An architecture for India: Balkrishna Doshi

In 1955, a young Indian was often pictured in group photos taken in Le Corbusier’s studio in Paris. Hovering behind Le Corbusier or at a drawing table discussion, it was hard to predict that half a century later, this young man would be as influential and dominant as the French master himself, if not on the world stage, at least in India. Balkrishna Doshi, along with Mumbai’s Charles Correa and Delhi’s Raj Rewal, has without a doubt been a remarkable force in Indian architecture since Independence.

In a career that has spanned almost seven decades, the slight man in the Paris studio used his international associations, working later with Louis Kahn at the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad, to cement a career in architecture after he returned to India in the 1950s. Obviously Mr. Doshi’s link to Le Corbusier was in itself sufficient to establish his place in Indian architectural history, but the artist in him emerged in diverse ways to give unusual direction to buildings being constructed by Doshi the architect.

In the six decades since then, Mr. Doshi has played the role of practitioner and educator, artist and teacher, producing buildings that were as much architectural as social and cultural — projects aligned to prevailing movements, as well as highly personal. “I learned from Le Corbusier to observe and react to climate, to tradition, to function, to structure, to economy and to the landscape,” he admits.


Understanding of context

Obviously, few architects can single-handedly effect any significant change in society. Thus to say that Mr. Doshi, recipient of this year’s Pritzker architecture prize, has changed or radically altered the course of Indian architecture would be inaccurate. But in his collective of works, in various projects, built and un-built, there are clues to help define the kinds of settings we would like to live in, to make an architecture for India. In buildings that derive a great deal from traditional living patterns, his interest in designing and constructing is not merely to fulfil the requirements of a house or an office, a factory or school, but through material, assembly and planning, light and texture, to draw the user into a thoughtful collusion with space.

His earliest work was done in a brutal and frank exposure of stark geometry and cement surfaces; Ahmedabad’s Tagore Memorial Hall and the Institute of Indology suggest something of the Corbusian modernism of his career. A palpable shift came later after his association with Kahn. The Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) campus at Ahmedabad was founded on the principle of collaborative learning, and has grown and evolved over 40 years. The simple brick and concrete construction with its exposed structure and pivot doors opens completely and connects to the surrounding landscape. In his architecture, Mr. Doshi has consciously crafted elements that establish links to local methods of design and detail. Historical references are used not simply to recall a cultural memory, but to suggest a deeper understanding of context. Even today, the string of brick structures on campus continues to spread low profiles around courtyards and shadowy neem trees.

Architecturally, these profiles are represented in a consistent reinterpretation of traditional spaces: courtyards, verandahs and loggias, where the link between ground and sky, breeze and shadow, all become elements to explore the poetic resolve of the architecture. There is of course nothing new about courtyards and loggias, light wells and space open to the sky.

Throughout history such elements have been used to organise space, from medieval complexes at Fatehpur Sikri and Mandu, to the humbler designs of a house. But their transformation to contemporary usage becomes an expression of Mr. Doshi’s artistry. And a persistent refrain in his work that never bends to stylistic trends and fashions.

“Over the last two decades I have found many buildings seem foreign to me and out of milieu; they don’t have their roots in the soil.” Mr. Doshi speaks often of architecture that neglects its natural associations. In the last few decades he has retreated into the quieter reclusion of private art, rethinking architectural ideas, writing and reassessing architecture’s engagement with culture. In 1995, he even collaborated with artist M.F. Husain on an unusual project. Part architecture, part art, the Gufa is an underground hive of domes and cavities that sprawls along one edge of the CEPT campus. The conspicuous fusion of painting into building that is itself more sculpture than architecture reflects in large part Mr. Doshi’s own ease with all forms of art, dance, theatre, and mural painting, all of which originate from the same private impulse to express.

Catalyctic agents

“Most of us,” wrote Mr. Doshi in his private sketch book, “irrespective of personal beliefs, are moved when visiting a temple. And I have been trying to understand this ‘moving’ experience in architectural terms with the objective that in contemporary design practices it could be applied to create built-forms of lasting value. To my understanding such forms have the following attributes: the pauses, transitional spaces and thresholds act as catalytic agents for the built-form and the individual or the community to enter into a dialogue at their level of comprehension. And this dialogue gives direction to the community at large. Buildings which generate such holistic experience finally become the institutions of man.”

Gautam Bhatia is an architect and sculptor

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 5:04:41 AM |

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