Balkrishna Doshi had a significant influence on Indian architecture, not the least of which is that his buildings have helped create spaces that are both ‘Indian’ and contemporary at the same time.
Balkrishna Doshi is that rare combination, a creative architect as well as a visionary institution builder. Over half a century of practice, Doshi has helped shape modern architecture in India through his own work as well as through the culture of excellence pursued by Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), Ahmedabad, which he helped found. The Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore, and the Aranya township at Indore are among his best known institutional and public housing projects and have had significant influence on Indian architecture.
Born in 1927 in a traditional middle class Gujarati family in Pune, Doshi left Sir JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai, midway through the architecture course and moved to London to work. A chance development led him to Le Corbusier’s studio-office in Paris. This was to be an important turning point. Corbusier, perhaps the most influential 20th century architect, was then designing Chandigarh. After a few years (1951-54) with him, Doshi moved to India and set up his own practice in 1955, and began overseeing work at Chandigarh. Deeply influenced by the French master, Doshi would help fuse a new Indian modernism by also tapping into Indian traditions of design and dwelling. Now 83, he is still active as a mentor in his own practice, CEPT and in the profession at large.
Doshi’s best work demonstrates a special talent for harmonising contrasting values within the same work of architecture. That is also perhaps what explains his capacity to absorb lessons from two very different architects — Corbusier and Louis Kahn. Incidentally, Doshi was instrumental in garnering the support of Ahmedabad’s industrialists to invite Kahn to design the first IIM there.
Doshi’s early work echoes Le Corbusier’s approach, as at the Institute of Indology in Ahmedabad (1962). The exposed concrete building is an enigmatic concrete mass. It has no variations in colour and texture to delight the eye. It gives no clues about its purpose (museum, actually) and location standing in a garden that could be anywhere. Like a typical modernist building, it is meant to be appreciated for its simple geometry, elegant proportions and restrained composition.
By the 1970s Doshi had moved towards a more legible approach. The IIM-B (1977-84) shows a new desire to ‘root’ a design to its context through the use of a local building material, in this case, rough granite. The naturalness of this local material balances the more objective logic of the RCC structural grid. Walking through the institutional buildings, we experience a stimulating progression from intimate to monumental spaces.
Poetry of climate and use
Doshi’s own office in Ahmedabad — Sangath (1981) — is perhaps his most poetic building. A series of exquisite white vaults appear to hover over the half-buried spaces of his studio and office. The earth outside the studio walls keeps them insulated from the heat of Ahmedabad, while the white broken china mosaic on the vaults reflects light and heat. Visually, the building appears to belong both to the earth as well as to the air. It recalls Kahn’s lessons about the timelessness of forms like the vault. But they are expressed with a sensuousness we see most often in traditional architecture.
Traditional buildings have also persuaded Doshi that it is good to allow dwellers to ‘take over’ a design. This lesson is most evident at Aranya township in Indore built in 1986. Doshi has always been keen on housing design, and Aranya is carefully designed to give modern dwellers (middle and lower middle class) a sociable environment like in older settlements. “What has made me happiest about Aranya,” he says, “is that people have made changes to it to suit their evolving needs.”
Craftsmanship without a signature
One of the enigmas of Doshi’s work is the fact that he has developed no particular ‘style’ or system of design. Of course, there are certain core values that pervade his work. There is a craftsmanly interest in detailing buildings. Details often construct a legible story of construction in his buildings. And the sizing of different masses, spaces and elements ensures that his architecture is rarely overscaled. But within this broad discipline, there is no specific set of forms or formal themes that Doshi pursues with increasing refinement.
Of course, this can be seen as a hunger for experimentation, which Doshi has in great measure. Well into his seventies he has designed buildings that revel in newer ‘freedoms’. That hunger, along with his command over the craft of design mean that he throws up interesting surprises and reveals a rare resilience of imagination and skill. But it also leads to designs like National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT, 1989), which appeared faddish when it was built and whose appeal has faded quickly.
Building an architectural culture
Doshi has shaped Indian architecture also as a teacher and institution builder. In 1962, when there were few ‘schools’ of architecture in India, Doshi helped found CEPT and the School of Architecture there. He also designed its elegant buildings. The institution soon came to be regarded as the most vibrant in India: many of the most creative Indian architects have studied there. Its success also owes much to Doshi’s ability to attract material support as well as talented architects and academics to teach there. The school has been an important forum for discussion and debate regarding the built environment. Ahmedabad’s proven culture of excellence in modern architecture has benefited tremendously from this. At the same time, many of the school’s alumni have exported the culture of excellence to other places, especially Bangalore and New Delhi.
Considering Doshi’s pivotal role at CEPT along with the significance of his own creative work, we are left with a peculiar (but welcome) difficulty: of trying to decide which of the two has contributed more to the architectural culture of modern India.