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Published on August 3, 2023

Isn’t it amazing when you witness an architectural masterpiece with your own eyes? One that you read about while letting out a long, heavy sigh while looking at the pictures online? A dedicated follower of dravidian and south indian architecture, I envied my seniors who went to summer school to visit and learn from various workshops on architect Laurie Baker’s works in Kerala. While I almost gave up on my hopes to see Baker’s masterpieces with my own eyes, I could finally seize the amazing opportunity to hop into this year’s summer session of the “Laurie Baker center for habitat studies”, joining batch 2 which started on June 5th. These 14 days redirected my inclination towards modernist life and architecture. The learning from theoretical classes, hands-on sessions, interaction with teachers, other participants and Baker’s handwritten books will remain perennially invaluable to me.

Heritage walk in Kerala II Image by author
Inside the classroom II Image by author

Every year more than hundreds of students attend Laurie Baker workshop, summer school, NASA program and many more in Thiruvananthapuram of Kerala. The summer school started in 2013 and every year there are two batches staying at the LBC (Laurie Baker Center) campus for two weeks. For every batch they take 20-25 students from across the world. This summer school program consisted of theoretical classes, hands-on construction training, visit to the works of Laurie Baker and other important sites of Thiruvananthapuram and finally implementation on a conceptual project. The whole program was conducted at the Laurie Baker Center. There are several dorms, an administrative building, a canteen and all built in a man made forest! Designed by Laurie Baker himself, these wonderful buildings are beautiful examples of addressing the context of Kerala.

We all have read theories about cost effective architecture, alternative construction techniques, climate responsive architecture, alternative sources of energy but this extremely efficient workshop allows practical experimentation using various examples created by Baker. Renowned architects like Marina Tabassum also participated in the summer school.

Quick on site sketches done during workshop II By author

Baker in brief

Known for his magical, wondrous works of mud and brick, Lawrance Wilfred baker was one of the most prominent pathfinders of thinking sustainability in architecture and habitats. But questions might arise, how did a British born architect become the “Gandhi of Indian architecture” ? Well, fate did its magic in 1943 when Baker was in the Second World War, assisting the leprosy patients and on the way back to England, he met Mahatma Gandhi.

Following this meeting, despite all the social negativity, he came back to India, worked as an architect for the World Leprosy Mission and married Elizabeth Baker. After living in Pithoragarh for 16 years he completely fell in love with Kerala. When India was inclining to resemble the west, Baker constructed impressive dwellings out of sustainable materials such as mud, brick, clamshells and even recycled bottles which strongly expressed his big commitment to Indian earth. Luckily enough, Ar. Laurie Baker’s legacy continued to guide us, years after his death through a compelling journey that LBC makes available to its cohorts.

Once Baker had totally declined the idea of starting a workshop for students!

The LBC (Laurie Baker Center) campus and workshop

Administration block II Image by author

Every morning we attended classes conducted by some brilliant minds. Lectures included Baker’s philosophy, his approach towards eco-friendly and sustainable issues, the construction methods and so forth. Majority of the teachers directly worked with Baker hence the students got a clearer look at Laurie Baker’s personality, his projects, techniques and his life. I was in shock to learn that once Baker had totally declined the idea of starting a workshop for students! Ironically, in his last days, he thought that an idea pitched and rejected long ago could indeed become a reality.

While roaming around the campus, I noticed Baker’s fascination for the traditional Indian mango patterns. This pattern is extensively seen in and around the complex, for example, the entrance of buildings and on the floors, even on a dustbin. On the other hand, frameless but louvered fenestrations are typical of Baker. The whole forest area has steps that are directly cut in rock, putting together an amazing journey surrounded by trees.

On the first floor of the main dorm for girls, I have seen one of the most beautiful classrooms ever. The brick walls contain different colors of recycled bottles, spaces encapsulated by a curved roof which also create the entrance for two amazing terraces engendering a spiritual vibe: attending a class sitting in the middle of trees and sky. Two triangular shaped openings on the roof illuminate the classrooms with diffused light, ventilation is offered by another terrace with an arched opening.

Terrace of the classroom II Image by author
Sketches of some interesting components taught in workshops II Sketches by author
Rubble Masonry construction II Image by author

We also worked at some of the construction sites of COSTFORD (Center of Science and Technology For Rural Development) the voluntary organization where Baker was the master architect of and carried out many of his later projects. The architects and engineers of COSTFORD who are currently practicing the methods of Baker, gave valuable lectures on how to reduce the cost of construction, how to minimize material and mortar usage which helps to achieve greater thermal efficiency.

The hands-on sessions were a significant part of the whole program. It was a lucrative opportunity to come in contact with the details of revolutionary methods Baker practiced, going out of the box from the monotony of concurrent construction methods. Throughout the two weeks of the workshop, we built mud walls, rat trap bonds, practiced the wattle and daub method, rubble masonry, made unique kinds of arches, filler slabs, domes and much more with the help of our brilliant instructors.

Filler slab at boys dormitory

A Glimpse of Kerala

Loyola Chapel by Laurie Baker II Image by author

Amidst the hectic schedule and tiresome weather, we visited some masterpieces designed by Laurie Baker. We explored the Loyola Chapel first, a shared chapel of the high school and post graduate complex of The Loyola complex. Upon entering the chapel, the brickworks and the wide cavity double-wall with cross bracings caught our eyes. Diffused light coming from an edge of the roof created a spiritual and calm space. The visit to Center for Development Studies (CDS) revealed to me the extent to which Baker loved working with bricks.

House of Parvati felt like a dream house; the view of a river and a zephyr carrying the woodsy smell left an ethereal aftertaste into our senses. On the other hand, Kerala Arts and Crafts Center demonstrates how courtyards can serve as the central system of natural ventilation for a  whole museum.

Another work of Baker, Indian Coffee House serves as a landmark for its unique form. The four storied coffee shop has a floor that winds its way around a central core like a ramp. To maintain the proportion and the stability of the building, the ramp gets smaller as it goes to the top and the exterior walls are made transparent by the use of perforated Jali patterns.

I built relationships and left them at kerala; I live with the family in my memories

Working late at night for the final presentation at the adminstration block II Image by author

In between all the work, the early morning classes and the site visits, I encountered some amazing instructors, enjoyed the mouth-watering Mappila cuisine of Kerala. I made numerous new friends as we played dumb charades at the end of the day at the administration building. It all turned out to be one of my fondest memories. This summer school changed my way of looking at architecture and taught me to fall in love with the smallest, most intricate details. More than anything else, this experience made me fall in love with Kerala just like Baker did.

 

 

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