“Every project should be designed for God.When you think of God as client, your approach to design changes.”
— B.V. Doshi
More than an architect, Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi has been a
teacher who has not only transformed the way architecture should be taught but
also described a way of living. The Pritzker laureate has a close attachment to
the people of India and each of his works is a story about his inspiration from
Indian culture and lifestyle and its translation into design. His style was
influenced by Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier, the maestros he worked with. His
approach to design is a marriage of modernism with the local culture to create
experiential spaces. But what triggered it all?
Doshi was born in a joint family in Pune. His mother died shortly after his birth and his father kept himself busy with furniture business. In his autobiography, Paths Uncharted, he talked about how memories of his mother came out through scribbling whatever came to his mind. The scribbles became a record of his life from early days in Pune to his days in Ahmedabad now. Between these two realms was Doshi’s architectural career taking shape.
Doshi calls his journey into architecture “A series of seemingly disparate coincidences”.
“Now when I think about them, I sense an undercurrent, a binding thread that joins them together. Were these coincidences just a series of happenstances? I do not think so.”
oshi studied at JJ School of Architecture, Mumbai. He was invited by one of his seniors to stay in London. After speaking with his family at Pune, he left for London with little money, where he spent time at Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) library studying piles of books learning about contemporary architecture.
At an exhibition in London, he met one of the employees working at Le Corbusier’s office. They spoke about the Chandigarh project, the first city created from scratch in independent India. It encouraged Doshi to write a letter to Corbusier who accepted his offer and Doshi at once went to Paris. He worked with Corbusier on various projects like Chandigarh, the Millowners Association building in Ahmedabad and Villa Shodhan. He received a Fellowship from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in Arts upon his meeting with Dr Sigfried Giedion (a prominent architecture critic) at Corbusier’s office. Corbusier himself wrote a letter to the chairman recommending Doshi for the Fellowship.
It was quite tasking for the architect to survive in Paris. One obvious problem being the new language which made him feel alien to the environment. Other than this, Corbusier did not pay the architect for the first six months.
“Being a strict vegetarian and having limited funds, I avoided joining them for lunch and took to eating olives, cheese and bread,” he says in his book.
It just so happened that Doshi belonged to the the generation that came of age after Independence, the generation which had the responsibility to construct a new nation. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had a strong vision for independent India.
While planning for Chandigarh, he said, “Let this be a new town, symbolic of freedom of India unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expressions of the nation’s faith in the future”. This resulted in an invitation for Corbusier to design Chandigarh. The city became a model for planners for the next two decades.
Corbusier took the daring concept of making a futuristic city with wide streets and open spaces. He created a wide open plaza at the capitol complex with the Himalayas in the background. The plaza is often criticised because of its scale which was inappropriate for the climate. However, the distance has its strong symbolic value and was his notion of space in the 20th century. Since it was a departure from Indian concept of mohallas and community, it had been under constant criticism because of lack of “Indian-ness”.
Talking about it in 1986, Doshi said, “I think the capitol complex affords a unique architectural experience. There is this tremendous juxtaposition of the Assembly and the High Court, saying that justice is independent of politicians. So we have an independent justice, an independent legislature and between them lies the Governor’s Palace. Thus a triangle is set up to symbolise people’s participatory governance. And then we have the Open Hand which says, let us open ourselves to the world—let us give and let us take. The whole conception is fantastic. It’s an example of how to create buildings which respond in terms of space and confront one another allegorically.”
Doshi was the only Indian architect at the Atelier (Le Corbusier’s office) who worked worked on Chandigarh. He worked on the High Court where he detailed some sections. He also worked on the Governor’s building which was never built. Corbusier indeed had much influence on the architect. In his book he mentions how Corbusier helped him to get idea of scale and grandness. One could easily see influence of maestro’s philosophy on Doshi buildings. Institute of Indology at Ahmedabad was one of the first projects of Doshi which can be considered highly influenced by Corbusier’s design principles.
fter independence there was a search for an identity. It became a task for Indian architects to create architecture that would define independent India. There was an inclination to adopt the context of modernity and be part of technological change. But there was also a chance for architects to reflect on the traditional architecture of the country. Gandhi’s vision for India was far from Nehru’s. “The future of India lies in its villages”.
He believed India would perish if its villages perished. There was a need to create self-sufficient villages to revive India. Hence, it was a task for the architect to find the right balance between “traditional” and “modern”. Doshi’s architecture was a harmony between industrial modern architecture and rural Indian tradition. Doshi found it in Sangath.
