The morning after an exhibition opening is usually the quietest time in a gallery — the muah-muah crowd of art lovers is presumably sleeping off the champagne, and there is generally none but the art to commune with. But that's not the case with 'Celebrating Habitat – The Real, The Virtual & The Imaginary', the retrospective of eminent architect Balkrishna Doshi that opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi last week.
The show has a steady stream of visitors — family and friends, of course, but predominantly Doshi's students, many of them with spouses or children who respectfully greet the sprightly 87-year-old architect by touching his feet. Some, like Yashoda, have travelled all the way from Pune for the occasion.
After all, as much as his buildings, Doshi is known as a teacher, having founded two leading architecture schools — the School of Architecture and the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) University, both in Ahmedabad.
It was the zenith of philanthropic activity. Families like the Sarabhais—Doshi calls them the “Medicis of Ahmedabad”—contributed to science, art, literature and the city itself. In politics, it was the generation of secular leadership focused on nation-building, when then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru commissioned Le Corbusier to create the masterplan for Chandigarh, the new capital of Punjab and Haryana. Ahmedabad’s reputation for design education also was born of this period.
The NGMA show, however, confines itself to Doshi's more 'concrete' achievements. Here are glimpses of some of the landmark buildings, public and private, large and small, that Doshi has designed over the last 60 years. There's his own house in Ahmedabad ("built in 1959... so almost the first building I did," he says), and also the Kanoria Centre of Arts and Amdavad ni Gufa (earlier known as Hussain Doshi ni Gufa) in the city — both art spaces, but so diverse. The former is a straight, narrow gallery lit by vents in its slanting roof. The other, a fluid, underground design whose structural ingenuity complements MF Husain's artistic flourishes. Then there's the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIMB), the office of Sangath, Doshi's architectural practice in Ahmedabad, his urban-design plans for Vidyadharnagar (Jaipur), Khargar Node (Navi Mumbai) and also Aranya, a low-cost housing colony in Indore, for which the architect came up with an ingenious, Lego block-like concept.
Architectural drawings, photographs, scale models, elevation mock-ups, some set against the wall or reflected in mirrors in what Doshi calls "dynamic distortions into space" help bring these structures alive. But what's particular about the exhibition is the way the curator, Khushnu Panthaki Hoof, also Doshi's granddaughter, assisted by the architect himself, has broken up the gallery into discrete, intimate spaces, each trying to replicate the spatial experience of a Doshi building. So the entrance has a low-ceiling and narrow passage as in Doshi's home, while the long, narrow corridors of the Sangath studio are recreated in a tunnel-like projection along one wall. Doshi's design for a door facade is played up by a locked door set in the middle of a passage and the iconic breast-like shape of the 'gufa' roof is set down on the floor and recreated in wire mesh.
The arrangement is not chronological but intuitive, so as "to show relationships" and to ignite "wonder". "Architecture is not passive. It makes you feel something else than what you are, it awakens your spirit," says Doshi, offering glimpses of the charismatic teacher who has inspired a generation of architects.
Doshi's philosophy of architecture is rooted in his childhood. He grew up in a large, fairly prosperous Vaishnava family in Pune. "In that house, you never had less than 20 people — some newborn, some old, some sick. I learned from there the epics, mythological stories and the Puranas. I am surprised by what I have done and what is displayed here," says Doshi, seated on a cushioned chair, another of his designs.
Much of it was also imbibed from Le Corbusier, whom Doshi considers his guru. Doshi landed up at the atelier of the legendary French architect in Paris through a series of chance encounters in the early 1950s and worked with him, mostly on the Chandigarh project, for four years."I get up every morning in the skin of a donkey", attributed to Corbusier, is one of the four maxims Doshi has lived by. His granddaughter says, "He literally gets up every morning thinking this. With every project, he starts from scratch, as if he's never done it. And he doesn't ever go back to anything he's done before. So every project is an exploration."