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Can good architecture inspire you to live, work and dream better? It is a question I never thought too much about until I had the privilege to engage with the spaces built by the renowned architect Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi, who passed away in Ahmedabad on 24 January at the age of 95. Doshi’s spaces, like his life, were filled with simplicity, rootedness and a spirit of adventure.

Doshi was not a tall man and neither were his buildings, but their earthiness leapt far above the glitzy skyscrapers that dot the contemporary urban landscape. They inspired you to pause and catch sunrays and shadows, look at the mysterious creeper on the wall and breathe in the earth after the rains. His emphasis on combining the best of the local and the global and the deep inspiration he took from architectural wonders of Indian history dot his works spanning several decades.

Take, for instance, the campus of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB), built in the 1970s-80s, and arguably his greatest creation.

Generations of people associated with that campus have benefited from the inspirational architecture that weaves in sunlight, stone and plants amid long open corridors. An inspirational blend of Fatehpur Sikri’s courtyards and Bangalore’s gardens thrill the onlooker.

Light filters in from above, haltingly, creating a wonderful shadow play that catches you unaware at different times of the day. Spaces of interaction open up on staircases, in corridors, at junctions and even in-between floors. Some would say, albeit somewhat controversially within the IIM world, that Doshi even outdid his guru, Louis Kahn, who designed the stunning red-brick IIM campus in Ahmedabad.

To understand Doshi, one must go back to his roots. Born on 26 August 1927 in Pune, he had three siblings and his mother passed away when he was only ten months old. He considered himself half-Gujarati and half-Marathi, and grew up in a family which strongly emphasized values of generosity, social work and compassion. His father had a furniture workshop, which he may have joined had it not been for his art teacher in his Marathi-medium school who liked his drawings and egged him on to go study architecture in Bombay. In 1947, along with India, Doshi too found independence, in the city’s famous Sir J.J. School of Art, where he found his true calling. A new cosmopolitan world awaited him and a college friendship blossomed into a boat journey to London in the early 1950s to pursue further studies in architecture.

A chance encounter at a conference led him to work as a trainee for Le Corbusier in Paris, then for a while to Corbusier’s Chandigarh project, and later to Ahmedabad to supervise a Corbusier building in a city he would be associated with for the rest of his life.

In Ahmedabad, the scientist Vikram Sarabhai and industrialist Kasturbhai Lalbhai were early patrons of Doshi’s work. Teaching assignments in the United States followed, and it is there that he met Louis Kahn, who he successfully convinced to design the IIMA buildings in the 1960s, a passion project of Sarabhai and Lalbhai. Le Corbusier’s work in Ahmedabad inspired Kahn to design IIMA (Doshi described Kahn as the ‘Ekalavya’ to Le Corbusier). Much later, Doshi would describe the IIMA campus as “one of the most important, significant buildings in the history of architecture, anywhere." It would inspire him to work on the IIM Bangalore project.

Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn would thus become the two external inspirations of Doshi’s work, but the Indian architect’s individuality always shone through in the close attention he always paid to Indian history and context.

Doshi’s wide array of works include the much-acclaimed Aranya low-cost housing project in Indore and the Centre for Environment and Planning Technology (CEPT) in Ahmedabad, an institution he helped found back in the 1960s.

His own office, Sangath in Ahmedabad, is a destination point for budding architects and his residential house is called Kamala, named after his wife.

A collaboration with the artist M.F. Husain led to the ‘Husain-Doshi ni gufa’ or the ‘Amdavad ni gufa’ in 1994, now a much-visited underground cave in the Gujarati city. Doshi received a big accolade very late in his life when he became the first Indian to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2018 for his “numerous contributions as an architect, urban planner, teacher, for his steadfast example of integrity and his tireless contributions to India and beyond."

It can be said with no exaggeration that generations of architects in time to come will probably want to visit the B.V. Doshi archives, CEPT archives, IIMA archives and NID archives, all located in Ahmedabad, to learn more about this legendary architect and of course, visit his creations.

My own tryst with B.V. Doshi was in the spaces he created and always delightful. I did have an opportunity to interview him for the IIMA Archives oral history project in 2019 and convey this to him. And that his spaces had been the key inspiration to write my first book, on migration (India Moving: A History of Migration, 2018, Penguin Viking, 304 pages), which was unknowingly written in his architectural footprints over the course of a decade. And that many more had benefited by living, working and dreaming better in his creations.

Chinmay Tumbe is a faculty member of IIM-Ahmedabad and helped set up the IIMA Archives.

 

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