BV Doshi’s utilitarian craft is a boon in a time of urban chaos

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The Pritzker Prize for Architecture 2018 went to a man whose work and oeuvre emphasises the interconnectedness of architecture, economics, civics, and nature.

BV Doshi’s utilitarian approach to architecture is ideal for the future of the fast-populating India. | AP

As I scrolled through my Facebook news feed last Wednesday, I saw a continuum of posts and accolades about the announcement that Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi had won the Pritzker Prize for Architecture 2018, most of the posts suffused with a personal sense of elation and pride — much like the news of AR Rahman winning the Oscar, Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement, or Sridevi’s influential film career. The difference being, this was within my filter bubble of architect-friends. Not many outside the architecture community are aware of either Doshi or the Pritzker Prize.

For many Indian architects, even watching the movie 3 Idiots meant spotting Doshi’s designs for IIM-B in the background, and his unusual cameo in Mani Ratnam’s OK Kanmani was more amusing to discuss than the plot of the movie. The gap between architecture and popular culture is not a new fact, but with the complex urban challenges that India is facing today, Doshi’s recognition through this award is another reminder that we need a wider understanding of the interconnectedness of architecture, the city and society.

 

 

As the founder-director of CEPT University Ahmedabad, with a career spanning a 70 years in architectural practice and academics, BV Doshi’s is one of the first names you learn as an architecture student in India, as somebody not so far removed from you, and one of whose buildings the city in which you live very possibly contains. The ‘Pritzker’ on the other hand always held a mythic quality, an elusive Nobel Prize of architecture that never reached India, which was won by people whose names we saw on book jackets and quiz questions. After being initiated in 1979 by Jay Pritzker in the United States — the first award went to the American modernist architect, Philip Johnson, who famously designed the ‘Glass House’ — it has been awarded to the biggest names in the field of architecture often known for their iconic buildings and experimenting with building forms and materials. Renzo Piano’s The Shard in London, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Rem Koolhas’ CCTV headquarters in Beijing are soaring buildings likely to be found on the must-see lists on city brochures with a recommendation to gaze at and photograph them.

In recent years, the Pritzker Prize has tended to recognise architects engaging with broader social issues such as public and social housing, low-cost architecture, disaster rehabilitation. Recent awardees who won under such a consideration include Alejandro Aravena from Chile for ‘Siamese Towers’ (2016 Pritzker) and Japan’s Shigeru Ban for the Centre Pompidou-Metz (2014).

Doshi’s award-winning design showcases a vision of how architecture integrates the modern society — you may experience this walking amidst the trees and stone buildings of IIM Bangalore, through its wide corridors and intimate nooks and begin to appreciate what a building in an Indian context can mean, what an atmosphere of learning could feel like, how a building cannot be imagined without the natural environment around it.

 

 

Doshi’s architecture represents important lessons for students and professionals: on the craft of making optimal use of the existing site and landscape, of using materials, of climatic controls being inherently ‘sustainable’ without the need of artificial tags, of trying to strike that careful balance between the past and the present rather than imitating a global vision of modernity. At the larger level of the city and society, the ethos of an architect like Doshi, who began his career in India in the ’50s, was closely linked to the changes and challenges in the constructed environment of a newly independent India. With the establishment of the Centre for Planning and Environmental Technology (CEPT) in 1962, and through his Vastu-Shilpa Foundation for Studies and Research in Environmental Design, Doshi intended to question and reinterpret larger ideas about what a city or home could be like, how the teaching and practice of architecture needs to respond to the society and climate where it is situated.

The idea of modernist architecture in India in the post-independence years was aimed at broader goals than spaces and materials, which reflected the realisation that the power of an architect to influence society cannot be seen in isolation — independent of economic and political systems. Doshi and other modernist architects of the period like Charles Correa, Achyut Kanvinde, Raj Rewal were eager to engage with the challenges faced by society in their period. The advent of modern architecture charted a break from the burden of colonial imagery dominating Indian cities, had the “third world” make a mark on the “developed world”, and worked with challenges of housing shortage, economy, urban migration and increasing population.

Architectural historians discuss that modern architecture’s functional utility, free of fuss and ornamentation, lowered costs and allowed more people to be accommodated, a key reason it had appeal in India — socialist ideas of affordability and equity were certainly part of the dialogue. Housing was thus naturally a key area of focus, and one of Doshi’s most well-known projects is the Aranya Housing in Indore, built in the 1980s with the idea of ‘incremental housing’, where the basic site plan and structure allowed upgrades based on the family’s economic improvement, and the overall target group of the project was not homogenous, with houses of varying budgets placed together. The project was designed with courtyards, open spaces and natural climatic controls to provide a breathable living space conducive to Indore’s hot climate.

 

 

Given the many factors that go into building a housing community — besides architecture — critics are often cynical on how far social goals can be met by physical design. However, in an era of skyrocketing property prices, where open spaces are the privilege of the very rich, contemporary builders and architects should study the housing projects of Doshi, where design, financial model and affordability were all blended into the aim of proving housing and shelter for the most number of persons.

Indian architects of the period were also preoccupied with ‘identity’, which remains a relevant topic in the era of homogenising cities, where a mall and multiplex in Surat is designed the same way it would be in Seattle or Dubai. The interpretation of ‘modern’ remains a key question for architects influenced by the likes of Doshi and Charles Correa. And Doshi himself was influenced by one of the foremost modernist architects of the world whom he worked with, the French architect Le Corbusier, famously known in India for designing the city of Chandigarh — an experiment that has seen much debate over its suitability for India.

 

Nehru’s ideas for a new India were a strong influence for this new architectural identity built by ‘brand new’ cities that were free from the past, like Chandigarh, but later underwent a transition to look inwards and understand Indian domestic life, to draw influences from local culture and suit the spirit of the place. Strong design controls and uniformity in the streetscape, which were highly valued in many non-Indian contexts, were not so attractive in India where regional influences are important. In one of his essays, titled Le Corbusier and Louis I. Kahn: The Acrobat and the Yogi of Architecture, Doshi writes, “I have gradually discovered that the buildings that I have designed seem somewhat foreign and out of milieu; they do not appear to have their roots in the [Indian] soil. With the experience of my work over the years and my own observation, I am trying to understand a little about my people, their traditions, and social customs, and their philosophy of life…”

It is thrilling to imagine the self-reflections and experiments the 90-year-old Doshi must have worked through over all the years as India’s milieu transitioned from the relative idyll of the ’50s into the chaos of today’s Indian city.

The new battles and challenges today are many — rapid urban transformation, each square-foot being directly calibrated with real-estate profit; gated housing that seeks to close itself off from the city swamped with problems of traffic, pollution, infrastructure and safety. The Pritzker Prize coming to an Indian architect is then an important juncture to begin the reevaluation of architecture with a broader vision, and understand how to address balance the ecosystem of buildings, society, nature and the city.

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