For Laurie Baker, a house was more than brick and mortar, it was a living thing. The British architect made India his home and its terrain inspi
Every time R Narayanan, a senior IAS officer, stepped out for a walk with his wife Geeta, he would dread the moment they approached a red- brick house in their neighbourhood because of the way she would crane her neck for a closer look. Soon, she learned that the residence was built by Laurie Baker. A week later, the accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer met the 6’4” architect with blue eyes; he would build her a home in her image — a dark red-orange spiral brick house that twirled like a dancer.
Against the backdrop of evergreen trees and paddy fields, hills and the coast, Baker made Thiruvananthapuram his home for over four decades. His name would become synonymous with cost-effective, energy-efficient housing. But Laurence Wilfred Baker didn’t start building in Kerala until he was nearly 50.
In the ’80s and ’90s, housing schemes for the poor were being launched by then chief minister C Achutha Menon. In 1985, Baker joined hands with Menon, social activist Chandra Dutta, and economist KN Raj (who was also founder of CDS) to form COSTFORD, a non-profit organisation that engaged with urban and rural development. Baker’s rat-trap style of laying bricks saved nearly 25 per cent of construction costs. His other technique of using Mangalore tiles reduced costs by nearly 30 per cent. His way of minimising costs included frameless doors, which swing on pivots, jaalis instead of windows, and red or black oxide flooring instead of marble. Salvaged wood could be artistically crafted as switchboards and lamp stands. Baker avoided beams and lintels, and used corbels or arches and brick on edge to support walls. “At the time, many research institutes in Roorkee, Chennai, Bangalore and Auroville were finding ways to reduce costs. But much of their work was in concrete. Baker experimented with local materials,” says V Suresh, former chairman, HUDCO (Housing and Urban Development Corporation).