For Balkrishna Doshi, architecture, urbanism and landscape are inseparable

May 09, 2016 - By William JR Curtis

Doshi’s work mirrors his life: influences from overseas are combined with a transformation of Indian culture and tradition

‘India, even before the time of the Buddha, had a civilisation which was peculiarly her own…The philosophy and religion contained in that civilisation had a potent influence, not only in absorbing the artistic elements derived from the culture of other countries, but also in reshaping and transforming them according to her own ideals.’ EB Havell, 1913

The development of a modern architectural tradition resembles a delta with many streams. Some have dried up, others have been nourished by subterranean springs, others again have moved forward with renewed strength. The historian is obliged to sidestep the trite and short-term labels used to designate changing fashions and to look out for the works of lasting quality. As usual these do not fit passing categories as they fuse diverse influences around a core of driving images and intentions. The best buildings have a way of combining new and old, local and general, in their ideas and forms. In effect, a tradition is formed from a string of such works of high intensity that have greater staying power than mere formalist exercises, precisely because they embody a world view, or a symbolic content, in forms of enduring presence and resonance.

Looking back to the 1970s and the ’80s it is less the noisily discussed ‘movements’ and ‘isms’ of the period that stand out; rather it is the individual works of substance. These fit no easy stylistic or ideological pigeonholes: one thinks of buildings as varied as the Museum of Roman Art in Mérida by Rafael Moneo, the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank by Norman Foster, the Supreme Court in Mexico City by Teodoro González de Léon, the official Presidential Guest House in Cartagena, Colombia by Rogelio Salmona, the Myyrmäki Church near Helsinki by Juha Leiviskä, the Fujisawa Gymnasium by Fumihiko Maki, the Koshino House by Tadao Ando, the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi by Raj Rewal, or, to come to the point, the architectural studio ‘Sangath’ in Ahmedabad by Balkrishna Doshi. Each of these works has its unique order, but also has its special pedigree, blending strands of the Modern Movement with concepts derived from earlier traditions.

The trajectory of Balkrishna Doshi has been guided by the need to create an architecture and urbanism fusing features of International Modernism with a deep reading of Indian realities and traditions. Born in Pune in 1927, Doshi came of age in the late ’40s, a period marked by the hopes surrounding the Independence of India and the traumas following Partition and the creation of Pakistan. After studies in Bombay he found his way to England then to the atelier of Le Corbusier in Paris in the early ’50s at precisely the moment that plans were being drawn up for the new city of Chandigarh and for four buildings in Ahmedabad. After this apprenticeship in Paris, Doshi moved briefly to Chandigarh, then permanently to Ahmedabad where he helped to supervise the construction of the Mill Owner’s Association Building by Le Corbusier, and was intensely involved with other projects such as the low-vaulted Sarabhai House which was steered by Jean-Louis Véret. This was a rigorous training and Doshi learned a language from the inside in day-to-day practice, first of all in the design phase in Paris, then in construction in India.

‘Looking back to the 1970s and the ’80s it is less the noisily discussed ‘movements’ and ‘isms’ of the period that stand out; rather it is the individual works of substance’

But it was also an introduction to a certain utopian Modernism which matched, to some degree, Nehru’s socialist modernisation programme for India. In addition to this progressive ethos which informed the ‘green city’ of Chandigarh, there was the desire to return to roots after the years of British colonial occupation. Doshi’s formation and emergence as an architect occurred in Ahmedabad, a city with a strong industrial base founded on textiles, yet with an equally strong engagement with rural crafts. After all, this had been the home of Gandhi’s independence movement and of one of its main symbols, the home-spun ‘khadi’ cloth. In addition, there was a rich architectural heritage including mosques, tanks and stepped wells of the 14th to 16th centuries, and ruined temples from the Hindu Solanki dynasty such as the Surya sun temple at Modhera (11th century). At an early stage Doshi sensed the need to reconcile country and city, to draw upon the resources of deeply embedded local traditions while also responding to the universalising drive of Modernism.

