In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

At 90, architect and urban planner BV Doshi is the first Indian to win architecture's highest prize. He speaks about the curiosity and regard of human relationships that powered his seven-decade long career.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: March 18, 2018 12:01:56 am
BV Doshi BV Doshi at his residence in Ahmedabad. (Express photo by Javed Raja)

Most of us who have visited a temple know that there’s never a straight way to reach the shrine. One has to navigate concentric enclosures and move between paths of light and darkness to reach the sanctum sanctorum. Wandering inside some of the buildings designed by architect Balkrishna Doshi evokes a similar feeling. In Sangath, his studio in Ahmedabad, one meanders through thickets of greenery and reflective waterbodies before reaching the entrance. Once inside, the sunken tunnels open up with light streaming through every room, even as the loft areas provide space for contemplation. This composition is unique to how Doshi designs, where the landscape melts into the built form and there is never a resolution but the staggered vision of the possibilities of spaces that blend into each other.

At 90, he is the first Indian to win the illustrious Pritzker Architecture Prize, the highest award in the discipline. Ever since news of the award broke, he has been besieged with phone calls and requests for media interviews. When we meet in Ahmedabad, at his residence, Doshi does not display any fatigue even though he has a long day stretching ahead of him. “As a child, there was always the thought that I should help the poor and the have-nots. Architecture has always been for those who can afford it, but what about those who can’t? Growing up in an extended family, I was taught compassion, sharing, and the virtue of togetherness. I did whatever little I could do. The award recognises my work in low-cost housing, and for that I’m most grateful,” says Doshi.

Doshi grew up in Pune in his ancestral home which also housed a sprawling extended family. He spent his after-school hours at his father’s carpentry workshop, collecting wood shavings and making shapes and designs from them. Seeing his interest in design, he was enrolled in a painting class after high school, where he would draw village landscapes, homes, temples, animals and people. Later, his art teacher prompted him to join the JJ School of Architecture in Bombay. Midway through the course, in 1950, on the coaxing of a friend and senior Hari Kanhere, Doshi moved to London, where he would become an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Here, a fortuitous meeting with an architect from Le Corbusier’s office took him to Paris, where the Swiss-French architect was drawing up plans for Chandigarh. For the next four years, from 1951 to 1955, Doshi would learn all he knew about life and architecture from Corbusier and his team.

A house for everyone: The CEPT University, Ahmedabad. (Express photo by Javed Raja)

With just a little money and a bagful of determination, Doshi arrived in Paris, in a country where he neither knew the language nor could eat its meat-rich cuisine. A vegetarian from a conservative Hindu family, Doshi had to live on bread, cheese and olives for many months, until they began paying him. He was then the only Indian in the Paris office, at a time when the atelier was at its creative best, with Ronchamp chapel and the monastery of La Tourette being designed. From Corbusier he would learn the mastery of scale and proportion, choreograph movement in spaces, and find ways to get the interiors to shake hands with the landscape.

This co-mingling is seen best in his own home in Ahmedabad. When we meet, he is seated outside in the lawns. There are langurs hovering and the call of the peafowl is closer than one expects. During the brief walk-through of the house, one sees how he manipulates the view with every step. “We never stop to think how our body reacts to the subtle movements of space and light, but if we did, we would be surprised by it,” he says. Doshi points to the view straight ahead of us, which carries a depth that changes as one moves further into the house. The living room opens up to the lawn on the right, drawing you towards its lush greenery, while on your left, light streams in through the windows on to the dining area and from the staircase above. “I began building this house in 1960. You’ll see all kinds of experiments, of ventilation, temperature control, light and shadow. There isn’t much of glass here, it’s mostly wood. It’s like a thermos,” says Doshi.

He had just returned from the US from his teaching job as part of the Graham Foundation Fellowship to the University of Chicago in 1958. After his stay in Paris, he had moved to Ahmedabad to supervise Corbusier’s projects — Mill Owners’ Association building and Shodhan Villa residence. Doshi also briefly worked with Achyut Kanvinde in Delhi. “I had seen a plan in Corbusier’s book which had one column. It was a cube, with a double-height drawing room. It could have been anyone’s house. I asked myself what I really wanted. I dreamt of a small house and a garden for my daughters to play in. One day, I’d been to a brick kiln. I saw a woman walk down the stairs. It was a dusty place but the tin roof was punctured with holes and there was light streaming in, and there was something magical about the whole picture. I returned to draw the staircase first, then came the landing, the garden, the verandah. One of the most important things that an architect needs to ask is what kind of wonders do you want to live with? How do you want to feel inside and out? What relation does a room have with a house? What images do you want to see during the day?” says Doshi, with twinkling eyes.

