Briton leads India in the art of simple building

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The Independent Online
FORGET the estate agents and the gazumping and the mortgage headaches: move to India, where the country's trendiest modern architect will build you a new house full of ethnic character for under pounds 250. That's if you have a tight budget, in which case the dwelling will be small and simple. If you have money to play with, a detached villa with double-height living-rooms designed by the same architect comes in at a construction cost of well under pounds 8,000.

The man working these miracles of economy was born in Britain 80 years ago and graduated in architecture from the University of Birmingham. Although Laurie Baker is now an Indian citizen, has lived here for half a century, and very definitely means India when he uses the word "we", his buildings are an amalgamation of English ingenuity and Indian soul.

Already well past retiring age and laden with honours (he is called padma shri Laurie Baker, something akin to having an OM after your name in Britain), he is enjoying an amazing vogue for his work. Britain's Department for International Development (DFID) commissioned Mr Baker and several other Indian architects to design and build prototype primary schools near Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh.

"We have already financed the building of 5,000 primary schools in the state, which were the ubiquitous concrete boxes," said the DFID's Michael Mutter. "But, in all, 90,000 new schools are required, and we said if we are going to build them we must reduce the costs dramatically. So we drew up a shortlist of workable designs and built demonstration schools. Everybody revered Laurie Baker's work - people were crawling all over it."

As a result, Mr Baker's distinctive and charming designs for schools may soon be springing up right across India.

The secret of his success is that he is one of the world's few true minimalists. In the developed world, minimalism is a style, a very expensive simulacrum of austerity for the wealthy. In India the need is to build houses for the millions - Mr Baker believes the number is between 40 and 50 million - who are functionally homeless, for whom a house is a few sticks draped in sacking or plastic sheets by the side of an open drain.

The money available to house India's homeless is very little, but the needs also are modest: dry and robust shelter, simple sanitation, a kitchen free of smoke. Mr Mutter says of Mr Baker: "He doesn't believe in following rules, but in following his mind and his instinct. He says that you only have to think about reducing costs, and it happens."

Mr Baker says: "My main principle for reducing costs is to ask of every item: is it necessary? For example, even poor people's houses have plastered walls - but every year the plaster gets dirty and has to be replaced. So, do without plaster. I'm following the example of the universities - Sussex, Essex and so on - built in Britain after the war when money was short. I ask, do you need a frame round the outside of the door? On the front and back doors you do, to keep out the dust, but not inside. And why do you need a door inside at all? A curtain is cheaper. If you systematically go through everything you need in a house, you can cut out a lot."

Yet the houses that result do not look impoverished. On the contrary, and in contrast with the shabby reinforced-concrete cubes that litter Indian towns and villages, they are warm and inviting. Local material is always used: Mr Baker is particularly partial to red brick, using it to create arches, domes, ledges, alcoves, oblique slits in walls - features that enliven the space but are practical, too, bringing in light, minimising heat, cutting down on the need for furniture. In a country where heat is the main problem, the bare, dark-red brick interior walls and the typically high roof spaces create cool, shady rooms.

Yet minimising cost is always uppermost. Mr Baker's most revolutionary gift to India may be the so-called "rat-trap bond", an ancient English bricklaying method that uses only three-quarters as many bricks as the conventional method. It has already been borrowed by many other Indian builders.

Laurie Baker's sojourn in India began by accident. He had been working as a missionary in China during the Second World War, then in 1946 found himself stranded in Bombay for three months. It was there that he met his future wife, a doctor from Kerala who wanted to devote her life to helping leprosy victims. They moved together to the Himalayas to work with lepers there, and he set about producing the necessary buildings, using local materials and techniques.

Gradually he evolved the approach that has become his signature. Now settled in Trivandrum, Kerala, he is busier than ever. He has just finished designing a local scheme for 250 new houses. "Every house will be different," he says. "There are 40 different plans."

Mr Baker's achievement has been to persuade Indian architects that the future need not necessarily lie in slavish imitation of the West. "I was horrified when I first settled here by the snobbish way architects imitated the West," he says. "We decry the West, but at the same time architects love putting up buildings which look like pictures they have seen of buildings in New York or wherever."

It took a product of the West to persuade them to look closer to home.

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