Learning from Balkrishna Doshi

For the 2018 Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Balkrishna Doshi, architecture is “never about resolving a problem; it is about discovery in the joy of making.” Doshi worked with Le Corbusier in Paris from 1951-54 and later supervised Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad, in the newly independent, postcolonial India. He was part of Chandigarh’s episodic tryst with modernity, and a major player in the reformist culture of Ahmedabad, which has been the cradle of Indian architectural modernism since independence in 1947. With a career spanning more than 60 years and with many awards and honours, including an honorary Doctorate from McGill University, Doshi has established himself as a stalwart of architecture and the Pritzker Prize comes much deserved. Though a personality of international renown, he remains a man of great humility and warmth, traits that touched me, as I found out when I had the experience of working with him directly.

As a Canadian Indian, I wanted to investigate Doshi’s work when I began my PhD in architecture at the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University. His architecture intrigued me due to its simplicity and aesthetics, which are hard to define, but more so due to the experience it delivers, which is hard to forget. In 2015, I had the opportunity to research his formative years at Le Corbusier’s Paris office when I received the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s Doctoral Research Award, a three-month summer residency in the CCA in Montreal. During my residency, I researched the archival prints, model and related letters from Le Corbusier’s unbuilt Villa Chimanbhai in Ahmedabad (1951-54), designed for the mayor of the city. The drawings were done by Doshi himself, when he was Le Corbusier’s young associate.

Young Balkrishna Doshi with his most important mentor, Le Corbusier
Young Balkrishna Doshi with his most important mentor, Le Corbusier

After completing my research at the CCA, I travelled to Ahmedabad, India, as a recipient of Canada’s Mitacs Globalink Research Award. Here, I would do a residency at Doshi’s own studio office, known as Sangath. From September to December, 2015, I looked into his works, research and publications—specifically the 1983 Aranya Housing project in Indore, which Doshi developed for the economically weaker sections after studying slums extensively.

Balkrishna Doshi, Pritzker
Barrel-vault ensemble at Sangath, Ahmedab

On my first day at his office in Ahmedabad, I arrived early and beheld an architect’s headquarters that was unlike any I had seen before. Looking for the entrance, I turned left onto a narrow path on which I could see ceramic tiles with motifs of animals, people, leaves and trees. I walked down to an amphitheatre and garden, where soft music was playing, birds chirping, lotuses blooming in water pools. The shade provided a cool respite from the severe summer heat. Before me I saw the iconic ensemble of four barrel vaults covered with broken ceramic pieces, which seemed to celebrate the studio’s immersion in the ground as physical protection against that oppressive heat. The barrel vaults had glass and grill on their vertical faces and looking down through those I could see the underground studio spaces. Soon, employees came in and moved to the very back of the site, where they descended a few steps into a sunken small courtyard surmounted by a higher barrel vault into a covert entry. I went into the library, where I met Doshi himself. After introducing myself and explaining the purpose of my visit, I asked him if we could schedule some time to interview him for my research. To my surprise, he offered to start right away. Thus began a series of interviews that have shaped my research.

Balkrishna Doshi, Pritzker
Aranya Housing Scheme, Indore. The Vastu Shilpa Foundation’s 1983 master plan for low-cost housing was created to house 40,000 people in 6,500 individual dwellings.

I started my research with the study of Doshi’s 1983 Aranya Community Housing in Indore, India, which won the Aga Khan Award in 1995. This project traced the shift towards the recuperation of a more traditional approach to housing, where residents are involved. It enabled the economically disadvantaged people to buy a lot equipped with a sewer, electricity and water. The residents received training to learn the building techniques. Materials were purchased from a cooperative and paid for over time. It built a dynamic and lively architectural complex where people felt rooted due to their involvement. Social housing as a flexible and participatory structure gave this project a sense of a collective act of obliteration—of standardization and homogenization, to be replaced by the revival and celebration of differences. In the study of these and other projects, I realized that his process and creation do not foster architecture as a spectacle, to be observed from a distance, but one that is fully interwoven into people’s lives.

Balkrishna Doshi, Pritzker
Miniature style representation of Sangath.

In the next few weeks, I discovered that Doshi’s accounts of architecture were often in the form of stories—tectonic through his buildings, but also oral accounts and written works of fiction. These effectively release the emotional content of somatic reality. The interaction with him led to my ongoing dissertation, titled “Architectural Storytelling: The Subjunctive mode of Architectural Conceptualization and Experience,” which examines the contronymic nature of architecture—its ability to simultaneously embody and project contrary meanings—and the non-conventional modes of architectural representation in his works. The representation of his buildings derives from the traditional Indian miniature paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, while his written works of fiction, which accompany three of his built projects, are composed of dreams and mythologies along with actual events during the design and construction of projects.

Doshi’s approach gives his work a subjunctive character: architecture viewed not only through a positivistic lens but through an imaginative, oneiric and fantastical one.

Pallavi Swaranjali is a doctoral candidate at the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University in Ottawa.

All images courtesy of Vastu Shilpa Foundation, Ahmedabad.