Laurie Baker – development of design philosophy

I learn my architecture by watching what ordinary people do; in any case it is always the cheapest and simplest because ordinary people do it..... what has slowly evolved empirically often gives me a great kick, and I want to be part of that continuing evolution or progression. I was increasingly fascinated by the skills of ordinary, poor, village people working with the most unpromising and crude materials with apparently almost no recognizable tools to make useful everyday buildings and articles.  

The aspects of geography and climate were pivotal in Baker's passionate quest for a language and his challenge was in his own capacity to synthesize these elements and give birth to a coherent, evocative and indigenous architecture. He wanted the buildings to be unique, not in a formal sense but in terms of specificities emerging in relation with the people and site. Either in locating the building on site or placing a courtyard inside the building, sensitivity to climate and cost prevailed. Whether it is an urban or rural context, the relations were to be kept. He called this relation-keeping as good mannered architecture. In the urban context, he felt that one hardly got to design isolated buildings; Instead most of the times, the buildings were built as a part of a street or a block. In such cases, he was clear, that architecture should take a place among them and not show bad manners by competing or showing off.

Early works in Kerala For a number of reasons Bakers pulled up roots from their Himalayan home and moved south to Kerala; with its extremely beautiful local indigenous bamboo style of architecture. Here they chose a remote rural area to live and work in and built their own home and hospital in the local style with local materials. Unlike  in  the  Himalayas,  Baker  had  little  time  for hospital  work,  as  he  became  much  involved  in  local building activities. With the initiative by the Bishops many people and institutions were showing great interest in reducing costs of building which involved Baker’s expertise in inexpensive small houses. From this beginning there followed many small houses, schools, clinics, hospitals and churches and then the government moved in to examine what was going  on.  Later  with  the  interest  shown  by  the  Chief  Minister  of  the  state,  Baker  built  the  State  Institute  of Languages, at his request, for a small sum of money. This eventually lead to  design of world known institute of economics and development, the Centre for Development Studies at Ulloor in Trivandum .

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. There were many attractive ways of using local building materials. The coconut palm leaf was split and the fronts plaited together to form a thatch which was pleasing to the eye and of extremely good insulation value. There was a strong move in the urban plains especially to abandon 'old-fashioned ways' and go in for 'modern' buildings using plenty of cement and reinforced concrete.The 10-acre research institute campus, stretching across a heavily wooded site is Baker’s masterpiece. The campus houses the Library, Computer Centre, Auditorium, hostels, guesthouses and residential units for the staff., There are little courtyards in between buildings, often acting as an extension of the building itself and also pools of water which help in cooling the interiors. The design is a response to the sloping contoured site and seems to grow out of it. There is hardly a straight line with each structure curling in waves, semicircles and arcs. Baker pays careful attention to the contours on the site and also the location of trees. Not only the institutional buildings like Tiruvella Church (fig 1.20)or Loyala Women’s Hostel (fig 1.18) Baker designed some wonderful residences in his early years -  residences for Nalini Naik, and Abu Abraham are a few to mention. (fig 1.19, 1.21)S

SEWASEWA Kerala was established in 1983 and has its base in Trivandrum. It is a federation of various organizations which are member based. The members are poor women workers from the informal sector. Its committee is made up of elected members representing the various organizations and some professionals who are at their service. The Sewa Rural Center is simple but comfortable place, situated in the countryside 16 km from Trivandrum city and about a kilometer from the Villapilsalla junction on the hill called Nooliyodu. The centre spread on a 1.5 acre includes a bakery, paper workshop, multipurpose hall and a dormitory. 

There are facilities for overnight stay for 50 people and a large hall for meetings. The approach to the campus is from a modest and quiet road running on its north western side, from the Villapilsalla junction.  The bakery building is the first to be encountered on the campus, its roof; the most impressive form creates visual delight. Below the bakery is the paper workshop and storage. The bakery verandah overlooks a water body which has an irregular form, giving the composition an organic sense. 

