Balkrishna Doshi named India's first winner of the Pritzker Prize

Mar 07, 2018 - By Oscar Holland, CNN

Balkrishna Doshi has become the first Indian architect to win the Pritzker Prize in its four-decade history. Regarded as the profession's equivalent to the Nobel Prize, the award went to Doshi in recognition of a career spanning almost 70 years, it was announced today.

Considered one of the Indian subcontinent's preeminent living architects, Doshi is known for designing low-cost housing and public institutions. Among his most acclaimed projects are Tagore Memorial Hall in Ahmedabad and the Aranya Low Cost Housing development, a collection of more than 6,500 residences in the city of Indore.

The architect and urban planner, who turned 90 last year, described the decision as "a great surprise" during a phone interview from Ahmedabad, where he lives and works. But Doshi insisted on putting the achievement in the context of India's urban and economic development.

"I think it is very, very significant that this award has come to India -- of course to me, but to India," he said. "The government, officials, those who take decisions, cities -- everyone will start thinking that there is something called 'good architecture' (and that) lasting things can happen. (Only) then can we start talking about urbanization and urban design."

India's housing pioneer

Today's announcement marks a landmark move for an award that has previously faced criticism for its lack of diversity. To date, more than two-thirds of Pritzker Laureates have come from Europe or North America.

In the last decade, however, three Japanese architects have claimed the award, as have China's Wang Shu and Alejandro Aravena of Chile.

But in addition to being South Asia's first Pritzker Prize winner, Doshi differs from recent Laureates by having no overseas landmarks to his name. While he has regularly taught abroad, the vast majority his work has taken place within India, reflecting a commitment to using architecture as a force for public good.

"(In India) we talk of housing, we talk of squatters, we talk of villages, we talk of towns -- everybody talks, but who is going to really do something about it?" he asked. "I took the personal decision that I would work for the 'other half' -- I'd work for them and try to empower them."

The aforementioned Aranya Low Cost Housing project is capable of accommodating more than 80,000 people. Typical of Doshi's pioneering housing complexes, it features an intricate network of interconnected passages, courtyards and public spaces.

Referring to his own childhood encounters with "extreme poverty," Doshi expressed hope that, by winning architecture's most coveted award, he can draw attention to the impact of social housing in India.

"These people have nothing -- no land, no place, no employment," he said. "But if the government gives them a little piece of land, they can get a feeling of, 'I'm going to work hard, and find a way to build my own home.' If you put them together as a community, there's cooperation, there's sharing, there's understanding and there's this whole diffusion of religion, caste, custom and occupation.

"When I visit these places after almost 30 years, (I find people) who we gave one-foot-high plinths with a water tap and a toilet. Today, they have two-story or three-story buildings, that they built by themselves... (They are) multicultural, multi-religious people -- including different income groups -- and they all live together. They talk and communicate."

A 'desire to contribute'

Born in Pune, around 100 miles from Mumbai, Doshi worked under Le Corbusier in Paris in the early 1950s. He returned to India to oversee the celebrated French-Swiss architect's projects in both Chandigarh and Ahmedabad, staying in the latter city to establish his own practice, Vastu Shilpa Consultants, in 1956.

Since then, his firm has completed more than 100 projects in Ahmedabad and other Indian cities, including Bangalore, Hyderabad and Jaipur. Doshi's best-known public buildings include Madhya Pradesh Electricity Board in Jabalpur, the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore and Ahmedabad's striking School of Architecture, which he served as founding director.

But the firm has also worked on private residences and art galleries, such as Amdavad ni Gufa, a cavernous subterranean museum with domed roofs that protrude playfully above ground. And one of Doshi's most celebrated designs is that of his own studio, called Sangath, which comprises a bold collection of cylindrical concrete vaults.

Whether drawing on Le Corbusier's modernist values or flirting with brutalism in the 1960s, Doshi's work has remained sensitive to local traditions. The Pritzker Prize's ten-person judging panel -- chaired by Australian architect and 2002 Laureate, Glenn Murcutt -- highlighted his commitment to Indian architecture.

"Over the years, Balkrishna Doshi has always created an architecture that is serious, never flashy or a follower of trends," read a jury statement. "With a deep sense of responsibility and a desire to contribute to his country and its people through high quality, authentic architecture, he has created projects for public administrations and utilities, educational and cultural institutions, and residences for private clients, among others.

"Doshi is acutely aware of the context in which his buildings are located," the statement continued. "His solutions take into account the social, environmental and economic dimensions, and therefore his architecture is totally engaged with sustainability."

Now in its 40th year, the Pritzker Prize is awarded to a living architect (or architects) who display a combination of "talent, vision and commitment." Philip Johnson claimed the first prize in 1979, with other notable winners including Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas and the late Zaha Hadid. Last year's prize was shared by the Catalan trio of Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta.

Founded by Jay A. Pritzker and his wife Cindy -- members of the American family behind the the Hyatt Hotel chain -- the annual award is modeled on the Nobel Prize. Doshi will collect a prize of $100,000 and a bronze medallion, which will be presented during a ceremony at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto on May 16.