Architect BV Doshi at NGMA, Delhi (Source: Ravi Kanojia)
From a generation confronted with the task of constructing a new nation, Balakrishna Vithaldas Doshi’s ability to combine functionality and aesthetics with traditional techniques and modern technology made him one of the pillars of modern Indian architecture. A leading figure in the discussion on sustainable design, he enviably called Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn his friends. With the latter, he worked closely on the design of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Born in Pune into a family that was into furniture business for two generations, he has received many honours, including the Padma Shri in 1976.
At 87, he is revisiting his practice. Curated by his granddaughter Khushnu Panthaki Hoof, a retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, showcases 60 years of his architecture, from blueprints to models and canvases painted by Doshi to celebrate architecture through art.
You have constantly challenged yourself by experimenting with design. How does it feel to view all that under one roof?
There has been diverse work in the last 60 years, there are hardly any repetitions. They start from houses for the economically weaker section to small houses, city planning, public areas and institutions; the question was how to show this to people. Architecture and habitat primarily encompass open spaces. Without streets you cannot get into a house, without squares you can’t cross a road, you gradually enter a verandah, courtyard, then a building, residence or campus. That is how our temples and old cities have been built. The right way is to relate buildings to human beings. Despite contemporary needs, this is a basic requirement. Tools change but the inherent quality of life does not. Community becomes very important. Unfortunately, due to neglect, we are not considering human beings and their behaviour as priority.
BV Joshi working on one of his projects (Source: Ravi Kanojia)
What are your earliest memories of architecture?
It would be the street of my grandparents’ home in Ravivar Peth in Pune. There are wooden buildings with balconies, tile roofs and kilns outside — the memories have continued to impact my project. The mohallah was like a joint family, with lots of relatives.
You have also been inspired by ancient Indian architecture, from Fatehpur Sikri while designing IIM-Bangalore, to Ajanta and Ellora for the Amdavad-ni-Gufa.
I refer to ancient cities, from Harappa and Mohenjo-daro to existing ancient cities. I borrowed courtyard connectivity from Fatehpur, also certain elements from the Madurai temple, like the pagodas and corridors, so the courtyards are interspersed with gardens. Even though the corridors are covered, there are internal gardens. The external stone walls are covered with creepers.
I believe when you designed your office, Sangath, in 1980, it was the first time you were working on arches and conclaves.
It came at the peak of my career, I wanted to break all rules. This is an office but doesn’t look like one. It is not a building, it doesn’t have a regular form, but has terraces and kilns. It looks like an ancient village with vaults that borrow light from nature. The materials used are recycled. It is a completely ecological building; double vaults on the side and insulation on the roof saved me the air-conditioning cost by almost two-third.
When you established Vastu-Shilpa Foundation for Studies and Research in Environmental Design in 1955, not many were focussing on nature. Now it is common. What do you think of the trend?
People misunderstand the meaning of Vastu. It implies balancing of energies, not necessarily following orientation and placement dogmatically. Happiness depends on the relationship between family members. People talk of environmental design as a system, not human beings as the main cause of building. The focus must be biological needs and social connectivity. Security does not come with gates, it comes from relationships.
While designing the gallery, Amdavad-ni-Gufa, you worked with tribals for the construction. Why?
It was a challenge for me and MF Husain to create what we didn’t know. I decided to find a magical building I had never thought of. I made a myth — if you have myth, there is magic, you get enchanted and ask why is this so. I experimented with several models, and finally decided that it had to be like soap bubbles, the volume has to be there like a basket of fruits.
If you walk inside, you get a sense of the gufa. We built a ferrocement lightweight structure, which can only be built by the tribals because it is a thin layer covering a chickenwire mesh, then clad it with China mosaic. It gave the impression of walking on the sea shore. Rounded buried shapes were available inside, the junction was supported by columns, which come in the form of forests that take varied shapes. A regular mason couldn’t have built this, so we worked with tribals.
How did Le Corbusier make a lasting impact on your work?
My life has been full of accidents. My friend suggested that I join JJ School (he enrolled in 1947) because I was good at drawing. In the fourth year, I met someone who was giving his RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) exam and going to London, he asked me to go with him. Within a year, I met Le Corbusier at CIAM (International Congresses of Modern Architecture) and he asked me to join him. Eventually, he considered me family, and some people consider me his best disciple.
1955: Established the Vastu-Shilpa Foundation for Studies and Research in Environmental Design, Ahmedabad, known for pioneering work in low-cost housing and city planning.
1959: Institute of Indology, Ahmedabad To preserve rare manuscripts and their dissemination, he proposed a well-lighted and ventilated, half-buried basement, oriented to the north-south axis. The institute looks like a ship with the detailing of a wooden haveli.
1959: Kamala House, Ahmedabad The architect’s search
for identity culminated in the story of “four columns and
a staircase” in a brick kiln. This became the basis for the
design of his family home.
1976: Premabhai Hall for Gujarat Vidyasabha, Ahmedabad Designed around a 15th-century urbanscape, with the Bhadra Fort next door, this was designed as a socio-cultural place.
The first-of-a-kind air-conditioned hall had a seating capacity of 1,000. An elevated 100-feet-wide stage was designed to generate public participation.
1966: Centre for Environment and Planning Technology,
Ahmedabad Combining technology with light, ventilation
and greenery, the building is a glorified north-lighted
factory, integrated with a kund. Scattered trees and
earlier huts are transformed into a new generation
1980: Sangath, Ahmedabad One of the best examples of his building style, it combines a green enclave of grassy mounds with steps, terraces, water cascades and earth hugging vaults covered in chips of china mosaic.
1982: Aranya, low-cost housing, Indore The master plan provides housing for economically weaker sections and middle- and high-income groups. The fully-developed township harmonises the virtues of choice, freedom and social togetherness.
1984: Vidyadhar Nagar, Jaipur Situated in the north-west of the walled city of Jaipur, this incorporates aspects of Le Corbusier with that of old Jaipur — modernity and tradition. To honour Maharaja Jaisingh, the main reservoir in the form of Jal Yantra was created.
1988: National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi He believed an institute of fashion technology can express its function through a non-linear and random character. That it should diffuse time, place and space. Hence, the campus was divided into different blocks set around a kund connected to the basement.
1991: The Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), New Delhi
1992: Amdavad-ni-Gufa, Ahmedabad
Since 2013: Touted as India’s first urban renewal project, Doshi is working on a half-kilometre-long plaza in Ahmedabad (Bhadra) at a 600-year-old site, which was a Maidan-Shahi during Mughal rule. He intends to design it like the plazas in Italy and other European cities.