Doshi’s earliest buildings inevitably bore the stamp of Le Corbusier, although he gradually emancipated himself from his master. The ATIRA low-cost housing (1957-60) in Ahmedabad drew upon Le Corbusier’s vaulted types but restated these in a robust form providing protected thresholds and rear courts at a scale based on that of a village. The Institute of Indology (1957-60) established a strong institutional presence with its formal geometry and its protruding balconies in concrete. It found a middle way between the local Gujarati traditions of trabeated construction in stone and wood, and the principles although not the direct forms of Le Corbusier. Doshi’s own house (1959-61) in the leafy suburb of Ellis Bridge was based on a square plan with internal slots of structure establishing different living zones. Constructed from cheap local brick, the house is protected from the fierce sunlight and heat by concrete panels based on traditional chhajjas (protective ledges) and jharokhas (overhanging balconies). Unlike some of the literal neo-Corbusians working elsewhere in India, Doshi was determined not to use brise-soleil, but rather to transform past usages into modern terms. He was interested in the spirit not the letter.

‘The development of a modern architectural tradition resembles a delta with many streams’

In 1962, Louis Kahn came to Ahmedabad at the instigation of Vikram Sarabhai (and on the advice of Doshi) to design the Indian Institute of Management, in effect a business school on an American model. Rather like Palladio’s clients in Vicenza, Le Corbusier’s and Kahn’s belonged to an elite of interconnected families. Most were mill owners and nearly all of them were Jain with a long tradition of supporting religious, educational and cultural institutions. They wished to modernise their city while linking it to a much wider world. Kahn’s IIM was conceived as a sort of citadel of learning with a figure-ground pattern of diagonal dormitories and interlocking squares.

Where Le Corbusier constructed principally in bare concrete, Kahn worked with bold archaic forms combining brick arches, cylindrical towers and walls. IIM was the prototype for many later institutional works in the educational sector in India. Where Doshi himself was concerned, Kahn was another sentinel of principle providing forms and a philosophy to be absorbed but not copied directly.

Kahn’s influence can be sensed in Doshi’s School of Architecture (1966-68) in Ahmedabad, a building based on an interlocking section and an extension of the ground plane. The vocabulary is that of a simple industrial loft combining concrete slabs, brick walls and skylights, but the space is fluid and encourages an interaction of people and ideas. The shaded loggias and protective overhangs in turn encouraged the flow of air across the entire building. Doshi was the principal founder of the school which rapidly gained an international reputation. In addition to teaching, he founded research programmes into the Indian environment that eventually developed into the activities of the Vastu Shilpa Foundation later housed in Sangath. While the school building relied on a straightforward structural rationalism in its tectonic expression, the spaces in and around it were inspired by the traditional Indian townscape.

For Doshi, architecture, urbanism and landscape are inseparable. From Le Corbusier he absorbed a desire to reconcile industrialism with the supposed ‘essential joys’ of light, space and greenery. But like his contemporaries in Team 10, Doshi rejected free-standing objects in favour of the spaces between. His various housing projects for industrial townships in the 1960s and ’70s (Gujarat State Fertilizers, Baroda, 1964-69, Electronics Corporation of India, 1968-71, and the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative, Kalol, 1970-73), established basic types using courtyards, throughways, terraces and shaded terraces. He disposed these in geometrical configurations combining privacy with orientation to prevailing winds. Again many primary lessons were learned from the vernacular. At the same time Doshi’s planning geometries with their chevron forms and diagonal arrays reflected the influence of Kahn’s IIM.

‘For Doshi, architecture, urbanism and landscape are inseparable’

In effect, Doshi, like Kahn, tended to think of public educational institutions as miniature cities, an old theme in university planning in both Eastern and Western architectural traditions. The Indian Institute of Management (1977-83) in Bengaluru embodies these intentions in a design that weaves together covered streets and squares, classrooms and student residences in an overlapping system of structural supports in concrete, with screens, pergolas, stone walls, balconies and fronds of greenery. Doshi referred to IIM Bengaluru as a ‘bazaar for the exchange of ideas’. He was considering simultaneously Western contemporary models, such as the lattices of the Free University in Berlin by Josic, Candilis and Woods, and traditional Indian city, palace and temple complexes with their galleries, platforms, screens and courts. Here the key themes were: labyrinthine networks of covered streets, overlapping spaces fusing into one another, shading layers and cooling bodies of water.

