“Things have happened in my life by accident.
“Before I even entered the hall of CIAM (Congress of International Architects) near London, I was approached by a young man, possibly god-sent, who asked me my nationality. When I confirmed that I was Indian, he asked me the meaning of the word ‘Chandigarh’. The young man pointed to an older man standing in a huddle, across the room and added that he was working with that architect, who was designing a city in India.
“This piqued my curiosity and I asked, ‘Who is he? How do I get to work with him?’ They told me to write an application to the architect in my own handwriting and wait. Sure enough, two weeks later, I received a reply written in French, but the signature was unmistakable!”
This chance encounter led to his four-year apprenticeship in Paris, beginning as an unpaid stagiaire, in 1951, with one of the greatest modernists of the twentieth century, Le Corbusier. He had sailed to London upon the completion of his third year, at Sir JJ College of Architecture in Mumbai, to appear for the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) examination.
When he moved from Bombay to London he stayed with a friend, attended college in the evenings, and spent most of his days in the library or in gardens, observing life and discussing architecture with his friends. “We were surrounded by great architecture, and sketches made by the masters. This is when I really understood what architecture was all about”, said Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi, the first Indian recipient of the highest accolade for architecture, the Pritzker Prize.
As a culmination of a career spanning seventy years, with over a hundred projects to his credit, he has received many awards, including the Padma Shri in 1976. His work has been cited as being key in the development of Indian architecture. He has focused on public institutions: universities, libraries, performance-art centres and low-cost housing complexes, including prominent works like Aranya (Indore), IIM (Bangalore), NIFT (New Delhi) and Amdavad ni Gufa. Previous awardees of the prize have been renowned architects like Frei Otto, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster.
Doshi was born in Pune, in 1927, into an extended Hindu family, where several generations, some eighty-year-olds, and some newborn, lived together. “My grandfather’s home grew organically, first one floor, then more floors and rooms added over time. It was like a maze with a courtyard at the centre and many staircases. Those years of childhood were spent in anonymity. I did not have an identity. I had no advisor. I just allowed myself to go with the flow, unknowingly imbibing Indian values, hearing our legends and seeing first-hand the craft of furniture making. As a family, we took pilgrimages, visiting many temples. Birth, growth and death were recurring and natural events. Over time, changes in lifestyle, breaks in the social, economic, and cultural structure within the household became a living part of each of us, making us tolerant, less materialistic and more spiritual.”
Upon finishing his schooling, he toyed with the idea of pursuing science in college, but as providence would have it, his art teacher asked him whether he planned to join the family business or create his own path. Since Doshi was good at art, the teacher suggested that he could study architecture, and told him of someone he knew who was studying commercial art in Bombay.
Doshi consulted his brother about his wish to move to Bombay. They wondered how he would fund his education and living, but Doshi believed in destiny and decided to take the plunge. That was his first encounter with a big city, where he met people from other communities and nationalities. “They were confident and worldly wise,” he reminisced. “They knew how to play table tennis, and there I was, in my white kurta-pyjama, chappals and golden glasses, from Pune,” he added with a smile. “Once I began to study architecture I realised that I had my roots in it, as I had seen my grandfather toiling in his furniture workshop.”
“Where one should not tread, I walked.” With one bag, very little money, the twenty-four-year-old Doshi sailed to London in 1951, and eventually settled in Paris, living like a local, imbibing their language and lifestyle.
“I have seen Corbusier draw with charcoal on paper. His hand was so light! It seemed as though the charcoal didn’t even touch it. We watched and learnt. It was silent learning; as he sketched we all became a part of the experience. Like when a musician plays and you can feel the vibrations across the room. All that I had experienced in my childhood, the rituals, my religious beliefs were awakened when I saw him in action.”
While working with Corbusier, in his studio, Doshi realised what a great man he was. He acknowledges him to be his guru, but he always remembered the real meaning of a teacher. In the gurukul system, a true teacher was one who wanted his disciple to be on his own feet and not imitate. Whenever Doshi saw something that fascinated him, he would ponder, interpret and then question, how could he do it differently? What would be his way? He learnt the principles of design and architecture from Corbusier, but looked at them through his own eyes, own experiences, childhood memories and journeys to different parts of the world.
Doshi moved back to a newly-independent India in 1954 to oversee the construction of the modern city of Chandigarh. The following year he moved to Ahmedabad to supervise the residences, also designed by Corbusier. And then in 1955, Doshi established his studio Sangath, making Ahmedabad his home.
A bird calls out filling the silence with its chirping. I mull over how life would have changed for a young Doshi, who moved from cosmopolitan Paris into the throes of life and work in India.
Reliving his idyllic days in Paris, he says, either they worked, or as they had no money, they spent hours in parks or museums, observing life in solitude. “Following a way of life from my days in Pune, every evening, post work, we would meet our friends and chat, even if it was for a short while. Over the years, this trait has led to a lot of doors opening for me. I spent time with Germans and Frenchmen, some of whom introduced me to Tagore. That was when I read Gitanjali and heard about Santiniketan. I was curious, and everything fascinated me, from the children playing in the playground to the birds in the sky. I made these experiences a part of me, observing and understanding how people interacted. I discovered the texture and quality of nature and light. We learn from observation, when the mind is free. This honed my intuition and I realised the significance of open spaces in cities, in universities, in buildings and in homes.”
These open, transitional spaces, like courtyards and corridors, not having a specific function, can assume any role, allowing for chance meetings and spontaneity. These intangible spaces allow time to stop. In the Aga Khan-award-winning, low-cost housing complex, Aranya, built by Doshi in 1989, he created a “sustainable society” with mixed classes, designed in a way that the inhabitants could add to their home as per their requirements. Today, 80,000 people live in the complex, a “system of houses, courtyards and a labyrinth of internal pathways”, says a statement by the Hyatt Foundation, which awards the Pritzker Prize.
Meandering along, he travelled to America, in 1958. First, he went to Washington and later, was invited to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Whilst teaching and guest lecturing, he saw the scale of the various universities and the exposure for students in terms of libraries, alternative choices and freedom. “I would see students working day and night and teachers would visit any time. This made me realise how much I missed a real university education in terms of infrastructure and how education could challenge a student.”
That was the start of his institution-building phase. In 1962, he decided to open a school of architecture in Ahmedabad. Instead of following the dominant design philosophy of the time, namely Bauhaus, he envisioned a school which reflected his own beliefs and identity, where one could have dialogues and debates, with collaborative learning. And thus, inspired by Visva-Bharati University, the School of Architecture, now a part of Centre of Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) was born. It celebrated the spirit of openness, a campus with no doors.
Excerpted with permission from “Balkrishna Doshi: Architect”, interviewed by Parul Sheth, Peerless Minds, edited by Pritish Nandy and Tapan Chaki, HarperCollins India.