Knitting with Bricks

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Knitting with Bricks

In this photo-essay, Australian architect and academic, Derham Groves, walks in the footsteps of renowned English-Indian architect, Laurie Baker.

The English-born architect Lau­rence (Laurie) Wilfred Baker (1917 – 2007) was world famous for designing thousands of highly original, cost-effec­tive, brick buildings in his adopted country of India. (Fig. 1.)

Fig. 1: The late English-Indian architect, Laurie Baker. (Photograph courtesy of Cosford.)

Baker graduated from the Birmingham School of Architecture in England in 1937 and moved to India in 1945. He mar­ried Elizabeth Jacob, a like-minded Indian medical practitioner, in 1948.

For over two decades, the Bakers worked among poor rural and tribal folk in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats; then in 1970, the Bakers finally settled in Trivandrum, the capital of Ker­ala, in southern India.

Kerala’s Socialist policies were in many ways in accordance with Laurie Baker’s Quaker beliefs. He adored the place and became an Indian citizen in 1989.

Laurie Baker was much admired for his highly innovative brick buildings, which were well ahead of their time environmentally speaking.

They also usually cost surprisingly little to build. Ironically, this virtue ended up working against Baker, because he gained a reputation of designing only for the poor, which often put him out of favour with India’s substantial middle class.

Baker received several awards for his work, including an MBE in 1983, a Padma Sri in 1990, and three honorary doctorate degrees. He was nomi­nated for the Pritzker Architec­ture Prize in 2006, but missed out to Brazil­ian Brutalist archi­tect, Paulo Mendez da Rocha (born in 1928). In my view, Baker’s buildings have an interesting ‘textile’ quality (hence the title of this article, “Knitting with Bricks).[1]

I met Baker in 1994, when we both partici­pated in a panel discussion on the design and construction of brickwork at the University of Melbourne, where I now teach architecture. He was a charming man and a very engaging speaker.

In January 2012, I conducted a brick workshop for the 39 first-year architecture stu­dents at the College of Engineering Trivandrum (C.E.T.), located in Laurie Baker’s hometown.[2]

This weeklong event involved the students designing some interesting, front-fence-height, monochrome brick walls, which I hoped would be inspired by the local brick buildings that Baker had designed; and then constructing these experimental structures in the yard next to the architecture building.

The students had only just started the architecture course, and really knew very little. I started the workshop with a PowerPoint presentation on some of the things I have done to encourage innovative brickwork design in Melbourne over the past 12 years or so.

Firstly, I talked about some of the projects I has set the architecture students at the University of Melbourne. These included a first-year project to design a brick clock tower in the city; a second-year project to design a brick bell tower for Trinity Chapel (1914), a redbrick masterpiece in the grounds of Melbourne University, which was designed by the unsung English-born Australian architect, Alexander North (1858 – 1945); and a Masters project to design some fun, postmodern, brick letterboxes—half a dozen of which were built by apprentice bricklayers from Holmesglen Institute of TAFE, a Melbourne trade school. (Fig. 2.)

Fig. 2: A ‘twisted’ brick letterbox designed by Muhammad Abid, a Master of Architecture student from the University of Melbourne.

I also told the architecture students about The Brick Show (2000)[3] and Not Brick Chimneys (2003),[4] two exhibitions that I curated at the Monash Gallery of Art in the Melbourne suburb of Glen Waverley. The idea behind both exhibitions was to showcase the amazing design possibilities of brick.

The Brick Show was quite similar in concept to what the Indian architecture students were about to design and construct. It featured polychrome brick walls and the second quirky brick structures, which were designed by leading architects and artists and constructed once again by Holmesglen apprentices. (Fig. 3.)

Fig. 3: A brick wall, featuring a baby’s face, designed by Lyons, an award-winning Melbourne architecture firm, which was part of the exhibition, The Brick Show (2000), curated by Derham Groves.

Finally, I talked about how I made some special patterned bricks by stamping every­day objects, such as metal machine parts and the rubber heel of a shoe, into ‘green’ or unfired bricks and then baking them in a kiln. (Fig. 4.)

Fig. 4: One of Derham Groves’ patterned brickwork experiments.

These brick experiments encouraged Lyons, an award-winning Melbourne architecture firm, to create a wood grained patterned brick for a new geriatric hospital that the company was designing in Mornington, Victoria.

Following my introductory lecture, the C.E.T. architecture students divided into seven groups and each began designing a brick wall.

As the bricks (which were rather poor quality, I must say) for the workshop had been delivered to the site, I encouraged the students to experiment by dry-laying some of the bricks in the yard. It was fun. A bit like playing with Lego. (Fig. 5.)

Fig 5: First-year architecture students from the College of Engineering Trivandrum experimenting with bricks prior to finalising the designs of their walls.

However, the complicated sculptural brick walls that the first-years were designing seemed far too ambitious to me. I was worried. I foresaw nothing being built in the short time available for the brick workshop.

