Balkrishna V Doshi never fails to talk about the meaning of quietness. Why are we always in a hurry, the architect often asks. One sees those thoughts in concrete action at Sangath, his studio in Ahmedabad. A visitor is teased with an initial image of the vaulted office on the ground, stencilled with pebbles, and in the distance an outline of a vault emerges. You will need to walk past the eucalyptus trees, the water bodies, the grassy amphitheatre before you reach the entrance of the studio. “It questions the unexpected,” says Doshi in his autobiography Paths Uncharted, “Why don’t we take time to watch the trees, the plants, the birds and nature around us?”
Pune-born Doshi has designed over 100 buildings across the country in his nearly seven-decade career as architect, teacher and urban planner. His childhood spent in his father’s carpentry workshop would give him the tools to tinker and shape spaces that not only kept context at the fore but also engaged with their social and economic dimensions. He acknowledges the influences of modern masters such as Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and American architect Louis Kahn in his life, but Doshi stayed true to his roots in his designs, staying climate and community sensitive.
“Doshi’s buildings are to be experienced and cannot be completely absorbed in photographs. He deliberately routes people through pathways until they finally meet the building. He creates what one can call an architectural promenade. For instance in CEPT University, the landscape is more important than the building where you climb up and down the undulating terrain, and your ground is always shifting,” says Bengaluru-based architect Bijoy Ramachandran of HundredHands.
It’s his belief in relationships, constant attempt at wanting to challenge norms, and stay curious that make Doshi’s work worthy of the prestigious Pritzker Prize. The architect had crossed 50 when he designed Sangath. The School of Architecture (CEPT University), with its indoor-outdoor spaces and play of light and shadow, the brutalist core of the Tagore Memorial Theatre, and the ATIRA low-cost housing was behind him. It was in Sangath that he tried to wear his own hat, devoid of the obvious influence of Corbusier, whom he calls his guru.
Doshi creates multiple points of view in his projects, which turn them into composite worlds. At the Indian Institute of Management Bengaluru (IIM-B;1977) he consciously placed inter-mixing spaces across the campus so that learning could happen everywhere. Drawing from examples of Jaisalmer where traditional neighbourhoods were common, IIM-B harks back to Doshi’s idea for CEPT — of education without doors. “When we started the school in the early ’60s, we were competing with the world’s best. We had students analyse buildings and study form, but we also discussed and read other disciplines. Today there are over 600 colleges of architecture and they are seldom taught to look at context,” says Doshi, 90.
One of his favourite housing projects was the LIC Township in Ahmedabad (1977), where he insisted that mixed income groups would live together. He stacked the houses in reverse order — the two-bed unit on the ground floor, one-bed unit on the first floor and one room-kitchen on the top. Each was given a terrace or lawn, and the houses were accessible through a common external staircase. This gave every house an opportunity to expand if they so wished and also leverage the open space in front of their homes. “We did a survey of residents there and found the rotation of people to be minimal, which means families have been living there for generations. Today if you visit the place, there are hardly any traces of Doshi’s design and yet it’s the most successful model for housing design, because it was people-centric,” says Ramachandran.