B.V. Doshi and the building of the Indian nation
On Wednesday, Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi, 90, became the first Indian to win architecture’s highest accolade, the Pritzker Prize. This means the global spotlight will, inevitably, turn towards emerging Indian architecture. The prize for Doshi is exciting news not just because Doshi is Indian, but because he also stands for the building of the Indian nation.
One can relate to Doshi’s architecture across generations, and across geographies.
There is no need to be part of an inner club of elitism or jargon to comprehend the grace of his moral values or the sheer joy inherent in his best-known works—Sangath, his studio office in Ahmedabad, and the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore (IIM-B).
He was born in Pune in 1927 and studied architecture in Mumbai before joining the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier in Paris for an apprenticeship in 1951. He returned to India in 1954 to oversee Corbusier’s plans to build a new city for modern India: Chandigarh. Doshi acknowledged his debt to Corbusier in a statement, “I owe this prestigious prize to my guru, Le Corbusier. His teachings led me to question identity and compelled me to discover new regionally adopted contemporary expression for a sustainable holistic habitat.”
In the 1960s, he worked with another towering figure of modernism, American architect Louis Kahn on the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A). This would later inform his own approach to designing IIM-B, one of his most iconic buildings.
In an era where grandiose imagery is often the winner, in an ever increasing spate of architecture awards sponsored by construction material manufacturers, the fraternity and its students look to awards like the Pritzker to set the bar for what architecture should aspire to.
While the likes of Norman Foster, Renzo Piano and Frank Gehry have been past awardees, last year a relatively unknown Spanish firm won this award for smaller projects that gave a clear message about the value of thought and detail over gimmickry and scale.
This year, the spotlight swings towards India and the 70 years spent exploring an architecture that speaks of integrating the built environment with the fundamentals of nature, climate and humanity.
Doshi’s practice led to an inherently sustainable architecture as opposed to the superimposed pastiche of sustainability on today’s glass blocks. Commenting on the glass and steel jungle of Gurugram, Doshi said in a conversation with Delhi-based architect Gautam Bhatia in 2014: “Such architecture is pure imitation, pure mechanical, pure commercial; it’s quickly produced and sold to people who are dumb, deaf and almost dead.”
The Pritzker jury described his architecture as “serious, never flashy or a follower of trends”. Over a 70-year career, Doshi has built private houses, banks, theatres, schools and low-income housing projects.
In 1962, he founded and designed the premier School of Architecture in Ahmedabad (now part of Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology or Cept University). Doshi’s architecture was also a force for social change. His 1989 low-cost housing project, Aranya, in Indore housed over 80,000 low-to-middle-income families and was made in a way that could accommodate gradual additions and changes made by the inhabitants.
Doshi, the man, always approachable and eager to share wisdom and conversations, has been an educator since he started Cept.
Few will grudge him this outstanding recognition for his contribution to India, the world and architecture.
In the wake of this prize, there will hopefully be a revisiting of everything that Doshi stands for–the “first principles” approach which in the hands of a true thinker and designer can bring about poetry without the need for structural twists and material overload.
Today, the bane of Indian architecture is the lack of patronage. Public projects currently go to the lowest bidder (or sometimes to those that offer their services for free) and corporates and lay people tend to choose images over experiential architecture. Doshi’s work validates the experience of architecture.
His housing projects unequivocally speak of people’s participation and his institutional works of democracy and sustainability.
This is the language of a nation emerging out of 200 years of colonial rule, recreating its habitat by straddling history and its aspirations for modernity.
For the sake of the urban landscape of this country, one hopes that the signals of this prize are strong and clear.
Shimul Javeri Kadri is a Mumbai-based architect and the founder of the firm SJK Architects.
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