As most of the first-year students were not natives of Trivandrum, many were unfamiliar with Laurie Baker’s brick architecture. So on the second day of the workshop, the 39 students accompanied by three C.E.T. lecturers— Ms. Sujakumari L, Ms. Shailaja Nair and Ms. Indu Geetha—and myself, boarded a bus to visit some of Baker’s incredible brick buildings around Trivandrum.

Shailaja had previously worked for Laurie Baker, who she affectionately called “Daddy” (as practically all of his former employees do), and therefore she was a font of information about the architect and his work.

We visited two large educational complexes: firstly, the Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies (formerly named “Navayatra”), which consists of a number of curvilinear-shaped brick houses that are now used for conferences and seminars, but were originally designed to accommodate abled and disabled people living together (Fig. 6.); and secondly, the Centre for Development Studies, which comprises several impressive brick buildings, including a computer centre, hostels and a library, which is arguably Laurie Baker’s ‘magnum opus’.

Fig. 6: A house at the Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies, Trivandrum, designed by Laurie Baker. (Photograph by Indu Geetha.)

The Centre for Development Studies has lots of examples of “jalis,” the Indian term for intricately patterned perforated brick walls, which are a feature of most of the brick buildings designed by Laurie Baker.

He understood that brick walls did not design themselves, but needed to be designed brick by brick. So, rather than simply using standard brick bonds or patterns such as stretcher, English and Flemish bonds, Baker often created his own unique ones, which in turn produced new brick patterns.

By leaving certain bricks out, Baker would produce interesting perforated walls that softened the harsh sunlight and allowed cool breezes to flow through the build­ings—two very desirable features given Kerala’s hot and humid climate in summer.

There were occasionally ‘problems’ associated with Baker’s brick jalis, because they were open to the outside and sometimes not only let in light and air, but also birds, rats and even snakes. However, placing a lightweight wire mesh over the brick jalis in strategic places usually stopped this from happening, without detracting too much from their overall effect and appearance.

The Centre for Development Studies’ seven-storey, twelve-sided library (1971) possesses the interesting textile quality that I referred to earlier. (Fig. 7.)

Fig. 7: The library at the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, designed by Laurie Baker.

The building’s bold structural grid is exposed, and the resulting square spaces framed by the white concrete beams and columns in the exterior façade are filled in with red brick jalis of different alternating patterns. As a result, the library comfortingly looks like a knitted pullover or a crocheted quilt. (Fig. 8.)

Fig. 8: A detail of the library.

The front façade of the Women’s Hostel at the Centre for Development Studies is best described as ‘Baroque’, a term more often applied to late 17th century Italian buildings like St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome. (Fig. 9.)

Fig. 9: The front façade of the Women’s Hostel at the Centre for Development Studies designed by Laurie Baker.

The two S-shaped curves give the double-storey single-skin brick jali wall its structural stiffness, which is also a good illustration of Laurie Baker’s highly innovative approach to building practice and engineering.

Interestingly, this very distinctive undulating open-screen brick wall not only masks, but also is in contrast to, the fairly conventional residential building behind it.

Comparing this building to the nearby Men’s Hostel at the Centre, Laurie Baker once explained:

“This time the room, the balcony and the staircase plan were much more orthodox—but we made the usual connecting corridors very unorthodox by enclosing them in jali walls of rather florid building shapes.”[5]

Exploring Trivandrum on my own, I visited several other brick buildings designed by Laurie Baker, including the Bakers’ former house, “The Hamlet” (1970), which the architect expanded over the years to accommodate his family’s changing needs, and is now the headquarters of Costford, the voluntary non-profit organisation that he set up to carry on his work; the one thousand-seat Loyola Chapel and Auditorium (1971); and also the cloister-like Loyola Graduate Women’s Hostel (1971). (Fig. 10.)

Fig. 10: The Loyola Graduate Women’s Hostel, Trivandrum, designed by Laurie Baker.

However, my favourite Laurie Baker building is undoubtedly the Indian Coffee House (1957), a circular, ox blood red, brick building that sits on a pocket-handkerchief of land next to the main bus terminus in Trivandrum. (Fig. 11.)

Fig. 11: The Indian Coffee House, Trivandrum, designed by Laurie Baker.

It is the city’s ‘Guggenheim Museum’, as the floor of the café coils around a central core, which houses the restrooms.

The café’s quirky in-situ benches and tables, which were cleverly designed by Baker to allow for the sloping floor, are placed at right angles to the outer-perimeter wall of the building, which is penetrated by lots of small, ziggurat-shaped openings.

While the waiters must get tired walking up and down the café’s surprisingly steep floor all day, however it is a marvellous place to come for a drink and a snack.

I also saw a number of brick buildings designed by some of Laurie Baker’s ‘disciples’, which are easy to pick out by their distinctive face brickwork and the extensive use of jalis.

The owners of one house designed by a former employee of Baker told me how cool in summer and maintenance-free it was. However, efficient and functional as these buildings are, they do not have quite the same architectural finesse as those designed by Baker himself, in my view.

