The Master Builder: Laurie Baker and the Art of Sustainable Design

If you take a leisurely stroll through the old streets of Thiruvananthapuram, you will find a whimsical house that wraps around a mango-shaped courtyard. The free-flowing, unconventional residence has a plain brick facade that holds no pretense and is sublime in its simplicity. Within, the living room swims with cool, tranquil shadows broken only by the fractured light refracted through a wall of glass. Fashioned out of shards from reused bottles, the wall acts as a sustainable imitation of a traditional stained glass window. Built as a home for a retired bureaucrat, the dwelling was designed by none other than Laurie Baker, a man who devoted his life to making housing a reality for all sections of society. The building, therefore, bears his characteristic signature of generating beauty within austerity.


Narayana’s "Mango House" designed by Baker
Fig. 1. Narayana’s "Mango House" designed by Baker (Source -


What is it that makes a house a home? Is it the permeating sense of comfort and protection? Is it the idea of sharing a permanent residence with the people we love; a place where the porch will remain lit for us no matter how far we stray? If we dispel our initial vexation at the triteness of the question, we would perhaps home in on the answer that renowned architect Laurie Baker once provided - to become a home, a house must first serve as a space that not only shelters, but is also an inimitable reflection of the family it houses.

A perfunctory glance through the pages of Baker’s life reveals his influences, shedding light on the reason behind his altruistic fervor. A wartime nurse and staunch pacifist, Laurie Baker was a British-born architect who found his home in India. Although he applied for citizenship at the age of 71 in 1988, his rendezvous with the country began two years prior to independence. It was his spur-of-the-moment decision to visit India on a mission to rehabilitate leprosy patients that would go on to change the face of sustainable housing in the nation.


Laurie Baker Digital Illustration
Fig. 2. Laurie Baker Digital Art (Source - Wikimedia Commons)


As an Associate Member of the Royal Institute of Architects, Baker was accommodated in an ostentatious mansion that provided a stark contrast to the bare-bones rehabilitation facility he was working on. Embarrassed by the sahibs’ pretension in the face of national poverty, the architect mounted a bicycle, exited the manor grounds and never looked back. He took refuge at the home of an Indian doctor - whose sister he would go on to wed - and soon acquainted himself with Gandhi’s nonviolent and humanist ideology that married perfectly with his own Quaker beliefs.


Documenting his conversations with Gandhi, Baker writes, “Here (...) I would like to mention that I believe that Gandhiji is the only leader in our country who has talked consistently with common-sense about the building needs of our country (...) One of the things he said (...) was that the ideal houses in the ideal village will be built using materials which are all found within a five-mile radius of the house. What clearer explanation is there of what appropriate building technology means than this advice by Gandhiji?” 


As a young man in a foreign land, Laurie Baker soon learned to dispense his scholarly learning in the face of ingenious indigenous methods. He was awestruck by the reservoir of natural wisdom which the communities around him drew from when building structures best suited to the environment. Everything from rice husks, bamboo strips and palm fibers, to calcium water and pig urine was used for construction purposes. In his notes, Baker acknowledges that his textbook learning proved useless in such a setting, and he had to adapt to the architectural practices of the place. 

Once he did - there was no stopping him. He learned inexpensive ways of building from the community around him, and improved upon these practices by inventing a discernible style of affordable and sustainable architecture. After independence, Baker commandeered the wave of cost-effective habitation in India starting with small communities in pastoral landscapes such as Pithorgarh in the Himalayan foothills and Vagamon in rural Kerala - before finally settling down with his family in Thiruvananthapuram.


Laurie Baker's Residence aka "Hamlet"
Fig. 3. Baker's Residence aka "Hamlet" (Source -


Their home, dubbed Hamlet, is a physical representation of Baker’s philosophy. Not a single tree was uprooted during the building process - rather the structure was designed to fit into the consonance of its natural surroundings. Resplendent with natural light and ventilation, beautiful gardens and ponds surround the building which in turn is made from recovered bits and pieces, tying seamlessly into the unbuilt environment. The property is a testament to the cosmological harmony self-evident in the architect’s spirit.

Commenting on his architectural style, Laurie Baker leaves behind pearls of wisdom, “My feeling as an architect is that you are not after all trying to put a monument which will be remembered as a ‘Laurie Baker Building’ but Mohan Singh’s house where he can live happily with his family.” And so, for the Gandhi of architecture, homes are not monumental odes to the ego of the artist, but reflections of families who are born from the fecund soil that Baker fell so deeply in love with all those years ago. 




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