“I think my office building, Sangath, is truly representative of Le Corbusier. He would have been happy with it. This quality of light, for instance, would not have been possible without him. These are skylights, reflected skylights. He knew how to create a soft light that makes people’s faces glow, not a hard light that results in harsh lines. Treatment of light, as you know, was one of his great strengths,” he said in his autobiography.
The departure from modern architecture’s vocabulary could be seen in the architect’s own office in Ahmedabad. Sangath is an attempt to derive the architecture of a building through a study of local climate and culture. The building is sunk in the ground to combat the heat of Ahmedabad. Traditional materials and local artisans for construction with modern forms make an architectural statement. Sangath was inspired from traditional Indian elements like temples and headgear (turban).
The vaulted roof creates higher spatial volumes which allow hot air pockets to stay at higher levels keeping lower areas relatively cool. The vaults are covered with china mosaic, again a waste material, which acts as perfect insulation. Apart from this, the vaults, rising from the ground, provid natural light to interior spaces. The idea of the complex was also to create an experience that would allow one to pause, look around and connect with nature.
“In many ways, Sangath marks my emergence as an architect independent of immediate influences,” Doshi believes.
What he created through his buildings was an expression of critical regionalism. Rather than adopting modern architecture completely, he tried to critically look at the elements by assessing them according to geographical setting. Not only did he look at local climate and topography, he also looked at the cultural setting of the architecture he created. Covered walkways, patios, courtyards, sunken spaces connected close with nature, as in the case of IIM, Bangalore, the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), Ahmedabad, and the Madhya Pradesh Electricity Board, Jabalpur are key features of his design. They are never flashy, and they are centred on human experience.
Doshi was involved in urging his clients like Kasturbhai Lalbhai to set up institutions in Ahmedabad. He invited Louis Kahn in 1962 to design the IIM Ahmedabad campus. Doshi was then designing the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad. He worked closely with Kahn and Anant Raje while they were designing the IIM campus. The structural concepts and expressions influenced the architect. He says:
“So, how do you do a class room? A studio? So, there are many sketches of Corbusier’s about the studio—you want to get north light and south breeze. So, climate is there already. You have a structure but when you make an angle, how do you make an angle? And I was thinking of Kahn, so, I was then influenced by Kahn on the structural clarity but the articulation is Corbusier’s. It’s a marriage between them. That staircase is Corbusier, the gargoyle is Corbusier, the concrete and brick is Corbusier, but the attitude is Kahn’s. You know, it’s very interesting. I have no compunction—I used to draw like Corbusier, sign like him. When I was with Kahn, in his office trying to draw like Kahn. Why not? You are enacting, no? You do this, you know, so I do that. So, you have to know how to fuse this..”
t might be a surprise to learn that it was Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, who encouraged Doshi to take up teaching. While he was in Chicago, Bucky, as he was known, asked if he would be interested in teaching at Washington University. Upon responding by saying that he had never taught before, Bucky replied, “It does not matter, there is always a first time.”
Nature flows and creates a conversation with the built space to create spaces one has never experienced before. Architecture is not just about the built. It is about the open spaces, about the relationship between the two and the drama that they create to mould the user experience.
The architecture for the CEPT is an example of this. It is also an example of how the building’s design has transformed the experience of the public walking in. Not only that, it has influenced the teaching of architecture as well. Education is not limited to four walls, it happens beyond these walls, on the mounds, under the trees, over a cup of ‘chai’.
Doshi set up the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad in 1962. Before it was completed classes were held at HL Commerce College and LD Arts college. The school comprised two classrooms which became the studios, one office and one library. It is interesting to note that the school was transferred to the badminton hall in 1964. This is where the new concept of teaching architecture came into being. The concept of having overlooking studios to facilitate interaction.
CEPT redefined the way architecture was taught in the country. The student-faculty relationship went through a major transformation. Bernard Kohn, on the faculty then, used to ask his students to call him by his name. This was a big thing as these students came from a traditional background of unquestioning deference to elders, especially teachers.
Doshi knew every student by name. Every time a new batch came in, they were invited to his house, where he would address them and they would get to see his beautiful house. Even during Holi, everyone used to go to his house to celebrate the festival. Doshi’s idea was to create a family where everyone knew each other. The idea of school was redefined in the sense that the school no longer felt like school. It felt like another home.