On the third day of the brick workshop, the first-year architecture students reviewed their designs in order to perhaps incorporate some things they had observed at the Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies and the Centre for Development Studies on the previous day.

I also asked a bricklayer who happened to be building a ramp at the College of Engineering to look at the students’ designs and give them some practical tips. By the end of the day, the seven groups were happy with their designs and ready to start building their walls the next day.

The architecture department had hired a bricklayer named Joy Francis to help the students construct their walls. True to his name, he was indeed a joy to work with. Armed with a trowel, a plumb bob and a level (just a long piece of plastic tubing filled with water), he went from group to group, ‘troubleshooting’. (Fig. 12.)

Remarkably, his few words of English and my total lack of Malayalam was never an obstacle.

Fig. 12: Bricklayer Joy Francis assisting some of the first-year architecture students.

The construction process began slowly until everyone got into the swing of things. Digging ditches, mixing concrete and laying the footings occupied most of day four. Then for the next three days everyone worked flat out to get the seven brick walls built.

None of the first-year architecture students had ever laid bricks before. It came naturally to a few, while it was a struggle for others.

However, they all learned a lot during the construction process, especially what it takes to turn a drawing of a brick wall into a real brick wall.

From my point of view, it was a thrill to see Laurie Baker’s amazing brick buildings and a privilege to work with the students and staff from the College of Engineering Trivandrum; my sincere thanks go to Professor Neena Thomas for inviting in the first place.

Let me briefly describe the seven brick walls designed and built by first-year architecture students:

1. Perhaps the little pig that built his house of bricks in the nursery rhyme, “The Three Little Pigs”, influenced the all-female group that built the Little House Wall. (Fig. 13.) C.E.T. architecture students, Gitanjiali V. R, Harsha Hareendran, Roshni Maria George, Athira P, Akshaya K, Aryaa, Mizna Reem, Aafreen Fathima, and Reshma Cherian, created this wall.

Fig. 13: The Little House Wall.

2. Of all of the architecture students, the all-male group that constructed the Swimming Fish Wall were the most careful bricklayers. Laying the bricks at a 45-degree angle to the wall created the fish’s scales. Laurie Baker’s use of old bottles at the Centre for Habitat Studies definitely inspired the fish’s green eye. (Fig. 14.) C.E.T. architecture students, Dheeraj K, Abraham Philip, Richard Lalduhsaka, Vignesh Sajeev, and Abhijath Ajay, created it.

Fig. 14: The Swimming Fish Wall.

3. The group that designed the Brick Jali Wall was perhaps inspired by the variety of jalis at the Centre for Development Studies, which the C.E.T. architecture students visited. Understanding the importance of the wall’s voids or negative spaces was an important lesson. (Fig. 15.) It was designed and constructed by C.E.T. architecture students, Soumya S. Warrier, Deepthi B, Anutpama Warrier, Saijith M. S, Nikitha and Nikita Jimmington.

Fig. 15: Final touches being made to the Brick Jali Wall.

4. The group that built the double-skin brick Staircase Wall employed two different patterns or brick bonds. One skin was herringbone and the other was stretcher bond. (Fig. 16.) C.E.T. architecture students, Parvathi P, Prasanth R, Najeeb T and Rahul Sarovthaman, created this wall.

Fig. 16: The Staircase Wall.

5. Just two women constructed this very solid S-Shaped Double-Curved Wall. Perhaps the Baroque walls at the Women’s Hostel at the Centre for Development Studies influenced them. (Fig. 17.) C.E.T. architecture students, Magna George and Jisa George, created it.

Fig. 17: Constructing the S-Shaped Double-Curved Wall.

6. Another all-female group constructed the C.E.T. Wall. While the monogram stood for the architecture students’ college, it was perhaps also a reference to graffiti on walls. (Fig. 18.) It was designed and constructed by C.E.T. architecture students, Angel Varghese, Anuja J, Archana, Anna Baby, and Nisha Nelson.

Fig. 18: The C.E.T. Wall.

7. The Elephant/Butterfly Wall featured two elephant heads facing each other in profile. Chipping off a triangular piece of a brick created their tusks. It is similar to the well-known optical illusion called Rubin’s vase. Looking at the wall close up you see the elephant heads, but from a distance you see a butterfly. (Fig. 19.) C.E.T. architecture students, Muhammed Jiyad, Hisham A. A, Amalraj P, Ahmad Thaneem Abdul Majeed, Muhammed Naseem, Sankasnath P. M, Sai Prasad C, and Suneer K. Kwall, created this wall.

Fig. 19: The Elephant/Butterfly Wall.

[1] For more information about Laurie Baker’s life and architecture, see Gautam Bhatia, Laurie Baker: Life, Work, Writings, Viking, New Delhi, 1991.

[2] For information about the Department of Architecture at the College of Engineering, Trivandrum, see

[3] See “The Ubiquitous Brick,” The Brick Show, Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne, 2000.

[4] See “The Secret of Chimneys,” Not Brick Chimneys, Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne, 2003.

[5] Gautam Bhatia, p.170.