Laurie Baker (1917-2007) was a British/Indian architect renowned for his work with sustainable housing. In 1943, in Bombay, he had a chance meeting with Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi told him that he should be building houses for ordinary people, those living in villages and slums, using materials found within a five-mile radius of the site. In 1945, he returned to India and spent the rest of his life building sustainable housing there. As well as the use of local materials, Baker emphasized cost-effectiveness, energy-efficiency, and an uncluttered space with maximum ventilation and light. He learned to use indigenous architecture and methods, combining it with modern design principles and technology wherever it seemed appropriate. He also improvised, starting with a blueprint but then changing the design on-site as needed. Though Baker focused on buildings for people, per Gandhi’s comment, some of his better-known buildings include the Centre for Development Studies, the Literacy Village, the Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, the Chitralekha Film Studio, the Indian Coffee House and the Pallikoodam School. He was honored with the International Union of Architects Award, a University of Kerala honorary doctorate, the Padma Shri, and a Member of the British Empire medal as well as being placed on the United Nations Roll of Honour. In 1988 he was granted Indian citizenship, the only honor he actively pursued in his life. Costford (the Center Of Science and Technology for Rural Development) carries on his work.
Baker’s designs were striking. His buildings were usually constructed of brick with jali walls, perforated screens to allow light and air to flow through. Curved walls were used to enclose more space at less cost than straight walls. (He said “building (became) more fun with the circle”). They featured sloping roofs with vents to allow rising hot air to escape as well as irregular, pyramid-like structures atop, one side left open and tilting into the wind to promote ventilation. A cooling system was created by placing a high, latticed, brick wall near a pond that used air pressure differences to draw cool air through the building. As a rule, trees remained in place and the topography was left undisturbed. Dug-up soil was shifted into the built area rather than out of it. Compartments for milk bottles were set near the doorstep, and windowsills doubled as bench surfaces. Junk heaps were often rummaged through for building materials.
Baker became a Quaker while a teen after a period of questioning about what religion meant to him. During World War Two he served as a conscientious objector in a Friends Ambulance Unit in China. Trained as a nurse, midwife, and anesthetist, he worked there with civilian casualties and lepers. On his way back to England, he met and became friends with Gandhi and had his epiphany about sustainable housing. (They met because Gandhi noticed his handmade shoes and approached him to ask about them). Baker lived simply, owning only the house he lived in Kerala in southern India and, at any one time, no more than four sets of shirts and trousers, made of handwoven khadi fabric. While he was known as the “Gandhi of Architecture”, well-loved, his workers and students called him “Daddy”. “On What Being a Quaker Means” was a short piece that he wrote about his Quakerism.
The first Friend came to India in 1657. Formal Quakerism began in India in 1866 through the efforts of the Friends Foreign Mission Association of London Yearly Meeting. In 1907 Mid-India Yearly Meeting was established. Located in Madhya Pradesh, it includes six Meetings: Hoshangabad, Itarsi, Kheda, Sohagpur, Seoni Malwa and Makoriya. Four schools were founded and are still run by Friends, though they now belong to the Indian government. In 2002 Mid-India Yearly Meeting published a Hindi language version of Britain Yearly Meeting’s Advices and Queries. It is affiliated with Friends World Committee for Consultation.
I have long felt that there should be a Testimony for Sustainability. So I was moved by Baker’s simple, elegant buildings. What graceful pieces of art!
(Above are Laurie Baker and a house of his in the Deccan Plateau).