At home in the world: Sangath, Doshi’s studio in Ahmedabad, has been at the heart of his creative pursuits. (Express photo by Javed Raja)

In the newly-independent country, Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of “temples” of modern India would be its factories, dams and power plants. But where would one house the migrants who would arrive from its nearly 5,60,000 villages? Across the country, the newly-formed government would encourage scientists, academics, architects and intellectuals to take forward its socialistic vision. An international exhibition on low-cost housing in 1954, organised by the Central Public Works Department, saw entries from across the world. Doshi, too, had participated as part of Corbusier’s Atelier. “We had all returned from our respective studies abroad — Achyut Kanvinde, Charles Correa, Doshi, Raj Rewal — and each one of us took on projects as a challenge. We wanted to create something which wasn’t done before, create a vocabulary of our own, in our own land,” says Mahendra Raj, one of India’s finest structural engineers, who worked on numerous projects with Doshi.

Doshi asserts that every single project was a reason to question accepted norms, to show that there could be a different approach to architecture. “Why should an office be like an office?” he asks, “At the School of Architecture (now known as CEPT University), I gave classrooms at different levels so that one could peep from above at the class below. I believe in education without doors,” he says. While he has signed nearly 100 buildings, Doshi’s contribution to Indian architecture lies in his low-cost housing projects across the country, and as an institution builder of the CEPT University.

Doshi’s architecture is set apart by his stress on the power of suggestion. At the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIM-B), for which he drew inspiration from Madurai’s Meenakshi Temple and villages in Jaisalmer, covered and open pathways intermingle, creating spaces where learning can happen outside classrooms, under a lush cover of trees.

In the mid-’50s, he joined Joseph Allen Stein and Jai Rattan Bhalla to set up SDB Consultants. Together, they partnered on several prestigious projects in the country, including the Indian Habitat Centre, Srinagar Conference and Convention Centre, and Gulmarg Masterplan. Later, in 1976, he would revive his own practice, Vastu-Shilpa, which he had to close in 1957 when he joined SDB, this time as Vastu-Shilpa Foundation for Studies and Research in Environmental Design, an organisation that pioneered research on housing in India.

LIC Housing building that left room for improvisation, all in Ahmedabad. (Express photo by Javed Raja)

By 1956, Doshi had already done his first low-cost housing for ATIRA (Ahmedabad Textile Industry Research Association) staff, where he used vaults and lined up houses like a train coach, similar to a typology he was familiar with in Corbusier’s office. He oriented the houses in the north-south direction to reduce the afternoon sun and provided verandahs in the front and back of the house. Each unit would have a living area and a bedroom kitchen. The toilets were outside the units. The unconventional plan of the units won him compliments for maximising space on a minimal budget. William Curtis in Balkrishna Doshi: An Architecture for India (Grantha Corporation; 1988) writes: “It was a formative exercise in applying architectural skill to the design of a basic domestic and communal space for the underprivileged which would inform a continuous commitment to design and research in the field of housing throughout his career.”

In the ’60s, Ahmedabad was home to industrialists such as Kasturbhai Lalbhai and the Sarabhais, who took initiatives in setting up institutions and research centres to carry forward the Nehruvian vision. Even as ideas for the School of Architecture were taking form, Doshi was already the associate architect for American architect Louis Kahn on the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A) project, with architect Anant Raje. It was the time that Doshi, freshly-minted from Paris, would be initiated into contemporary visual arts through the work of MF Husain, KG Subramanyan, Piraji Sagara and Jeram Patel; learn rhythm and tonality from dancers such as Mrinalini Sarabhai and Kumudini Lakhia; music from Kumar Gandharv, Sharafat Hussain, and Bhimsen Joshi; and Gujarati theatre from Jaishankar Bhojak and Dina Pathak.

