Article: Laurie Baker’s Unique Masterpieces at Thiruvananthapuram

Article by Abhilash

Trivandrum Central is one of the biggest and busiest railwaystations of India.  Leave behind the bustle of humanity on the move and the first thing that comes across us on our onwards journey into the city is this funky looking brick-red building that looks like a conch shell given the Picasso treatment.  The famous Indian Coffee House building at Thampanoor, Thiruvananthapuram.  With its unique style this building gave Thiruvananthapuram another architectural landmark.

Laurie Baker, the seer who conceived this landmark blessed Trivandrum by calling the city his home.  This article goes through Laurie Baker’s observations on Thiruvananthapuram and some of his outstanding architectural masterpieces in Thiruvananthapuram.

Laurence Wilfred “Laurie” Baker (March 2, 1917 – April 1, 2007) was an award-winning British-born Indian architect, renowned for his initiatives in cost-effective energy-efficient architecture and for his unique space utilization and a simple but beautiful aesthetic sensibility. He came to India in 1945 as a missionary aid worker and since then lived and worked in India for over 50 long years. He obtained Indian citizenship in 1989 and resided in Thiruvananthapuram till the end.  In 1990, the Government of India awarded him with the Padma Shri in recognition of his meritorious service in the field of architecture”.

Laurie Baker first visited Thiruvananthapuram some 67 years back while he was working all over India from Bombay to Calcutta and Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram.  He lived for a few years at Pithoragarh (now in Uttaranchal) and then at Vagamon, a hilly area of Kerala, and eventually in 1970 he moved and settled in Thiruvananthapuram.   And not a day too soon!!  For during the 1970’s , flashy and butt-ugly concrete structures began to take over the countryside as money for extravagant weirdness flowed in from Gulf expatriates.  It required the keen eyes and mind of Laurie Baker, who reached the State in the mid 1960s and made Thiruvananthapuram his home in 1970, to force Kerala to rethink, reinvent  and in general, revisit its old architectural values.  Baker’s home at Thiruvananthapuram itself is a statement of his personality. His entire work as an architect was an extension of his personality.  He influenced a movement of honest architecture, not only in Kerala but also in the entire country, with organisations such as Housing and Urban Development Corporation adopting his eco-friendly, low-cost building methods to provide a clean living environment to the poor.  Laurie’s concepts made Green-friendliness look cool, much before the rest of the world woke up and “discovered” it after a failed US presidential candidate won an Oscar for reading out a script.

Laurie was a person who tread softly on this earth.  And, the landscape of Thiruvananthapuram is dotted with buildings that were built by him is a testimony to the philosophy that guided him.

During his later years he was deeply concerned with the rising traffic and increasing concrete structures in the city. He was also deeply concerned over the blockade of monumental buildings of the city by posters and boarding of shops, paints, painters, TV’s etc.  When he came to the city some 67 years ago the atmosphere was entirely different. At that time, weightage was given to traditional style buildings. If Kerala can boast of no monumental ancient architecture structures, the ones that flaunt the glory of emperors and kings, the reason is not far to seek.  Even kings were the epitome of simplicity here, making do with humble palaces and small comforts.  The “naalukettu” and “ettukettu” types of houses, where the rich of the land lived, were not meant to flaunt wealth.  These were simply homes to live peacefully, shielded from the tropical sun and rain.  He wanted the new buildings to come up with the imitation of traditional style.

Here are some of his beautiful sketches of traditional Trivandrum architecture.

Laurie Baker’s important projetcs at Thiruvananthapuram are Centre for Development Studies (CDS) (1971), Loyola Chapel and Auditorium (1971)@Sreekaryam, The Indian Coffee House at Thampanoor,  Houses for the Archbishop of Thiruvananthapuram, Loyola Women’s Hostel (1970)@Sreekaryam,  Nalanda State Institute of Languages(1973)@Nandancode, Chitralekha Film Studio(1975)@Aakulam, Fishermen’s Village (1974)@Poonthura, Mitraniketan Vellanad, Tourist Centre(1980)@Ponmudi, Nirmithi Kendra (1987)@Aakulam.

Centre for Development Studies, Ulloor (shown above) was the most important project of baker’s career. The significance of this assignment had less to do with size and budget, than with the idea of exhibiting a range of concepts applied to buildings of varying functions, scale and dimensions.  An area of nine acres accommodates administrative offices, a computer centre, an amphi-theatre, a library, classrooms, housing and other components of an institutional design.  The Computer centre at Centre for Development Studies were Baker evolved an innovative system of curved double walls to save on cost and to conserve the energy that goes into air-conditioning a building of this scale and purpose.

The Loyola complex contains a high school and a post-graduate complex, both sharing a common chapel and an auditorium. It was here that Baker’s skills of cost-reduction met their greatest challenge, as it required a seating capacity of one thousand. In order to increase the lateral strengthof the high brick wall, without the introduction of any steel or concrete, Baker devised a wide cavity double-wall with cross-bracing brick.The total covered area of the chapel and auditoriumand the gallery is approximately 930 squaremeters.  The cost in 1970-71, including the furniture and appurtenances, lighting and sanitation was kept with in the original gift sum of 1.75 lakh rupees.

“The Hamlet” Laurie Baker’s home(shown above) in Thiruvananthapuram is a statement of his insights into architecture in its own right.  He built it on a steeply sloping and rocky hillside that hardly had any vegetation when Baker started constructing it , is now a visual delight. The British-born architect, passed away in his home on April 1, 2007 aged 90,

But his creations and his ideas are still amongst us in the form of landmarks as well as a large body of young architects who are influenced by him

Article based on sources from , , &

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