A pillar of modern Indian architecture

B.V. Doshi kept the local context in mind at a time when contemporary ideas from the west are blinding us from delving deep into the identities, potentials and realities of designing for India

February 03, 2023 11:18 am | Updated 12:38 pm IST

A view of the Aranya low-cost housing project in Indore designed by B.V. Doshi.

A view of the Aranya low-cost housing project in Indore designed by B.V. Doshi.

Much has been written about B.V. Doshi during the last week after his demise - the most celebrated architect from India, recipient of all major national civilian honors, beside all national and international awards for architecture. Of course, awards can follow each other and fame can be an ever-burning fire if fuelled regularly, beyond which lies the greatness of a person. So, this essay does not follow the fame, but follows the person. 

Architect B.V. Doshi

Architect B.V. Doshi

There have been few other architects in India who also created great architecture around the same time as Doshi (1927 – 2023) – Achyut Kanvinde (1916 – 2002), Laurie Baker (1917 – 2007) and Charles Correa (1930 – 2015) – just to name a few others. Architecture cannot be compared like automobile prices to check which is better, but has to be showered with equal praises on an absolute understanding of their project philosophies, designs depths and experiential implications. Spread across different genres of building types, the above were the four founding pillars of modern Indian architecture, ably supported by many others unnamed here.   

B.V. Doshi  at IIMB in Bengaluru.

B.V. Doshi at IIMB in Bengaluru.

However, Doshi rose to the pinnacle of fame, possibly due to his popularity as an easily approachable person, his involvement in a wide range of inclinations like architecture, education, institutions, events, documentations, town planning, jurying, writing, lecturing and networking with experts from around the world.  Each of the above vocations informed the other, often forming each other such that he had no horizon to stop at. Even the advancing age could not put him to rest, living an active life even after entering the 90s. Given this phenomenon call Doshi, this essay is intended not to recount the Doshi architecture, but recollect Doshi the architect.

IIMB architect B.V. Doshi.

IIMB architect B.V. Doshi.

There were about five of us walking down the corridors of Indian Institute of Architecture, Bangalore. Carrying a small, toy-like aim and shoot digital camera, the child-like Doshi was busy shooting pictures, with a curiosity not expected from its own architect. Unable to resist, we ask why shoot, that too with such low image qualities. Calmly, Doshi explains how he finds new meanings in the campus every time he visits, walking down as if it’s his first visit. Recording these meanings are important, hence the photographs, which can create new memories while watching them later. 

An underground art gallery in Ahmedabad, designed by Balkrishna Doshi.

An underground art gallery in Ahmedabad, designed by Balkrishna Doshi.

It was a small group, just a handful dialoguing with Doshi. The question of a new addition to a campus, debatably not in sync with the old, came up. Small pause, then Doshi asked us, could the architect have designed the extension that way without the internet. The answer was obvious, how contemporary ideas from the west are blinding us from delving deep into the identities, potentials and realities of designing for India, which Doshi did. 

Back in 2011, the auditorium is packed with audience, forcing the organszers to close the door. Just as Doshi arrives, he opens the doors saying let people sit on available floor, if it’s fine by them. What follows was an experience by itself – Doshi the story teller, Doshi on architecture and Doshi reading excerpts from the book ‘Paths Uncharted’, kind of an intellectual biography by Doshi himself. 

Organised by the former students of CEPT Ahmedabad (the famous school of architecture Doshi found), Doshi was relaxing in a dinner mood with an invited and known group of architects – well, few not so close to him also managed to get invited. With not enough time to give to friends, he could have ignored them, but the hyperenergetic Doshi manages to chat with them, knowing them and surprisingly remembering them the next time. His group of known people was never diminishing but was expanding with age. 

Doshi, the 2009 bio-pic film made by Bijoy Ramachandran, judged among the better of such bio-pics was to be screened in Bengaluru. Expectedly, the theatre is crowded with no place even to stand in the lobby after the show. The hero of the film moves with the crowd oblivious of his aura of a master architect, smiling and interacting with the ease of an innocent, as if post film his life will re-start anew. Doshi always carried those twinkling curious eyes, inspiring the self and the others. 

Doshi was not a self-effacing architect, the kind who do not claim attention for oneself, living modest and retiring. As someone enjoying connecting to people, he continued to touch everyone who came into his contacts, mainly to clients, students, architects and writers, which could be among the reasons why he never faded from public memory.  

However, the core of his performance, popularity and achievements may lie in his now famous philosophy stated in Hindi “Anand Karo” (Enjoy Life). Enjoying life to the hilt, he wished the same to all. Now it is time we all wish the same to Doshi – Sir, enjoy your afterlife.  

(The author is an architect working on eco-friendly designs and can be contacted at varanashi@gmail.com)

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