A multipurpose hall which is adjacent to the bakery is approached through the verandah created by the cut out in the roof. Below this multipurpose hall is the dining area that has the view towards the woods. The kitchen, storage and a verandah is masterly carved out on site in a typical Baker style.
The third important block on site is the dormitory block which is at a lower level, approached by a set of steps organically planned. These steps are profusely planted with trees, at a few places the tree comes out from the cut in the roof. To endow them with distinctive character, these buildings are provided with small verandahs, curved envelopes. These steps as well as the verandahs act as gateways to create vistas.  Integrating the Landscape The site gently slopes towards the rear side, on which grows a whole grove of various kinds of trees, most of them being coconut and palm. One takes a detour from the highway about a kilometer south of Villapilsalla in order to get to SEWA Rural Centre. The approach to site is through a narrow pathway located at northwest corner of the site. One walks along the tank, towards the verandah to approach the multipurpose hall. The shell like form of the roof which meets the ground towards the dining side creates an entrance verandah for multipurpose hall.  The bakery verandah overlooks the water body that has an irregular form. The approach to the site is at the higher level and hence the lower areas are used to accommodated workshops and storage. Below the bakery building is the paper workshop, while a curved shaped kitchen and dining formulate the lower level of the multipurpose hall. (fig. 3.31) The view from the dining hall is astounding, overlooking the densely vegetated valley. 

The lower areas are accessed by curved steps, meandering along the natural contours of the site. The approach to the dormitory wing is through a small circular verandah which leads to a curved lobby from the verandah area. Dormitory has one entire stone wall of this corridor which has a tunnel like effect.  Here the stone wall seems to be a natural rock, which allows nature to freely interact with the building. The nature of the dormitory demanded an environment that is a peaceful and secluded from unwanted guests. There was also a requirement of external separate service zone for routine activities. 

Laurie Baker Cenre for Habitat Studies,  Villapilsalla,   (2004) The Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies (LBC) was created by a group of Baker’s followers, disciples and students to transmit his philosophy of the concept of sustainable development through research, training, documentation and networking. The core idea of the institute is to propagate the use of appropriate materials for buildings, creation of support facilities such as water harvesting and management, land development, promotion of non-conventional and eco-friendly sources of energy.   

The campus is located in the Nooliyode Village in Villapilsalla Panchayat, 12 kms away from the centre of Trivandrum city. The campus, with an area of 3.34 acre is an undulating piece of land dense with trees and other flora and fauna. The campus has five buildings that represent the last set of buildings personally designed and built by Baker for one of his friends who wanted to start a community centre for differently able children and adults who could interact with the society. This initiative could not continue and hence with the financial assistance from State Government; LBC was established. The buildings on campus consist of an office, a dining hall with kitchen, a dormitory to accommodate 16 persons with a lecture hall, a guest house, a tower that houses rain water harvesting tank and a view tower. Before the construction of these buildings the campus was a rubble quarry with very little of green cover and top soil, which has been turned into a dense green covered area with many plants and trees. 

Form Articulation The overall form of a building plays an important and decisive role in defining its nature. Baker shows a very high concern to scale and form of the building (especially the roof) in an effort to make them part of the context. For a place like Kerala, where excessive rains occur, the drama of the roof is an interesting feature.  In addition to climatic factors, Baker uses the form  of the roof to added advantages within and outside the building - to contextualize the building, to make a symbolic statement or to merge with the surroundings.  For example Jilla Panchayat office, Kollam, Indian Coffee House at Thampanoor, has an apparent verticality which is obvious in relation to the scale of the surrounding blocks. It responds very well as it sits on flat urban site to stand out as  a  monument  to  the  rather  monotonous  and  dull  neighbourhood.  All  of  his  agrarian  projects  have  a  strong horizontal expression which helps the building to merge in landscape. 

Open to sky - courtyardBaker’s buildings evoke the spirit of Kerala, which the traditional dwellings and institutions easily did. The transitional verandahs in traditional dwellings and courtyards had their own sense of place and meanings attached; through the lifestyle of people, the cultural characteristics, the social setup and the use of such spaces. They belonged to the place for more reasons than just the material usages or the spatial and form constructs.  Baker’s  buildings  have  a  strong  sense  of  relating  to  the  context.  The  built  forms  twist  and  turn  to  maintain  a harmonious balance with the surrounding existing structures, many times to accommodate an internal open to sky courtyard. At times these courtyards are the most essential component, from where the organization begins.  

SitingBaker’s work is extremely contextual. Response to the surroundings has always been one of his prime concerns. Most of his buildings are situated away from the denser urban fabrics and in these cases, it is the landscape onto which he allows them to open out. However, his buildings retain their characteristic charm even on relatively tight sites within the city fabric and go on to portray his skills in dealing with various contextual situations. Nature is instrumental in governing  the  form  in  most  of  Baker’s  projects.  Baker’s  spaces,  interiors  and  exteriors,  are  environment  which instigate to feel and think. Baker worked through the medium of senses; contextual clues were the leitmotif of his work. It is essential to look at his drawings after seeing the buildings themselves, which provides a very different reading.

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