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Architecture Misfit #11: Laurie Baker

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This is not Laurie Baker.

charles correa

It is Charles Correa. A first draft of this post was about him because, since he announced his retirement earlier this year, I’ve been reading much about him as a man of the people coming up with ideas for low-cost buildings in India. He’s been receiving much attention in both the mainstream and architectural press. He donated his archive to the RIBA who sponsored a retrospective exhibition. He also has over 50 years of built work and is generally regarded as India’s ‘greatest’ architect. It is said said that all of his work places special emphasis on prevailing resources, energy and climate as major determinants in the ordering of space. Sounded good. I thought he might qualify as an architecture misfit for buildings such as his Tube House.

According to Rowan Moore, writing in The Guardian, the Tube House in Ahmedabad is a model of contemporary sustainable design. It is shaped such that cool air is naturally drawn through it, leaving via a vent close to the apex of the roof. It’s a prototype of low-income housing, and cleverly minimises the number of windows, which are relatively expensive items, while creating a humane and liveable interior. It uses readily available building materials and techniques.

Tube House in Ahmedabad
tube house 2
tube house

It’s a prototype for low-income housing… Except it’s not contemporary, but was completed in 1962. It should in fact be spoken of in the past tense – only one was built and it was demolished in 1995. Surely it can’t have been that great a prototype if nobody wanted it, or even wanted to copy it. I wonder what did win the competition? And how that fared? This next project is titled Mhada (perhaps for Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority?).


Although the project is not shown on the Charles Correa Associates website, this next text seems to be from the practice.

The central focus point of our research was to look up the buildings concerning vertical planning, stacking and relations between public, semi-public and private spaces.  Mhada is a high-rise building in the center of Bombay. Because the population there is growing twice as fast as in the rural areas the designer had to compete with different programs as we would have in the Netherlands. Even more, the fact that the building is mend only to be transitory when older building are being renovated makes this example more extreme and so really interesting to investigated.Cause the housing is build from a social point of view, the fact that the accommodation is only transitory and concerning we are in one of the most dense populated cities of the world the area per family is very small, 20.9 square meters. Keeping this in mind make normal elevators, stopping at each level and at least two per building (in case one breaks down) far too expensive. These are the reasons why we have 2 elevators only stopping at the ground floor, level 3.5 and 7.5. These two elevators serve actually 8 buildings housing 244 apartments. This circulation system together with 6 staircases  makes the building having an open character and kind of indirectly forces the people to meet up with each other. Knowing that at the 4th level and at the 8th there are large and open communal spaces the people are invited to enter these spaces. These welfare halls are used by children to do their homework when they come home from school, and in the evenings for watching tv. They can be used by  women’s cooperatives to generate part-time jobs for house wives making pickles, sewing etc. they also have access to the outside terraces which are safe supervised places for children. The community halls at level four not only provide amenities to families but also connect all six staircases to the two elevators. Summarizing the building functions not only as housing but also creates a social machine within the building. Promoting interaction and  social security.

Sounds great on paper but, again, the project was not realized.

In 1984, Charles Correa founded the Urban Design Research Institute in Bombay, dedicated to the protection of the built environment and improvement of urban communities. Over the last four decades, Correa has done pioneering work in urban issues and low-cost shelter in the Third World. I take it they mean things like this.


I understand and appreciate the application of geometry and repeated units to create seemingly different places and spaces but, for all this analysis (and subsequent academic analysis of analysis) only the last project, Incremental Housing at Belapur was realized. See here for more information (in Italian). 

Charles Correa is far more readily known for buildings such as his photogenic Kanchanjunga Apartments ( Some say it’s the only ‘modern’ building in Mumbai that’s actually built to modern standards.  


The east-west orientation may be ideal to catch the cool breezes in Mumbai but I don’t see why achieving cross ventilation should be singled out for such praise in a tower block having four apartments per three levels with every one of those apartments having windows on three sides. I accuse Charles Correa of being a Formist.


You can see where this is coming from.


Architects and architecture students do like a complex section. How about this?


The double-height balconies have been likened to a development of that great Indian invention, the verandah. This could be why the building is full of expats.

Kanchanjunga detail

Balconies overlooking terraces are a recurring motif in Correa’s work.

So for all these reasons, I’m not in a rush to endorse Charles Correa as a man of the people. He found clients for his luxury buildings but no takers for (or imitators of) his low-cost housing prototypes. It’s good that he designed buildings that were liveable without air conditioning. But not extraordinary.

Far more extraordinary is the career of Laurie Baker – the Brick Master of Kerala. Baker was British, studied architecture at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, graduating in 1937 aged 20. During the Second World War, as a conscientious objector, he served in the Friends Ambulance Unit in China and Burma. In 1943, on a trip back to England to recuperate from ill health, he was waiting for a ship at Bombay when he happened to meet Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi told him that the knowledge he brought from the west was not useful to Indians and that the rural areas needed more thinking and not the cities. Gandhi’s idea was that it should be possible to build a home with materials found within five miles of a site. This was to have a great influence in his later life. Baker moved to India in 1945 and found his English construction education inadequate for the types of issues and materials he was faced with. He had no choice but to observe and learn from the methods and practices of vernacular architecture. He soon learned that the indigenous architecture and methods of these places were in fact the only viable means to deal with local problems. He modestly admitted these discoveries were ‘discoveries’ only for him, and mere common knowledge to those who developed the practices he observed.

