When B. V. Doshi’s father was getting him admitted to school, all his father said to the teacher admitting him was that he would like to be known as Doshi’s father rather than the other way around. Although, a revered architect in India and internationally for decades, today with the whole world applauding and celebrating Doshi, his father’s dream seems to have come true.
On March 7, Balkrishna Doshi was announced as The Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate for 2018. He is the first Indian to receive the award, regarded as the highest in the field of Architecture, commonly dubbed as the Nobel Prize for architecture. Having famously worked with Le Corbusier, B. V. Doshi has often referred to him as his ‘Guru’ and has attributed his success to his Guru on numerous occasions. A few years ago, in conversation with architect Christopher Benninger, when asked about the fortuitous turn of events in his life, he candidly recounts his journey from Pune to Paris.
The 90-year-old Pritzker laureate, was born in Pune, on August 26, 1927, into a family of furniture makers. While studying at the Fergusson College in Pune, a professor suggested that Doshi pursue architecture, something he was unaware of. He started studying architecture at the prestigious J. J. School of Architecture, Mumbai, in 1947. In 1951, on an impetuous decision, he went to London with the hopes of joining the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). While in London, he attended the CIAM 8 conference in Hoddesdon. Thereafter, a series of serendipitous events landed him a job in Paris, with Le Corbusier, who at the time was working on Chandigarh. On this unanticipated turn of events he remarks, “… you are impulsive, you take decisions because there is something that calls you.”
As a child, Doshi often visited his grandfather’s workshop and wandered around looking at the wooden shavings and pieces, indulging in the sounds and smells in the workshop. Doshi even in his later life, would go back to his grandfather for advice, encouragement and perspectives on life. He regards his life journey a consequence of being unprejudiced and open to guiding forces “…. but the question that I have is that, is there any force which works in your life which directs you if you are open (to it), like the drop, which goes to the ocean…?”
In retrospect, the legend’s journey might seem smooth sailing but he faced numerous difficulties in his early life. During his days as a student, the change in climate from Pune to Mumbai took a toll on his health and he frequented visits to his home. For reasons unknown to him, he continued his education despite multiple suggestions to leave and come back home. All through his voyage to London, he was bedridden. When he arrived in Paris, he had very little money and although he was offered a job by Le Corbusier, initially it was an unpaid job. He ate frugally and this further affected his health. During the four years that he worked with Le Corbusier, they grew fond of each other.
Corbusier taught Doshi about architecture, planning, scale, human interactions with built form, etc. and Doshi taught him about India, her people and her culture. After being unwell for a year, Doshi expressed his desire to go back to India and was given the job to overlook Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh and later Ahmedabad. In 1956, he established his own practice, Vastushilpa (now Vastushilpa Consultants) which has completed over a hundred projects since its inception. In 1962, Doshi also collaborated with Louis Kahn to build IIM, Ahmedabad.
Although Doshi’s work is undoubtedly influenced by Le Corbusier’s modernist principles, what sets the Indo-modernist architect’s work apart is his deep understanding of the Indian culture and Indian psyche. His work, including the associated artwork, encapsulates the essence of Indian life and celebrates its nuances and peculiarities. His designs are informed by the way people interact with architecture in their day-to-day life. Transitions and intermediate spaces are as important to him as buildings. “Nature became one of the important ingredients in my work” he states explaining his architectural philosophy. The way the climate affects a building- how wind, light and shade interact with the form, characterise his designs.
His work is characterised by a seamless continuity between the contrasts of built-unbuilt, formal-informal spaces, the transition so organic that it fades away into the surroundings. In a world where architecture screams and begs for attention and has been reduced down to just a matter of aesthetics with a sole aim of distinguishing itself from the rest, where a gasp of shock is considered a compliment, Doshi’s work, by contrast, is experiential. In the Pritzker Architecture Prize 2018 announcement video, his words, “We are a gregarious society. So, we like to mix, we like to live together, we like to move around and also, we are a bit chaotic. So, as a result, whatever we do has to be adaptable to a changing situation”, summarise his philosophy and approach towards Indian architecture. His design doesn’t force interactions and movement on you but rather accommodates and makes way for life to unravel and thrive naturally. Doshi’s architecture serves as a background for the daily chaos in life- quiet, calm, indulgent, only whispering. It is not a pop song you love at first and forget about, or even dislike, days later. It is music that demands attention, and once experienced in its entirety touches your soul, evokes emotions and memories that linger with you for life.
Doshi’s design for housing and townships reflect his understanding of how cities function. It embraces the mundane, chaotic routine of Indian lives. The Aranya Low-cost Housing, recipient of The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, was the culmination of decade long research into informal housing. It is a testament to the Architect’s expertise at understanding the context of his projects. The Pritzker jury agrees- “Doshi is acutely aware of the context in which his buildings are located. His solutions take into account the social, environmental and economic dimensions, and therefore his architecture is totally engaged with sustainability”. The wide spectrum of his work consists of not only housing but civic buildings, institutions, cultural centres, redevelopment and private residences as well. Among his notable works are IIM, Bangalore (1977-92), Institute of Indology (1962), CEPT campus (1996-2012), Sangath Architect’s Studio (1980), Amdavad ni Gufa (1994), Aranya Low-cost Housing (1989), ATIRA Low-cost Housing (1958), Vidyanagar Masterplan (1984), LIC Housing (1978), Premabhai Hall (1976), Tagore Memorial Theatre (1967) and many more.
Doshi is as much an academician as an architect and this is evident in his studio Sangath. “Sangath is an ongoing school where one learns, unlearns and relearns. It has become a sanctuary of culture, art and sustainability where research, institutional facilities and maximum sustainability are emphasised” he says. The studio engages itself in research through the ‘Vastushilpa Foundation for Studies and Research in Environmental Design, founded in 1978. He also founded the School of Architecture in 1962 followed by school of planning and few others (now collectively CEPT University).
“I hope my work is received in the spirit in which I have offered it” manifest the laureate’s humility and optimism. Balkrishna Doshi has left a lasting imprint on Indian architecture and breathed new life into the fading traditional principles and practices. He has inspired generations of architects and his work will continue to inspire many more.