A file photo of Balkrishna Doshi. (AP)
A file photo of Balkrishna Doshi. (AP)

Opinion | Will India get second time lucky with ‘architecture’s Nobel’?

Balkrishna Doshi, at 91, became the first Indian to win in the prize’s 40-year history last year

Yesterday I was a judge of the Pritzker Prize and we made the choice… it was extremely interesting, the number of Indian architects and Southern American architects …" Richard Rogers, the British-Italian architect and 2007 Pritzker Laureate, dropped a bomb in an interview leading up to the Pritzker Architecture Prize last year. It led to speculation about the pool of Indian architects he was referring to, which by all considerations, was a wading pool.

Scheduled to be announced on 5 March this year, the annual Pritzker Prize is architecture’s highest honour, awarded to a living architect. Established by the Pritzker family of Chicago synonymous with the global chain of Hyatt Hotels, it is modelled on the lines of the Nobel—“laureates" receive a $100,000 grant, a citation and a bronze medallion. Taking off from Rogers, the website Archinect.com weighed in that as far as architects from India go, Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai would be a natural choice as his work “bridges the gap between contemporary modernism and vernacular construction".

Rogers did not disappoint. The prize did go to an Indian architect—the venerable Balkrishna Doshi, who at 91, became the first Indian to win in the prize’s 40-year history. Doshi’s vast repertoire of social housing was in keeping with the set of values that the Pritzker has begun to signal in recent editions: that architecture bears a responsibility to the global 99%.

The 2014 winner, the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, is known for his work with recycled cardboard tubes used to efficiently house disaster victims. Likewise, the 2016 winner, the 48-year-old Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, is far removed from the “starchitects" who monopolized the prize over the years. Like Doshi’s regional and culturally specific portfolio, almost all of Aravena’s projects are in his native Chile. Like Doshi, he is best known for his social-housing projects.

Indeed, the prize has taken a turn and thrown up many surprises in recent years. The largely unknown Catalonian architects Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta won in 2017, marking the first instance in which three architects were recognized, and only the second time—since Rafael Moneo in 1996—that Spanish architects were awarded. For the last few years, the 44-year-old Danish architect Bjarke Ingels has been considered a leading contender. Despite being relatively young, Ingels has rapidly built a portfolio that includes his Amager Resource Center, a waste-to-energy plant featuring a ski slope as a roof, and the affordable housing complexes in Copenhagen that first put him on the radar. His projects exhibit a dedication to environmental and social responsibility.

What are India’s chances? It is a question to consider within a larger subset of inquiries: Will the Pritzker Prize continue to move away from starchitects who prioritize aesthetics? Will it continue to value work that addresses pressing social issues such as urban density and low-income housing? Will a premium be placed on sustainability?

Doshi’s Pritzker citation highlights his awareness of the context in which his buildings are located and makes specific call-outs to his Aranya Low-Cost Housing in Indore (1989) and the Co-Operative Middle Income Housing in Ahmedabad (1982).

Being the “poor man’s architect" worked in his favour. However, there are fewer opportunities for Indian architects practising today to conceive and build projects such as those in Doshi’s portfolio. While the present cohort might talk sustainability and socialism in theory, and exhibit their ideas in international biennales, the commissions coming their way are largely elitist. For who can afford serene water pools and open roofs without paying significantly for housekeeping and security? Even when pressed, very few names come up as potential contenders within the Indian industry apart from Jain. Many, however, dream of a posthumous honour for Charles Correa. All things considered, an Indian might win, but it is likely to be in a cycle of four to five years.

The prize’s move away from self-conscious extravagance to a social mindedness—Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid are past winners—certainly fits with the current zeitgeist. It is not too dissimilar from the multiple nominations that Black Panther and its message of Afrofuturism received at the Oscars this year. But how does that serve architecture as a whole?

The bronze medallion awarded to the Pritzker laureates is inscribed with the Roman architect Vitruvius’ fundamental principles of architecture: firmitas, utilitas, venustas; an architecture of strength, functionality and beauty. In response to an emailed questionnaire, Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, tells me that the prize goals have remained stable since the beginning, which are to recognize the art of architecture and service to humanity as witnessed through built work. The independent jury decides how to interpret these goals or what messages they wish to give each year, she says, but she does agree that recent and current juries are looking carefully at the meaning of service to humanity.

One hopes the prize can uphold all three virtues with its choice and not become purely moralistic. After all, Vitruvius didn’t proclaim utilitas, utilitas, utilitas.

Anindita Ghose is the editor of Lounge, Mint’s weekend edition.

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