The architecture and philosophy of Pritzker Laureate (2018) Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi (1927-2023), over the last 70 years, reflect complex challenges of the Indian subcontinent and respond to universal humanistic values.
Doshi was recognised as a visionary educationist, institution builder, urbanist, artist, and humane architect, with a vast oeuvre of diverse projects, ranging from dwellings, affordable housing, and educational institutions to cities and regional plans.
The CEPT-School of Architecture, Ahmedabad, which he founded with his colleagues, has been recognised internationally for its spirit of inquiry and as a centre of excellence.
Rooted in his own culture and context, Doshi worked closely with two masters—Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn—on seminal projects in the Indian subcontinent. His intuitive search was one of constant questioning, guided by the spirit of community and sustainability.
Doshi believed that buildings were living beings and not inert, static objects. Architecture, to Doshi, was a celebration of life. Over the last 70 years, his practice, that of a quintessential Renaissance architect, evolved intuitively, alongside the growth of a young nation’s tryst with democracy, experiencing the promise and complexities of Indian history.
Conversations and learnings
Our conversations with Doshi would paradoxically lead to a search for new pedagogies, responding to a wide gamut of concerns on ecology, affordable housing, cities, communities, and educational and cultural institutions.
“It is important to understand vernacular architecture, towns, villages, mysteries and mythologies, imaginative childhood stories of our land,” Doshi would say.
Students and faculty at School of Architecture-Ahmedabad recall the fervour of the campus in the 1980s, during our formative days.
Doshi believed paradoxes and challenges were a source of learning and would invite us to divergent perspectives, in dialogue with Charles Correa, Achyut Kanvinde, Mallika Sarabhai, Arundhati Roy, Raj Rewal, Leela Samson, Gautam Bhatia, Herman Hertzberger, Mario Botta, Dashrath Patel, Frei Otto, and others.
The Kanoria Centre of Arts designed by Doshi had art residency programmes with the youthful imaginations of Sudarshan Shetty, Manisha Parekh, Chandana Hore, Shubha Kaushik, Indrapramit Roy, Ravindra Reddy, Ajit Rao, and Walter D. Souza.
Doshi would invite scientists, writers, and artists, including Neelima and Ghulam Sheik, Amit Ambalal, Bhupen Khakker, Gieve Patel, Atul Dodiya, and Vivan Sundaram, for debate and praxis.
The Architecture Design-Studios were laboratories of experimentation and imagination, with Inderjit Chatterjee, Neema Kudva, Anuradha Mathur, Sagar Shetty, Arun Swaminathan, Vivek Nanda, Salil Ranadive, Gurjit Singh, Chitra Vishwanath, and many more, constantly questioning the status quo, intuitively building the critical foundations of the school’s culture, anticipating the National Education Policy.
Faculty conveyed a conviction, with rigorous practice, and CEPT evolved into a precinct for intense, creative design and research.
A consequent archival dialogue on the diverse faculty who profoundly contributed to the growth of CEPT could only do justice to the complexity of Doshi’s collaborations like Bernard Kohn, Christopher Benninger, Vakil, Alagh, Hasmukh Patel, Anant Raje, and many more.
Doshi would often narrate the visionary patronage of Kasturbhai Lalbhai, Vikram Sarabhai, Giraben, and several Gandhian families and the learnings from Rabindranath Tagore in late-evening conversations in his home with Charles Correa and Anant Raje, that we were privileged to participate in, by chance circumstances.
On returning from Paris in the 1990s, after an apprenticeship with Bernard Kohn, my intent to research Doshi’s experiences of the French city, Louis Kahn, and Le Corbusier in the 1950s, excavated several unrecorded histories.
“In 1951, I set sail to London,” Doshi revealed. “I met Sampers in London, who introduced me to Le Corbusier, in Paris. I did not know French, so Le Corbusier would speak to me with hand gestures and draw large sections, with charcoal, that would float over the paper.”
Corbusier had been invited to India to design Chandigarh and projects in Ahmedabad, and Doshi returned to supervise the construction, setting up his design and research studio in Ahmedabad.
Years at Sangath
The years at Sangath, his studio in Ahmedabad, in the early 1990s provided us insights into a larger ecosystem of architecture in India, on the threshold of globalisation. It was a time without mobile phones or the Internet. All drawings at Sangath were meticulously handcrafted on gateway sheets with rotring pens.
The magical craftsman Purshottambhai conjured up wooden models, a process that Doshi was immersed in and enjoyed. Working on a Classical Music School for Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, townships, the CEPT campus, an extension for IIM, and the Kharghar node of Navi Mumbai, revealed the complex design processes, from the scale of petite residence to planning ecological cities.
Mahendra Raj, V.D. Joshi, and Rabindra Vasavada would visit us, with insights and imaginations on structure that fascinated Doshi.