Kahn, who was designing the IIM Ahmedabad campus then, regularly gave lectures because of his friendship with Doshi. Other notable personalities were Moshe Safdie, Charles and Ray Eames, Shigeru Ban and Mario Botta, to name a few. Buckminster Fuller visited the campus in 1980s to conduct lectures on “Geodesic as a Theory”.
he M.F. Husain-Doshi Gufa is an early example of the collaboration between the artist and the architect. The building is within the CEPT campus and a unique gallery of Husain’s work. The structure is partially sunk into the ground and is made of ferro-cement shells which create an organic form in the space. The interior is an organic raw form merging with the ground, with punctures on the ceiling to bring light into the space and create an enigmatic effect. The artist painted the roof, ceiling and walls, which adds to the ambience. The building is the result of an experiment both by Husain and Doshi. You could call it harmony in tandem.
But it does not stop there. The CEPT campus saw new art centres like the Hutheesing Visual Art Centre and the Kanoria Art Centre which created an interactive space for different disciplines. This has been the underlying philosophy of CEPT: education without doors.
The architect was actively involved in mass housing as well, especially housing for the poor. His projects emphasise sanitation, affordability, community feeling and growth.
Aranya, a low cost housing project by the Indore Development Authority, was one of the greatest challenges for the architect. He had to provide 8,000 dwellings for varied income categories. The net area of the site was 85 hectares, of which 58 per cent was residential, and 6-7 per cent commercial. The rest of the area was open spaces and roads.
The plots varied from 35.32 sq m for economically weaker sections to 613.94 sq m for high income groups. The provision of social amenities at both dwelling unit level and community level was a major highlight of the project. Rather than providing the ready-to-move units for all, as is usually done now, Doshi gave the community an opportunity to adapt and improve dwelling units.
He set out his priorities clearly. “Strengthening the socio-economic interdependence of the occupants, offering choices for self-employment and a setting for dignified life were some of my visions for Aranya.”
The master plan for the project comprised six sectors with a central spine that was commercial and institutional. Each sector comprises EWS units as the central component surrounded by higher income group units. Plots were sold to varied income groups while for EWS a plinth along with service core was provided. The clusters opened to streets and open spaces which connected to the central spine. The street has corner spaces formed from alternating green, pedestrian pathway and roads. In addition to this each dwelling has outdoor platforms opening to streets, service spaces, community spaces and cul-de-sacs were spaces where spaces of social interaction.
“Today after more than 25 years, it is hard to find the modest beginnings in this project comprising just a plinth with kitchen and toilet provided then. These houses have grown to fulfil the occupants’ needs, are well furnished and lovely decorated. They are not houses but homes where a happy community lives. That is what finally matters”
The architect designed 80 dwelling units which demonstrated varied possibilities and provided room for flexibility within those units. Integrating community and emphasising growth and affordability have been central ideas of community housing in Doshi’s design. The project won the Aga Khan award for its approach to integrate varied income groups to create a community.
Doshi designed the LIC housing complex at Ahmedabad. The houses were to be occupied by policyholders who won through a lottery system. The houses were to be occupied for generations by the same family. Hence, providing flexibility to some parts because of changing needs became essential. The architect designed the housing by stacking different dwelling sizes in decreasing order on top of one another. This provided for terraces for the upper floor units and gave room for extension, if needed. The idea of making the dwelling units flexible made this project a success.
The Vastu Shilpa Foundation, a Doshi brainchild carries out research on societal issues and helps in forming policies to improve social, economic and environmental conditions. The outcomes are applied to projects in the field of sustainability, low cost housing and other issues.
Raj Rewal, one of Doshi’s contemporaries, once described their approach to design. “Our generation has been trying to discover the common thread in which the fabric of Indian Architecture has been woven in the past; and its significance for our times.”
Doshi and his contemporaries, Charles Correa, Achyut Kanvinde and Rewal, to name a few have created an architectural vocabulary that celebrates Indian culture. Correa designed the Sabarmati Ashram in 1962, a blend of modern elements with the humble vocabulary of scale that evoked a vernacular approach. There was a constant effort by these architects to strike a balance between the modern and the traditional.
The 90-year-old Doshi has dedicated his life to redefining architecture in the Indian context by refining his understanding of local culture, traditions and history. His influence is scattered across more than a hundred buildings, including institutions, housing, residences. The designs are rooted to create a strong connection with public. Something that they can relate to, something that they feel that it’s their own.
It is of a piece with his philosophy. “I decided that one must experience joys and celebration of life in architecture. It must affect our inner self.”