In effect, Doshi was involved in a sort of excavation of Indian traditions. Nation-building relies upon the construction of myths of ‘identity’ and in the newly independent democratic and secular republic of India, with its overlaid Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and other pasts, there was no question of settling on one period or one religion as a supposed repository of ‘Indianness’. On the contrary, architects of Doshi’s generation such as Charles Correa, Raj Rewal and Anant Raje sought out ‘substructures’ in the rich heritage of past Indian architecture, transforming these through a modern abstraction into forms and spaces adjusted to the climate, to local traditions and to changing technical and social realities. They admired the force of Le Corbusier’s forms but rejected his free-standing objects in favour of spatial layers and interlocking precincts that were better suited to the searing hot climate and to the social complexity of Indian life. These were the years when obligatory pilgrimages were made to the desert city of Jaisalmer with its networks of streets, squares, and havelis with interpenetrating terraces and courts; to Fatehpur Sikri (16th century) with its syncopated columns, overlapping spaces, focal points and slipped axes; to Indian villages with their recurrent types, transitional spaces and robust forms. While Correa made much of ‘open to sky space’, Rewal was drawn to Rajput forts with interlocking sections and courts, and Raje was obsessed with palace/fortress complexes such as Mandu in the Deccan (but always with a glance westwards to Hadrian’s Villa and Roman ruins). Each architect established his own pedigree and Doshi in particular was deeply attracted to southern Hindu temple complexes such as Madurai and Tiruchirappalli, with their labyrinthine galleries and walkways, and their indirect approach to the spiritual centre.

Doshi referred to this search for values in tradition as a form of metaphysical quest in which he was guided by intuition and meditation as well as analysis. At the end of the ’70s he acquired a strip of land on the western fringes of Ahmedabad and designed himself and his associates a new studio set in a shaded garden. He called this place ‘Sangath’, which translates roughly as ‘working together through participation’. More than just an architectural atelier, Doshi thought of Sangath as a place for the exchange of ideas, a sort of latter-day monastery for teaching, even as an emblem of his own philosophy. It was Le Corbusier who suggested that a profound work would be ‘full of hidden implications’. Sangath is surely an example of this, as it draws together both Doshi’s international inspirations and the results of his search for fundamentals in several areas of Indian tradition.

‘Doshi here treats the visitor to a well-orchestrated promenade architecturale: lesson number one in Le Corbusier’s atelier’

Sangath is approached off Thaltej Road, with the precinct entered via a gate and a forecourt for parking. The pedestrian path departs to the left between giant Gujarati pots and scraped concrete walls surmounted by turf mounds. One is guided on a diagonal past ponds with low curved rims and it is from this vantage point that the general view of the building opens up. Sangath is buried half underground and the roofs are formed by vaults coated in broken fragments of white porcelain, which reflect the light and the heat while also sluicing off the rain and excluding the dust storms in the hot season. In Ahmedabad the temperature can rise to 45°C and the downpours from the monsoons can be violent. In the foreground are the angled and flat steps of an outdoor theatre which is used for lectures and discussions, even for night-time concerts. The walls of Sangath continue the theme of concrete scraped by hand, a detail recalling mud architecture. The route now shifts to the right towards the entrance near the back of the building, approached past a screen down some steps. In effect, Doshi here treats the visitor to a well-orchestrated promenade architecturale: lesson number one in Le Corbusier’s atelier, and of course the ‘master’ himself often threaded routes around the back of buildings.

The interior of Sangath resembles a warren of rooms, stairs and a corridor. This leads back in the direction of the main studio space under the curved vault seen from the gate at the entrance. Natural light is filtered in under the vaults and from several skylights and small windows. The work tables are laid out in this longitudinal space and it is then that one realises that Doshi is perhaps recalling the dusty monastic corridor of Le Corbusier’s atelier at 35 rue de Sèvres. In fact, as one strolls about the leafy precinct of the garden several other ‘memories’ float to the surface. One of these surely is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West (1937) in Arizona, which Doshi visited in 1958, with its diagonal geometry, platforms, water tank, tent roofs and half-sunken rooms. In addition Wright introduced pots and jars as ways of recalling simultaneously the American Indian past and the Oriental theme of ‘the void’. Alvar Aalto’s studio in the suburbs of Helsinki also comes to mind, with its small outdoor theatre of grassy steps embraced by the curves and rectangles of the building. As for the theme of vaults, water channels and greenery one is back to Le Corbusier, not just the Sarabhai House in Ahmedabad, but also the unbuilt project for an Agriculturist’s Estate at Cherchell, North Africa (1942) which Le Corbusier described as achieving ‘a harmony between countryside, climate and tradition’.