It revealed a paradoxical synergy of ostensibly irreconcilable opposites: of random chance and typologies, modernity, and traditions, of rural and classical, of balance and disorder, of discipline and freedom, of contradictions and harmony, that embodied Doshi’s architecture and philosophy, in his search for a “heterogenous-homogeneity”, in constant dialogue with Kurula Varkey, who was the Director at School of Architecture.
Over the last few years, Doshi travelled to these projects with us, stepping back to critically re-evaluate them. It was a rigorous yet spontaneous architecture that valued the unstated, more than the obvious-stated, an architecture that valued the intangibility of free space and light, instead of the trappings of forms. He would recall the many inspiring walks with Steven Holl, Charles Jencks, Joseph Rykwert, and Frank Gehry, visiting stepwells, and Corbusier and Kahn’s projects.
“Architecture should express diversity. There are infinite ways to create. Celebration means that you create your own reality. Architecture is a living energy, and an extension of the body, that constantly evolves, taking deeper roots,” Doshi would say.
We revisited drawings, materials, and details, along with Neelkanth Chhaya and Sanjeev Joshi. At times Doshi would redesign the project in his small black sketchbook, which Rid and Laura Burman archived.
Young aspiring architects from around the world, like Sandro Rolla, who remain good friends, would apprentice at Sangath, bringing in a rich cultural exchange and often grappling to understand this complexity and contradictions that Doshi termed the Indian spirit.
Collaborations with Louis Kahn in the design of IIMA had inspired Doshi to investigate the design of institutions. Imbued with an intuitive spirit of constant questioning, through an enlightened collaboration with engineers and architects, Doshi envisioned the incredible designs of IIM Bangalore, the CEPT campus, and NIFT Delhi, and the urban plans of Kharghar-Navi Mumbai and Vidhyadhar Nagar-Jaipur and several townships, resonating with land, culture, and climate.
Doshi was exuberant with the immersive retrospective of his oeuvre, curated by Khushnu Hoof that was designed like a theatre. It records Doshi’s search. The exhibition conveys ideas on light and sound, about elements and experiences that constitute a building, about memories and myths, and about sculpture and painting.
“The miniature models of Aranya Housing in Indore, that won the Aga Khan award, reveal Doshi’s deep insights into housing needs and Indian cities, inspired by his childhood experiences in the wadas of Pune, Ahmedabad pols, and Jaipur,” said the architect Rajiv Kathpalia.
Doshi was the recipient of the Padma Shri, the Padma Bhushan, and the Padma Vibhushan (posthumously), rewards for his work that resonated with the spirit of the land, culture, and climate, and for his contributions to nation-building.
He was the first Indian architect to be awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2018, the Royal Gold Medal (2022) from the Royal Institute of British Architects, and France’s highest civilian honour, the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The 2018 Pritzker Prize Jury Citation states: “Balkrishna Doshi has created an architecture that is serious, with a deep sense of responsibility to its people.”
Remembering a mentor
To those who knew Doshi, he was an affectionate mentor, a seeker, a visionary, a friend, and a devoted family man. “Kamuben [his wife] and my family are my pillars of strength of my architecture. This journey is unplanned and from chance happenings. When we visit Ellora, Mahabalipuram, Thanjavur, Madurai, Sikri, and Sarkhej and the towns of Jaipur and Jaisalmer, we realise a larger reality,” he would philosophically say, alluding to the immeasurable patterns of destiny and nature. To those who knew him closely, it would not be an exaggeration to say he retained a youthful, restless curiosity to make sense of the rapidly changing world around him, a biological clock that ticked for almost a hundred years, pragmatically conscious of imperfections.
Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa conveyed his tributes to Doshi’s good intentions and endless understanding saying he was an exceptional human being. Steven Holl recalled Doshi as a poetic ascetic. The recent books by VITRA and one by Dayanita Singh, Prem and Bijoy Ramachandran’s film, and Aniket Bhagwat’s conversations provide deeper insights into the phenomenon that Doshi was.
In the past two years, Doshi generously participated in a few online dialogues with Kengo Kuma, Alvaro Siza, and Martha Thorne, sharing his experiences with students.
“B.V. Doshi retained a youthful, restless curiosity to make sense of the rapidly changing world around him.”
Writings and tributes of this nature can never aspire to capture the extensive histories and interpretations of an institution that Doshi embodied or do justice to the many dedicated architects and academics who significantly contributed to this journey, which Doshi termed a pilgrimage.
These are moments of reflective pause to manifest the many realities that coexist and the many experiences/memories that reside in the air of Ahmedabad, with all their complexities and contradictions.
In one of our last few conversations, Doshi said: “When we observe, nature is glorious. We realise life is not static and constantly reflects a process of sarjan and visarjan [immeasurable cosmic cycles of birth and rebirth]. In this flux, we rediscover sustenance and nurturing in family and collaborations. They make us more aware of the subtle nuances between measurable and immeasurable. I realise that life is intangible.”
Prof. Durganand Balsavar founded the artes.ROOTS Collaborative, a design and research forum, which is involved in ecologies, communities, and histories.