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Architects should be doers, not creators: Balkrishna Doshi on winning UK honour

On Thursday, Doshi, 94, won the Royal Gold Medal 2022 in recognition of his lifetime work of over seven decades as a thinker, architect and academic who has been able to “undo, redo and evolve”.

Written by Shiny Varghese | New Delhi |
Updated: December 11, 2021 8:26:44 am
Architect B V Doshi at his residence in Ahmedabad. (Express Photo by Nirmal Harindran)

“You have to accept that architecture can be malleable.” That’s a sobering thought from Balkrishna Doshi, the most defining architect of post-independent India, at a time when cities are being renamed and reimagined.

On Thursday, Doshi, 94, won the Royal Gold Medal 2022 in recognition of his lifetime work of over seven decades as a thinker, architect and academic who has been able to “undo, redo and evolve”. The award, instituted by the UK’s Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), is among the highest honours in the world for architecture.

Doshi, who has more than 100 projects under his belt, has worked as an associate with Le Corbusier on his designs for Chandigarh and with Louis Kahn on the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Among his other iconic projects include the Shreyas Comprehensive School Campus in Ahmedabad; the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore; and Amdavad ni Gufa, a cave-like art gallery that exhibits the work of artist M F Husain.

But one of Doshi’s favourite projects remains the one he did for Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) in the early 1970s. It was meant as a low-rise, high-density unit, which Doshi knew would house generations of families. But he was sure of one thing – there would be no economic hierarchy marking the houses, so he grouped them as a pyramid with cascading terraces. Today, as one walks down the leafy streets, there is barely any resemblance to the original design. The houses have been transformed and an explosion of colour collides on the streets. Yet, Doshi is very pleased. That’s what he meant when he spoke about the “malleable” nature of architecture.

“The whole sense of being an instrument of change has to do with allowing things to take shape as nature does. You may not know it at that time, but when it bears fruit, you will be surprised,” Doshi tells The Indian Express.

Doshi has in past interviews spoken about his growing-up years in a sprawling joint-family house in Pune, and the hours spent at his father’s carpentry workshop, where he would collect wood shavings and make shapes and designs out of those. His interest in design saw him joining a painting class, where he would draw village landscapes, homes, temples, animals and people, a rootedness that later found its way into his work.

Doshi would go on to join JJ School of Architecture in Bombay, but midway through the course, in 1950, he moved to London to work as an associate of RIBA.

BV Doshi, who has more than 100 projects under his belt, has worked as an associate with Le Corbusier on his designs for Chandigarh and with Louis Kahn on the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. (Express Photo by Nirmal Harindran)

It was here that he had a chance meeting with an architect from Le Corbusier’s office who took him to Paris, where the Swiss-French architect was drawing up plans for Chandigarh. From then on, Corbusier would be his mentor and Doshi his eager student, learning all that he had to about life and architecture.

In his acceptance speech of the RIBA award, Doshi said, “The news of this award brought back memories of my time working with Le Corbusier in 1953 when he had just received the news of getting the Royal Gold Medal. I vividly recollect his excitement to receive this honour from Her Majesty. He said to me metaphorically, ‘I wonder how big and heavy this medal will be.’ Today, six decades later, I feel truly overwhelmed to be bestowed with the same award as my guru, Le Corbusier…”

What defines Doshi’s work is the ability to seamlessly blend the inside and outside – something that’s visible in Doshi’s house in Ahmedabad and his studio ‘Sangath’. It also shows up in his numerous projects, including CEPT University (then called the School of Architecture), of which he was founder-dean and campus architect.

So can architecture change the world? Doshi believes it can.

He points to his Aranya Community Housing project in Indore, which won Doshi the Aga Khan Award in 1995, as a case in point. He not only included infrastructural needs while designing the project but also laid out the streets and connected open areas — an idea very different from how low-cost housing had been designed until then.

“Look at how a gardener works, he puts seeds and manure, and over time, the tree bears fruit. So actually, architects should be gardeners. One has to remain a doer, not a creator,” he says.

Winner of the Padma Shri (1976) and the illustrious Pritzker Architecture Prize (2018), Doshi joins Charles Correa (1984), among numerous international architects, engineers and writers, in receiving the Royal Gold Medal.

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