I do contribute to Wikipedia, btw.

Throughout his practice, Baker became well known for designing and building low cost, high quality, beautiful homes, with a great portion of his work suited to or built for lower-middle to lower class clients. His buildings tend to emphasise prolific – at times virtuosic – masonry construction, instilling privacy and evoking history with brick jali walls, a perforated brick screen which invites a NATURAL AIR FLOW to cool the buildings’ interior, in addition to creating intricate patterns of light and shadow. This is the IISE Office in Trivandrum. (thanks summ( )n.) The IISE Campus at Vellayani, Trivandrum, now known as Kanthari, was designed by architects PB Sajan (Chief Architect and Jt. Director, COSTFORD) and Shailaja Nair, long term associates of Laurie Baker and built by the COSTFORD team. Follow the link to check out their ongoing work.

IISE office
baker brick

Another significant Baker feature is irregular, pyramid-like structures on roofs, with one side left open and tilting into the wind. Baker’s designs invariably have traditional Indian sloping roofs and terracotta Mangalore tile shingling with gables and vents allowing rising hot air to escape

This is his Centre for Development Studies (Trivandrum, 1971).


Here Baker evolved an innovative system of curved walls to save on structural stiffening and to enclose more volume with less material than straight walls. The walls are double skin to conserve the energy that goes into air-conditioning a building of this scale and purpose. A testament to his frugality, Baker was often seen rummaging through salvage heaps looking for suitable building materials, door and window frames. Here’s some discarded bottles put to use in a residential project.


Baker made many simple suggestions for cost reduction including the use of Rat trap bond for brick walls [uses less bricks for a wall of similar strength].

rat trap bond

having bends in walls that increased the strength and provided readymade shelves, thin concrete roofs and even simple precautions like shifting dug up soil into the built area rather that out of it. He advocated the use of low energy consuming mud walls, using holes in the wall to get light, using overlaid brick over doorways, incorporating places to sit into the structure, simpler windows and a variety of roof construction approaches. He liked bare brick surfaces and considered plastering and other embellishments as superfluous.

His Quaker-instilled respect for nature lead him to let the idiosyncrasies of a site inform his architectural improvisations, rarely is a topography line marred or a tree uprooted. This saves construction cost as well, since working around difficult site conditions is much more cost-effective than clear-cutting. (“I think it’s a waste of money to level a well-moulded site”) Resistant to “high-technology” that addresses building environment issues by ignoring natural environment, at the Centre for Development StudiesBaker created a cooling system by placing a high, latticed, brick wall near a pond that uses air pressure differences to draw cool air through the building. Here’s that pond.


Various features of his work such as using recycled material, natural environment control and frugality of design may be seen as sustainable architecture or green building with its emphasis on sustainability. His responsiveness to never-identical site conditions quite obviously allowed for the variation that permeates his work.

He was no dilletante. In his 52 years in India, he was responsible for approximately 40 projects. He did more than just create an oeuvre for he also worked to promote cost-efficient low-cost housing in and around Kerala and throughout India.

  • Served as the Chairman, HUDCO (Housing and Urban Development Corporation)
  • Member of the governing body of NID (National Institute of Design), Ahmedabad
  • Consultant to UPDESCO (Uttar Pradesh Development Systems Corporation)
  • Member of the Advisory Board for the National Building Research Institute
  • Only non-government member of the Working Group of the Union Government Planning Commission
  • Served in an advisory capacity to the Kerala, Karnatak and Andhra Pradesh governments
  • Served as Chairman of COSTFORD (Centre of Science & Technology for Rural Development)
  • Fellow of the Centre for Development Studies

Here’s his handwritten list of architectural principles. I scowled a bit at No. 6 for, unless site conditions dictate otherwise, uniqueness is an extravagant affectation. Apart from that one niggle, THEY’RE ALL GOOD. Baker’s last principle about making cost-efficiency a way of life is refreshing. 

Laurie Baker was nominated for, but did not receive the 2006 Pritzker Prize.

* * *

Laurie Baker,

in recognition of your principles and your humanity,
your commonsense and your humility,

misfits’ salutes you! 

laurie baker



  • The IISE Campus at Vellayani, Trivandrum, now known as Kanthari, was designed by architects PB Sajan (Chief Architect and Jt. Director, COSTFORD) and Shailaja Nair, long term associates of Laurie Baker and built by the COSTFORD team.

  • says:

    just to prove that not all Bakers are alike, I wonder if he ever ran into Sir Herbert
    just the sort of example that should be on dezeen, architizer and the other nob sites.
    well done again