In 1962, with academician and engineer RN Vakil and American-French architect Bernard Kohn, Doshi began designing the school, with Lalbhai as the chief patron. Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava in India (Reaktion Books), write: “Lalbhai’s desire to wed modernist practises with the wealth of the past, enabled Doshi to embark confidently on what would become a career-long quest for cultural centredness as a modernist.” “At the school, Doshi believed that people from all fields should enrich the learning experience. We had experts from art, social sciences, psychology, literature and political science. But what was most important to all of us who studied and then taught there was his openness to discuss and our freedom to question,” says Neelkanth Chhaya, who retired in 2013 as dean, faculty of architecture, CEPT, after nearly two decades of teaching.

Windmills of his mind: Tagore Hall. (Express photo by Javed Raja)

He recalls his time as a student. “Doshi was away on a trip and when he returned, we had put up a poster on a huge wall which read: ‘Do you know the school is going to the dogs?’ So he called us for a talk. The discussion which began in the morning at school, continued at his home till late in the night. In the end, we all became friends. It was a different way of running an institution. More than the system, Doshi valued relationships and the intensity of exchanges,” says Chhaya.

“You see, the Indian mind wants to converse, and, eventually, that leads to unexpected relationships and build varieties of scales of communities, with transactions that become the fabric of Indian settlement. For me, stories are very important. Just because one is an adult, should one never be a child again?” says Doshi. His compelling need to tell stories finds a way into some of his buildings as well. His first public projects — LD Institute of Indology — that was inaugurated by Nehru in 1963, is designed as a steamer. The building has water bodies and channels to evoke a ship ready to set sail.

Of course, Doshi isn’t without his critics who fault him for his storytelling ways that left innovation behind — his over-hyped Amdavad-ni-Gufa, which offers an uni-dimensional experience — is often held up as one such example. However, for many of his students, he was the man who taught them to “fly without fear”. “What I learnt from him is the ability to keep an open mind. Even today, there are areas I disagree with him. And I often tell him that the strength to differ with you, comes from you,” says architect Nimish Patel, co-founder Abhikram, well-known for The Oberoi Udaivilas, among other projects.

But then, Doshi never had much faith in formal structures and institutions. His belief in equitability, incremental growth and democratic design can be seen in his housing project for the LIC township in 1977. It took him three years to convince his clients to agree to his design. “They couldn’t understand why I would give a person with 1,000 sq ft the ground floor and the one with 400 sq ft the topmost floor with an open terrace. Today, when I see that each owner has modified it, I’m happy,” says the architect, who won the Padma Shri in 1976.

In the Aranya Community Housing in Indore in 1982, which won Doshi the Aga Khan Award in 1995, he adopted a sites-and-services approach. Harvard professor H Caminos had developed Urbanization Primer, a handbook on housing the urban poor, whose principles Doshi applied to the structure. “What was unusual about Doshi’s Indore project was that instead of it being only an infrastructure project, it became an architectural one, with a social connect in the layout of streets, open spaces and grouping of land parcels. The Caminos approach of grids and straight lines were tweaked to soften the edges. It’s this idea of housing that made architects sit up and take notice. The government, too, began looking at housing not as a product, but as a process. That held until the real estate industry walked over it,” says Chhaya.

In Premjit Ramachandran’s film on Doshi, British architect Graham Morrison refers to Doshi’s work as “architecture without adjectives”. “Doshi was a person who was involved in institution building but the idea that a professional should go beyond his work to be engaged with problems of society was vital to him,” says Bimal Patel, president-director, CEPT University, “The School of Architecture building at CEPT opens up the thinking of a student by challenging the notion of what a building is. Are those doors or windows? What kind of classrooms are these? It’s the spatial joy of being in such a building that makes you learn from it.”

Doshi says it is his verve for life that makes him honour the immeasurables — every morning he wakes up the household with music; he is still as curious about newcomers at work as he is around his grandson; he still relishes his panki, dhoklas and sukhdis. His youngest daughter Maneesha, an artist, says, “When he travelled abroad, he would write to my mother every day. In the letters he would also send drawings of things he saw — buildings, people, cityscape, which I would translate on paper or canvas here,” she says.

As we step out to lunch, at one of Ahmedabad’s vegetarian restaurants, Doshi coaxes his wife, Kamu, to come along. When she declines, he promises to bring back her favourite dhokla. “What is the purpose of living if you can’t enjoy life? You have the ability to change your own canvas. If you look at my work, you can write my story. You will see a person who is always going round and round, and is unsure of himself. I am always exploring. None of my plans are repeated. There is always a twist and turn, like a jharoka, a relief in the room. When you have seen everything else in the building, that’s when you want to look through the jharoka to see what else is there,” he says.

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