It is difficult to differentiate one of Laurie Baker’s designs from vernacular construction in India, where the British-born architect spent most of his life. Even so, many contemporary practitioners owe him a debt as the creator of a regionally sensitive, socially responsible architecture whose principles are now in vogue. Baker died earlier this month at his house in Thiruvananthapuram, in the Indian state of Kerala. He was 90 years old.
Baker’s house, known as the Hamlet, reflects his approach to architecture. Built into a steep hillside, the brick-and-salvaged-timber dwelling integrates the natural landscape with manmade forms. It is also one of thousands of cases in which the architect championed local materials and construction methods to overcome climatic challenges and a limited budget.
Born to a Quaker family in Birmingham, England, Baker was committed to creating buildings for common people. Observers attribute this lifelong mission to a chance meeting with Mahatma Gandhi during World War II, while Baker was awaiting ship’s passage from Mumbai. Gandhi, commenting on shoes Baker had reconstituted from discarded scraps, asked the young architect if he could deploy similar creativity to housing India’s poor.
Baker returned to India in 1945, where he joined a missionary team to repair and construct leper asylums. He researched indigenous design solutions, realizing that they offered a more cost-effective means for accomplishing Gandhi’s request than the cheap concrete construction prevalent at the time. In 1962, Baker and his wife, the doctor Elizabeth Jacob, moved to Kerala where he implemented his Baker Model Low-Cost Houses—small structures, featuring exposed brick, made by local craftsmen. He also designed headquarters for institutions, including a 10-acre campus for the Center of Science and Technology for Rural Development, which Baker cofounded in 1985 in the Kerala city of Trissur.
The Center, also known as Costford, carries on Baker’s legacy by providing housing for poverty-stricken Indians in a simple, vernacular style. It is also a repository for the architect’s written works. Baker is survived by his wife, son Tilak, and daughters Vidya and Heidi.