Kerala is a model for less overdeveloped societies in not only education and health care, but also a range of social improvement issues through architectural design and construction approaches. The under-reported feature of globalisation is thriving models of sustainable, empowering, socially and environmentally responsible philosophies and lifestyles outside the Western world. India has just such a model in the legacy of a person whose life work merits ongoing attention.
Dr. Laurie Baker (1917-2007) was a British-born architect and a believer in social activism and advocacy for sustainable life (including building) practices. The tale of Laurie Baker’s 60-year presence in India is a captivating story of a transformed and transforming life.
During World War II, Baker, a young architect and Quaker, was a noncombatant who provided medical support and architectural services to leper colonies in Burma and China. At one point, stranded in Bombay while in transit, Quaker friends arranged for him to meet Mahatma Gandhi who noticed his pieced together canvas and leather footwear and laughingly invited Baker to return to India to apply his obvious resourcefulness to designing affordable housing for the poor.
Later Baker accepted, and in 1948 settled in the remote north of India near the Himalayas on a combined medical assistance and architectural assignment in another leper colony. Soon he met and married Elizabeth Jacob, an Indian physician serving at the same medical facility. Baker served as full-time physician’s assistant and part-time architect in the north and for fifteen years artfully blended indigenous knowledge and appropriate modern building practices.
Then, in the 1960s when both were in their forties, the Bakers and their family moved south to Kerala, Elizabeth’s home state, where Baker’s architectural work gradually eclipsed their medical practice. Baker continued designing and building using indigenous materials and features, this time from the results of studying the construction traditions of South India. Kerala alone has an uncounted number of Baker-designed homes and public buildings along with tens of thousands of Baker-inspired buildings designed and built by COSTFORD.
Many of the Baker homes were custom-designed and built for ordinary Indians who came to him saying, “We only have these rupees to build our house. What can you make for us?” Baker regularly rose to the challenge of designing and physically helping construct houses with severe budgetary constraints. Elizabeth says these were the projects that gave him greatest satisfaction.
Laurie Baker made his transition on April 1st of 2007 at the age of 90, but his legacy lives on in his buildings, his family, COSTFORD practitioners, his friends and admirers, and all those who respect the philosophy and technologies he lived in modeling possibilities for creating a more equitable and therefore peaceful world.