Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi has been announced the winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize 2018 (equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the field of architecture). The 45th laureate is the first Indian to have been awarded the prize, known internationally as the greatest honour in the realm of architecture. It was first awarded in 1979 “ ......... to honour a living architect or architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture”.
Born in 1927 in Pune, Doshi enrolled at the Sir JJ College of Architecture, Bombay in 1947, took a leap of faith and joined the atelier of Le Corbusier in Paris, returned to India in 1954 to collaborate and get the projects done for Corbusier, especially the Ahmedabad projects – Ahmedabad Textile Mill Owner’s Association building, Sarabhai House, Shodhan House and Sanskar Kendra/Museum and the early stages of the Capitol Complex buildings in Chandigarh. Doshi was instrumental in getting Louis Kahn to design the Ahmedabad campus of Indian Institute of Management. The city is also home to some of Doshi's finest buildings: Sangath (Doshi’s own studio), LD Museum, Premabhai Hall, Husain Doshi/Amdavad ni Gufa and the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), which he founded in 1962 and where he has taught for decades.
I was fortunate to have studied, interned and researched under the guidance of Doshi, one of the country's greatest visionary architects, for a period of five years from 1989 onwards. He has been, and remains, an incredible teacher, mentor and friend. When I look back to my association with Doshi, there are a few aspects that stand out about him and one can get a sense of its relationship to the kind of architecture that he does. One can also understand how his mentoring has brought the current and the earlier generations of architects, who were around him at the school/office, closer to his thought process and to understand his personality.
Faith and learning: I first met Doshi in 1989 when my teacher and friend Shubrajit Das put me in touch with him for my internship. I was soon relegated to the folding of blueprints for dispatch, along with the office help, in the blueprint making room, better known as the ‘ammonia room’. While my friends, in other offices, were working on design development (which made me envious), I continued to sincerely learn the right way to fold large drawings – hundreds, if not a thousand. In that room filled with ammonia fumes, I often wondered if this was my path to learning architecture before I began to see its meaning (and that wasn’t the ammonia effect!). In those few weeks, I became patient, a master folder of drawings and also conversant with the design and details of different projects being built from these drawings – it was the windows, corner detail, masonry, concrete, the proportions and articulation of the facades, etc. It was a realisation – that while the mechanical work of folding was a mundane job, just reading the drawings had given me in this short time immense knowledge of a few decades.
Conversations: Doshi's humble and gentle nature made him accessible to all – from the office help to the man on the street, the auto-rickshaw driver to students, architects, internationally known architects all alike. Doshi can relate to the entire spectrum of people that he meets, with the intent of being able to understand and connect. His architecture is one of empathy and patience – for people, lives, places and memories. Doshi is open to ideas that you want to talk about, as an equal, whatever your stature may be. When discussing architecture, he is still like a child at 90 plus – always inquisitive, sometimes the devil’s advocate and always resolving the thought in his mind as he speaks – never one to have the last word, but one to pose deeper and open ended questions that one could take away for another day.
The sketchbook: Rarely have I seen Doshi without a sketchbook. In these, he makes observations, sketches, details, profiles, ideas and so on. This isn't limited to times of travel but also during presentations of student projects. Always open to new thoughts and ideas from each circumstantial life event Doshi’s is an absorbent mind, where learning is from every circumstance and instance.
The power of positivity: I recall a day from when I was a student, in the early 1990s, Doshi went around reading each and every drawing during a review of projects at the school of architecture at CEPT, and he sat very quietly much to my disappointment. Only after a lot of prodding did Doshi say that he could talk about the faults in the technical representations (which he summarised within a few minutes on each of the five projects' drawings without having to revisit them) but he would rather not, for that was something one could learn to improve on. He moved on instead to talk about the ideation of the projects and what they could each become. The following 10 minutes of his elaboration on the inherent potential of each of the schemes were not recorded (given the absence of mobile phone cameras in those days) but have been etched in the memories of each one present.
The sound of silence: I was fortunate to have worked on the drafting table of Doshi from Corbusier’s atelier, during his stint in Paris. After a few weeks, Doshi asked me if I could move to another table. Doshi drew and sketched throughout the day, without speaking a word till it was late evening. It was as if he was meditating and transferring his vision (for the master planning of the Vidyadhar Nagar, Jaipur) into the sketch. His inner silence was at work.
Encouragement: Doshi's jury sessions at the architecture school were precious times. The beauty of the discussions emerging from the student projects was akin to a session of Indian Classical music, where a master demonstrates something an apprentice has presented, with amateur ignorance, by taking it to another level of evolution. With colleagues like the late Anant Raje, late Kurula Varkey and Neelkanth Chaaya and others (some of who were his students), these sessions of ‘jugalbandi’ would take nascent ideas to a foreseeable new high. I had a similar experience during my final year design project for a museum in a park between the Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmed/Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. A jugalbandi ensued between Doshi and Jaimini Mehta and I could begin to see what they saw, through words that created images, descriptions and gestures as they circled the 3’ x 7’ project clay model. This reinstated my faith and hope in my own capability and potential, but also of very many other students who have been part of such moments. This set an example that we could practice, with our colleagues and students, how and it could change their capacity to see further and to create the hunger that something exists further, and that it should be charted out. Doshi taught us that one grows by sharing knowledge, and so does humankind. To keep knowledge with and within oneself is to suffocate it.
Upside down and interchange: A common prank that Doshi would play at Sangath and at the school studio would be to turn section drawings upside down, or consider a plan as a section and vice-versa. Known for his childlike spirit of enquiry, animated with a mischievous smile, expecting and waiting for a reaction, Doshi would do undo many things when he was still thinking of a better idea. He never prevented a new thought and its potential from finding its way into projects and discussions. Deadlines were met with long hours of work, and the joy of learning was immense.
Freedom at midnight: Doshi started his education in 1947 at the Sir JJ College of Architecture in the same year that Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his ‘Tryst with destiny’ speech, speaking of “.... now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”.
In Doshi's body of work, through his buildings and immense contribution through the founding and long engagement with teaching at the School of Architecture CEPT Ahmedabad, Doshi has lived up to the idea of life and freedom in the true spirit as appreciated by the Pritzker Architecture Award 2018 jury: “ ..... his work in architecture to affect humanity is deeply personal, responsive, and meaningful .......with a deep sense of responsibility and desire to contribute to his country and its people through high quality, authentic architecture ......acutely aware of context...... takes into account the social, environmental and economic dimensions, and therefore his architecture is totally engaged with sustainability”.
(Soumitro Ghosh is an architect based in Bangalore involved with architectural design practice at Mathew & Ghosh Architects, teaching and research)