Monday, April 02, 2007

Farewell Laurie Baker

Laurie Baker, the British-born architect who popularised low-cost housing on a nod from Mahatma Gandhi nearly 50 years ago, died in Trivandrum, India on 1 April. He was 90.

Baker leaves behind his wife Elizabeth, son Tilak and daughters Vidya and Heidi.

People from different walks of life flocked to The Hamlet, the Baker residence at Nalanchira, to pay their respects. The burial will take place with state honours at Christ Church tomorrow.

Tilak, a librarian at the Centre for Development Studies, said Baker hadn’t been keeping well for the past week. “Although his activities were curtailed, he had been talking to consultants from Costford, the low-cost building agency he had helped set up, until a fortnight back,” Tilak said.

Baker was born in Birmingham on March 2, 1917, to Quaker parents. He worked in an ambulance unit at the start of World War II, and later as a healthcare worker in China. On the way home, he was stranded for months in Bombay, where, through Quaker friends, he got to know Gandhi.

Gandhi sent Baker to see what he called “concrete slums” — the tenements for Mumbai’s workers. “What is the alternative? We need people like you here,” Adam Hochschild, a Fulbright scholar, quotes Gandhi as telling Baker.

Baker came back to India as an architect and began to build centres for leprosy patients. At one such hospital in Uttar Pradesh, he met Elizabeth, a young lady doctor, and married her soon after.

Until 1962, the couple worked in a remote Himalayan region and then moved south, setting up the Mitra Niketan hospital at the scenic Vagamon, near Elizabeth’s hometown Kottayam.

For Baker, who had already started planning earthen structures that vibed with nature, the leafy Kerala locales were a perfect setting for what later came to be called Baker houses.

He got Indian citizenship in 1988 and two years later, he was honoured with the Padma Shri.

In independent India, Laurie Baker may be seen as the opposite pole to abstract modernist architect Le Corbusier whom India's first prime minster, Nehru, invited to design the city of Chandigarh. Kirjasto writes: "relying more on his doctrine of architecture and urbanism than local cultural conditions, Le Corbusier transcended Chandigarh into a timeless, pan-cultural statement of the power of architecture".

Laurie Baker was loved and revered by many in India, especially those in the architecture and planning profession who had chosen to question conventional practice, several generations of whom looked up to him.

The work of Hasan Fathy of Egypt and Laurie Baker in India holds out a living promise of an alternative vision, of man in habitat, one that is rooted, organic and harmonic.

Read Sasi Kumar's tribute to Laurie Baker here, and Himanshu Burte's tribute here.

Baker's innovative use of discarded bottles, inset in the wall at Col. Jacob's residence in Trivandrum, creates a stained glass effect.


Deva said...

This is an excellent piece with useful links. Baker was a rare architect as well as a rare person. He created a new genre of architecture single-handedly and his work is as original as it is relevant. No doubt he will be missed but he has left a rich legacy and gifted followers.

Ghetufool said...

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