The passing of B.V. Doshi (1927- 2023) has not just brought the curtain down on the legendary architect’s long and illustrious 70-year career, it also marks the end of an era in Indian architecture. To define Doshi in terms of his legacy of architectural contributions is only natural. Certainly, he was one of the best-known Indian architects in the world. He was the only Indian to have been awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, which he received at the age of 90 in 2018. Before that, he had been the recipient of the RIBA Gold Medal, the Padma Vibhushan, and at least 20 more international and national awards for his life’s work. Besides these laurels and recognitions, what was particularly inspiring for me was his persona and how he was admired across generations.
While studying architecture in Gujarat, I felt his presence all around. I visited his office and famous buildings and attended his engaging talks and lectures whenever I could; but I still feel that I didn’t get enough opportunity to fully absorb his aura and see enough of him in action. He was after all a great practitioner, and more importantly a polymath-a philosopher, environmentalist, social reformer, humanist, artist, and above all a great teacher, whose influence touched the lives and shaped the careers of thousands of Indian architects. In paying a final tribute to Doshi and the memories held by his students, I thought it befitting to remember once again the power of his many human qualities. These included his humility, the ease with which he could be approached, and the observations and advice he was always willing to share with an eye-opening and infectious positivity. These qualities were evident not just in the man but also in his buildings-the simplicity of materials matched by a powerful expression of detail, and the strength of form tempered by low, unpretentious scale.
Doshi had the ability to actionize ideas, where most could just think about them. Whether it was to paint the story of the design of a building, build an architectural school (Centre for Environment, Planning and Technology [CEPT], Ahmedabad), or collaborate with artist M.F. Husain on a gallery installation (Amdavad Ni Gufa, or Husain-Doshi Gufa), he managed to dabble in a range of allied disciplines and activities with great success. Opening and navigating the field of place-making and space-making to embrace immense possibilities, he discovered new ways of engagement. His values and holistic self-nurturing flowed into his astonishing sensorial ideas, both big and small.
The sheer complexity of their practice makes most architects oscillate between periods of solitude and phases of hectic, collective work, targeted towards the delivery of project objectives. Typically, the contemplative breaks are for the gathering of thoughts and ideas, which lead up to an unleashing of energy to create. Doshi remained the rare instance of an architect who was able to extend and expand his energies to accomplish so much more than mere professional duties and objectives. He could invest in other ideas, places, people, and all at the same time. There was something about the temperament of this great humanist, the creative attention, and the deeper aspect of his persona which invigorated his days at the workplace, and in his personal life. This restless, creative spirit found its way to all his buildings and value-laden experimentations.
Doshi privileged human connections with design and responsible architecture, enjoying the nitty gritty and nuts and bolts involved in the process of conceptualization and building. His projects have been written about and celebrated as much for the Indianness of their design as for their environmental appropriateness, their responsiveness to contexts, socio-economic milieu, their climate resilience and sustainability. Doshi sharpened his focus by continuously envisioning solutions at various levels and scales-for the city, for building in the harsh Indian climate, for society-keeping in mind the symbiotic relationship between architecture, nature and culture, low-cost and cost-sensitive housing, accessible public spaces, nurturing educational spaces, and much more.
I recall getting a full glimpse of the range of his experimentation at a retrospective show on Doshi, held at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, in 2014. The displays provided glimpses into the different periods in Doshi’s career and his intermittent engagements with painting, product and furniture design. Another show called Structuring Form: The Innovative Rigour of Mahendra Raj, organized at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, in 2019, showcased some of Doshi’s collaborations with his engineering partners. Everything had purpose and was embedded with his ideals. As an architect, Doshi remained faithful to the methodology of design evolution followed in general architectural practice, sketching ideas of form and locale and large study models. Moving beyond conventional plans and sectional drawings, he explored the possibilities of expressive painting and playful representation in his renditions of concepts and buildings, and preserved these as archival memorabilia. Who can forget his paintings of Jaipur and of his Sangath studio incorporating elements adapted from Rajasthani and Mughal miniature painting?
It can be said that his practice and his pedagogy were much more than just modernist comprehensions and served as markers of an invincible spirit. His vision in architecture was to create specific forms, responsive to light, local settings and weather patterns. Occasionally, he drew on his Bauhaus influences and returned to building craft, with materials and parts such as ferro cement, shells, brick, vaults and exposed concrete slabs, the founding premises of all artistry and design activity. At Sangath, he employed a landscape-based movement solution geared towards creating humane architecture for a future society which would be more in tune with nature. Doshi always used the most simple and rudimentary common-sensical devices to improve building performance. He also incorporated sustainable practices within his building designs, such as tanks to save rainwater that could be used for irrigation and domestic purposes.
Doshi’s approach and creativity can, to a large extent, be credited to the influences of the various modernists in his life. Among them were international mentors and employers like Le Corbusier, foreign and Indian collaborators like Louis Kahn and Mahendra Raj, and friends like Frei Otto, Buckminster Fuller, and Charles and Ray Eames. It was from Corbusier’s discussions on light that Doshi learnt the importance of using it as an element in the language of his works, whether it be the slanted skylights at studios and galleries, or the large vaulted fanlights at Sangath and the Gandhi Labour Institute.Kahn’sphilosophicalmusingsonthenatureofbrick laid exposed in arches of all kinds became the solution in many of the institutional buildings of Ahmedabad that Doshi designed.
Doshi based the precepts of his practice on the concepts of openness, spaces flowing together and the sustenance of life within and outside of buildings. These factors also played a major role in his conception of a modern Indian design. It is no coincidence that so many of his buildings have courtyards, or are raised up from the ground on pilotis, allowing for air and light to flow into open spaces at the bottom levels of or below buildings. These areas, shaded from the harsh sun, also have a variety of pools and plants growing inside and around the site to cool the grounds. A number of public spaces have been created at a ground level, to make them accessible, and keep them shaded and close to nature. These spaces encourage serendipitous meetings, foster community engagement and active participation in urban work life.
Doshi’s spatial planning methodologies always ensured that the design of a building fulfilled a diversity of purposes. He kept in mind the juxtapositions of people, activities, built forms and spaces, elements that are essential in keeping alive an inclusive and sustainable public sphere, that is local in character and thrives at all times of the day and night. His practice was also rooted in the belief that built environments in sync with nature are sustainable in and of themselves. Furthermore, the presence of light, breeze and other things of simple significance are integral to creating places of great beauty. The beauty of the built world lies not only in details but also in larger architectural decisions, such as placement, views, contact with nature, and the inclusion of elements that evoke our humanity and concern for the world we have been gifted.
Doshi will be missed but never forgotten.
Aashish Karode, B.Arch, M.U.D (Berkeley, USA) is an architect and urban designer who owns the Design Atelier-Urbis, New Delhi.