‘His aim once again was to treat an institutional building as a species of social landscape’

Kahn was influenced by the same source in his vaulted Kimbell Museum at Fort Worth, but Doshi deliberately avoided symmetry and fragmented the geometry to create ambiguous thresholds linked to the landscape. This corresponded to his reading of Indian temple architecture where ‘there is a series of layers … pauses, transitional spaces’. Doshi was certainly interested in mud architecture when he was designing Sangath and visited the Harania Museum in Egypt by Wissa Wassef. In constructing the vaults of Sangath insulating fuses were used in imitation of a local construction tradition using clay pots telescoped together. So in its ideas and its very fabric, Sangath was on a knife-edge between rural and industrial worlds. Surely too Doshi addressed the notion of origins in both the huge storage jars and the vaults. The elongated vaulted studio calls to mind the ancient Buddhist type known as the chaitya hall, found at Ajanta and Karla for example. These rock-cut temples in turn imitated wooden huts: the old theme then of the ‘primitive hut’ but recast in Indian terms.

The Gandhi Labour Institute (1980-84) is not far from Sangath but is on a much larger scale. Here Doshi reverted to a similar solution of ceramic-clad vaults resting on solid brick and concrete bases although this time the walls are coated in washed granite pebble dash, bluish purple in colour. His aim once again was to treat an institutional building as a species of social landscape incorporating courts, steps, water bodies, an outdoor theatre and protective vaults.

The entrance was placed at an upper level approached over shallow steps and the section of the building and the surrounding ground form bears an uncanny resemblance to the section of the mosque, tomb and tank complex of Sarkhej (15th century) some miles to the west of Ahmedabad. Gujarat is also a region of remarkable stepped wells, truly celebrations of water using the architectural means of pillared halls, steps, as well as light, shade and the passage of cool air. Doshi’s aim of re-linking modern man with the rhythms of nature extends a Modernist utopia while returning to ancient wisdom. His unbuilt urban plan for Vidhayanagar (New Jaipur, 1984-88) was a deliberate fusion of ideas drawn from Le Corbusier’s ‘green city’ principles in Chandigarh, and the courtyards and cosmic observatories of 18th-century Jaipur, itself a revival of ancient Hindu planning lore. So the concept of the mandala was crossbred with a symbolic urbanism of modern sustainability.

‘A vital modern tradition is formed from buildings that crystallise a social condition and express a cogent content in evocative spaces and forms’

One returns to the theme outlined at the beginning: that a vital modern tradition is formed from buildings that crystallise a social condition and express a cogent content in evocative spaces and forms. Sangath is such a work, sensually rich and deep in meaning. When I first visited this enclave in 1983 it was on the western edge of Ahmedabad and there was open countryside opposite. In a field next to the precinct, nomads from the Rann of Kutch used to come and set up a temporary camp under the shelter of a tree. In 1987 when I was writing the monograph Balkrishna Doshi: An Architecture for India, I stayed in the little apartment at the rear of the building and one of my strongest memories is of the sudden arrival one night of the monsoon, with rain sluicing off the porcelain vaults into gutters, channels and pools. Occasionally a flash of lightning revealed the silhouettes of a camel train passing in front of the building.

Now this contact with the rural base has gone and Sangath is surrounded by shopping centres, tall apartment buildings and the constant din of traffic. The old Ahmedabad of the early Independence years with its philanthropic mill owners, its textile mills, its public civic culture and its organised labour, has been replaced by the smash and grab of developers, the impact of giant chemical firms and international money: the so-called Gujarati model of development with its attendant ills of a fractured proletariat and religious identity politics.

It is a sobering reminder that architecture of authenticity requires the right social conditions, cultural values and architectural intentions if it is to come into being.