Laurence Wilfred ‘Laurie’ Baker was born to a devout Methodist family in Birmingham, England, in 1917. As a child, he would accompany his parents and two siblings to cathedrals and old buildings across Europe, trips that sparked his interest in architecture. He found religion in his teens and decided to become a Quaker, a pivotal moment in his life and work. At 20, he graduated with a degree in architecture from Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, just two years before the onset of World War II.
When the war came, Baker became a conscientious objector, choosing instead to aid the war effort through more peaceful means. To this end, he joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, a volunteer ambulance service established by members of the Quaker society. After some time tending to naval casualties on the south coast of England, he was sent to China as a trained anaesthetist to treat civilian casualties. While there, he found himself treating civilians inflicted with leprosy, then a fatal and widely misunderstood disease.
After nearly four years in China, the war had taken its toll on him. And so, he was soon ordered back home to recuperate. En route to England, he stopped at Bombay, where he found his journey home delayed by three months. During this time, Baker attended Mahatma Gandhi’s talks and prayer meetings, and eventually struck up a friendship with him.
“It was also through the influence of Mahatma Gandhi that I learnt that the real people you should be building for, and who are in need, are the ‘ordinary’ people — those living in villages and in the congested areas of our cities,” Baker would later sayof their friendship.
“One of the things he said has influenced my thinking — that the ideal house in the ideal village will be built using material that is found within a five-mile radius of the house.”
This idea would form the core of Baker's architecture in the years to come.
Baker had expressed his desire to settle down and work here, but the then prevailing hostility to the British in India left him unsure. Again, it was Gandhi who supported him, assuring him that although British rule had to end, India would always have a place for concerned individuals.