee House. Whether one likes the brick structure that was conceived as a continuous spiral ramp or not, there is no arguing about the fact that it is one of the most well ventilated buildings in Kerala’s still charming capital city. Laurie Baker, the British-origin Keralite architect made sure that anyone who sat at the cafe’s marble tables spread out along an ascending spiral would enjoy the natural breeze of the city thanks to the countless triangular openings on the building’s outer wall.

Born into a religious Methodist family in Birmingham, England, in 1917, Lawrence Wilfred Baker would go on to call Kerala home for over four decades. His first foray in Asia would, however, not be in India but China where he, an architect by profession, volunteered to help at a medical camp in Kutsing during the Second World War. At that time, China was devastated by attacks from Imperial Japan. As a trained anaesthetist Baker helped leprosy patients in a colony and stayed in China for four years.

Becoming a Gandhian architect

Column: When a British-origin Keralite revolutionised Indian architecture
The brick building that houses the Indian Coffee House in Thiruvananthapuram designed by Baker, (R) Laurie Baker. Photos: Manorama Archives

At the closing stages of the war, Baker was set to return to Britain via Bombay, and an extended stay in the city helped him in come into direct contact with Mahatma Gandhi. The architect attended the Mahatma’s meetings and eventually developed a friendship with him.

It was the shoes that Baker made out of waste cloth that attracted the attention of Gandhi the most. “It was strange to spend time demonstrating and explaining to him how my Chinese cloth shoes were made and then later to have 'Quit India' shouted after me as I returned through the streets to the house where I was staying,” Baker wrote. The common people of Bombay of the mid-1940s looked at every British person as a coloniser.

“It was also through the influence of Mahatma Gandhi that I learnt that the real people you should be building for, and who are in need, are the ‘ordinary’ people - those living in villages and in the congested areas of our cities,” Baker said “One of the things he said has influenced my thinking - that the ideal house in the ideal village will be built using material that is found within a five-mile radius of the house.”

Seeing the disparity in the living conditions of the rich and poor in India, Baker decided he wanted to live in India and use his architectural knowledge to help the masses. “I talked with Gandhiji about my urge to return to work in India even though the British were being urged to get out and was encouraged by him to return to India,” Baker wrote.

He would return to India and dedicate the rest of his to designing and building homes and other buildings that were cost-effective, environment-friendly and built with locally sourced material.

Challenges in independent India

Baker was a firm believer and practitioner of simple living and found his return to an Independent India difficult. He was sent as an architect for a mission in UP for leprosy patients. Much to his horror, he was referred to as a “sahib” and was given a large bungalow with servants and expected to “dress for dinner.” He was even banned from riding a bicycle, and told he could instead ride a horse! Unable to cope with a colonial environment, he moved to Faizabad and worked with Dr P J Chandy, who ran a leprosy hospital. It was there that Baker would meet his wife Elizabeth, a doctor.

He was set the task of inspecting buildings that would be used to treat leprosy patients, but was shocked to see buildings with mud walls and large cracks, and deal with termites and bed bugs and the dreaded monsoons. He resisted an early urge to quit and move back to Britain. Over the next few decades, he would thrive as an architect embracing traditional techniques and materials and local craftsmanship, combining it with the latest technology and modern designs.

Column: When a British-origin Keralite revolutionised Indian architecture

The Bakers would move to the Himalayas and live there till the early 1960s. “There, in mainly truly local indigenous style, we built our home, hospital and schools, and we lived there for more than a decade-and-a-half,” Baker wrote. “During this time I did manage to acquire quite a lot of those skills which had so fascinated me. Slowly I began to be drawn back into the more sophisticated world because, strangely enough, as I was busy absorbing these local skills, clients from the outside world came up into the Himalayas to get my help.”

Move to Kerala

In 1963, the Bakers moved to the idyllic hill station of Vagamon, where Laurie Baker continued to design schools and medical facilities. The main beneficiaries in Kerala were tribal families, who were brought into the education net.

Baker had some interesting observations about Kerala in the 1960s: “I found the relationships of Kerala vs. India very comparable to that of Britain vs. the rest of Europe. The people were 'insular' and proud, and their ways were very different (and in their own eyes superior) to those of others. Many more people were educated and literate, and this was especially true among the women folk.”

The family would move to the capital, then called Trivandrum in 1969. Baker went on to design over 1,000 residences and 40 churches in the state over the next few decades. In Kerala, he was welcomed by the government but faced resistance from builders and workers who were making a good deal of money from wasteful practices. His opponents scoffed at “funny” ideas.

“It became increasingly tiresome when people who asked me to design a building for them for a certain sum of money, would return to say that the builders said it could not be done even for double the figure I had given,” Baker wrote. “There was only one thing to do and that was to get together a band of masons and carpenters who would do what was asked of them and who would learn new techniques and unlearn old, wasteful ones. It was rewarding for my clients, for me and for the workmen.”

Baker obtained Indian citizenship in 1988. He remained active well into the 2000s and passed away at the age of 90 in 2007.

Modern Kerala architecture

A decade and a half after Baker’s death, Kerala seems to have taken several steps backward. The sight of large and expanding concrete structures is an eyesore across the state. The “foreign-return” families who have architectural monstrosities built in the state to show off their wealth are also doing a big disservice to Kerala. Following Baker’s Gandhian principles, a lot more aesthetically pleasing homes can be built in an environmentally friendly manner using local materials. Such homes can be free of air conditioning even in the peak of summer. It’s time for a newer generation of architects to preserve the legacy and continue the Gandhian architecture revolution started by Baker.

(The writer is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’)

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