Balkrishna Doshi, 90, wins Pritzker prize for architecture

Mar 07, 2018 - By Oliver Wainwright

The Le Corbusier disciple, who harnessed modernism to Indian culture, has been praised for an architecture “that is serious, never flashy or a follower of trends”

Balkrishna Doshi, the 90-year-old Indian architect who worked with Le Corbusier, supervising his designs for the city of Chandigarh, has been named as the winner of the 2018 Pritzker prize, the highest accolade in architecture.

Known for his pioneering work in low-cost housing, BV Doshi became one of the most influential architects of post-independence India, fusing international modernist principles with a deep reading of local vernacular traditions. He is the first Indian architect to receive the award, which was founded in 1979 and has celebrated such figures as Oscar Niemeyer and Zaha Hadid.

“Balkrishna Doshi has always created an architecture that is serious, never flashy or a follower of trends,” said the Pritzker jury in its citation, praising his work as embodying “a deep sense of responsibility and a desire to contribute to his country and its people through high-quality, authentic architecture”.

Born in Pune, India, in 1927, into a family that had been involved in the furniture industry for two generations, Doshi studied architecture in Mumbai before travelling to Paris in 1951 to work for Le Corbusier, despite having no knowledge of French. He returned to India in 1954 to oversee Corbusier’s projects in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad, including the celebrated Mill Owners’ Association Building and Villa Shodhan.

“I owe this prestigious prize to my guru, Le Corbusier,” said Doshi on receiving the Pritzker news. “His teachings led me to question identity and compelled me to discover new regionally adopted contemporary expression for a sustainable holistic habitat.”

Doshi, who also worked closely with Louis Kahn on the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad in the 1960s, humanised modernism’s principles and made them more fitting to the local climate and context. In his own projects, he tried to avoid the gaping voids between buildings (as had been made at Chandigarh) and drew on the more dense, tightly knit street patterns of traditional Indian towns and squatter settlements. He wrote of the need for architecture to “reflect social lifestyles and spiritual convictions” and referred to “constant elements of Indian architecture: the village square, the bazaar, the courtyard”.

His Aranya Low Cost Housing, built in Indore in 1989, accommodates more than 80,000 people in a complex of houses and courtyards, woven with a labyrinth of internal pathways, with the homes designed with extension and adaptability in mind. It won the Aga Khan award for architecture in 1995, praised for its integration of mixed-income groups. His 1986 plan for Vidhyadhar Nagar, a satellite city of 350,000 people close to the old city of Jaipur, combined features of utopian modernist planning with ancient Hindu traditions. He drew on elements of the cosmological planning of the old city, which was based on a nine-square mandala, and fused it with his own interests in courtyard housing. He paid particular attention to transitions from the public to private realm and the conservation aspects of wind power, solar orientation, planting and water. His Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore (1977-92) was similarly inspired by maze-like Indian temple cities, organised as a complex of interlocking buildings and galleries, with overlapping shaded areas providing respite from the hot climate.

I visited his studio in Ahmedabad in 2009 and encountered a grassy precinct where parallel barrel-vaulted buildings rose out of the landscape, with terraces crossed by channels of water, reflecting pools and a shallow outdoor theatre for gatherings. It felt more like a village square than the office of an architecture practice. The building’s name, Sangath, means “moving together through participation” and Doshi has described it as “an ongoing school where one learns, unlearns and relearns”. It stands as a compelling microcosm of his ideas: the buildings are half-buried in the ground, where they are better protected from heat, dust and monsoons, while the vaults are made of ceramic pipes, covered in concrete and broken white tiles, providing insulation from the sun while shedding water in the rainy season. As modernist historian William Curtis puts it: “Sangath was on the knife edge between industrialism and primitivism, between modern architecture and vernacular form.”

The school-like quality of his studio should come as no surprise, given that teaching has been at the heart of Doshi’s practice throughout his 70-year-long career. He founded his own design school, the Ahmedabad School of Architecture, in the 1960s (now known as Cept University), with open-air classrooms and a focus on learning from context, which he led for 50 years, and he has been a visiting professor at a number of universities around the world.

He has been critical of the current state of architectural education, saying in a recent interview that most architecture schools are “looking at the body of a skeleton, and not what is below the flesh”. “Certain issues are timeless,” he added, “like how do you articulate space? Or how do you get the sunlight inside and work the shadows? … It’s a question of what affects you and what triggers in you a sense of being alive. I think that’s very important. [The schools] are not making people alive.”