Balkrishna Doshi is a renowned Indian architect who has gained international recognition for his significant contribution to India’s post-colonial modern architecture. In 2018, his life’s work was honoured with the prestigious Pritzker Prize—the profession’s highest honour and one that has not been bestowed on any Indian architect before him.
Doshi was born in Pune, India, in 1927 and received his basic training as an architect in Bombay and at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). His architectural career was significantly influenced by his encounter and collaboration with Le Corbusier. In his studies, he spent four years in Corbusier’s architectural office, where he acquired an understanding of proportions, spatial perception and radical architectural thinking. He also gained a lot of knowledge from Louis Kahn about the interrelationship of light and shadow in combination with the geometry of forms in the context of built space.
After his intensive studies in architecture, in which he mainly became exposed to western influences in the subject area, the architect felt the desire to find his own architectural identity. In his exploration of indigenous, vernacular Indian architecture, his experiences of living together in his childhood were always an influential factor. He experienced the adaptability of buildings—not as built houses but of homes—constantly interacting with its inhabitants and adapting to changing circumstances over generations.
Campus of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT)
In over 60 years of creating visionary and innovative architecture, Doshi has treated humanistic design on all scales, emphasising reconciling modern architecture with indigenous building traditions and ways of life. A pivotal project on a large scale is his involvement in the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) campus in Ahmedabad.
After his initial training with Le Corbusier and Kahn and his decision to implement the learning in his home country, Doshi founded the Ahmedabad School of Architecture with several colleagues. The design of his contributions to the CEPT shows clear parallels to the architectural language of his teachers. Still, it embeds itself in a unique way in the geographical and climatic conditions of the place.
Particularly the design of Amdavad ni Gufa, an underground gallery created with the participation of and for the Indian artist Maqbool Fida Husain, demonstrates his ingenious claim to his architecture. The play of light in the room plays with different moods and implies spatial situations that could not have been created had the artist not participated. It is particularly striking that the formal language breaks with Doshi’s original style due to the confrontation with an opposing opinion and unknown needs.
“Searching for the uncommon meant raising fundamental questions—what is the meaning of function, space and technology—amidst structure and form.”
Identity, Attitude and Value
In his architectural and literary works, the architect refers to three main characteristics of a functioning built environment: identity, attitude and value. He understands a primary dialogue of the built environment with influencing factors such as environment, climate and geographical location, and a subsequent secondary dialogue with economic and social conditions in customs, everyday structures and religion.
Although this understanding of architecture suggests an exclusive focus on housing, the architect also questions the upscaled structures of communities and cities through a holistic analysis of people’s behaviours. While the study begins at the scale of housing, Doshi understands the traditional “home” as a place of interrelation between private and public, between tradition and innovation.
Housing development – Aranya
Although Doshi’s focus implies the sensitivity of architecture to the inhabitant, he emphasises the importance of innovation and radical new forms. The priority is the acceptance of society and the resulting habitability, so he insists on the importance of participation and inclusion. In his opinion, however, tradition does not exclude innovation. As long as the needs of the inhabitants are taken into account, a space per se wants to be used flexibly in its function. This stands in contrast to the rigid definition of spaces in modern architecture as “modernism relates to function”.
With the design of a low-cost housing landscape for vulnerable groups, Doshi addresses the essential combination of innovation and housing adaptation through resident participation. Doshi enables the inhabitants to provide for their basic needs based on a modular system: each plot of 30 square metres has an electricity connection and a sanitary block.
The floor plan develops flexibly and modularly in a vertical direction through roof terraces and balconies around this essential infrastructure, allowing residents to extend or pause their living process across generations. This dialogue between architecture and the society in need proves to be a prosperous system, as many residents achieved social advancement into the middle class.
“My understanding of architecture is time, tolerance, identity and continuity.”
Doshi’s architectural studio – Sangath
Balkrishna Doshi purposefully encapsulates his architectural approach by combining modern elements such as materials and simple proportions with traditional forms such as the vaults and ornaments to create a place of tranquillity and creativity. The design sensually integrates with the geographical setting and opens more than half of the building to the surrounding nature. This both imitates a dialogue between inside and outside and creates a pleasant indoor climate.
The access to the building is deliberately staged by the inevitable amphitheatre—an element that again emphasises the interrelation between inside and outside. Besides, the interior consists of an interplay of spaces that deliberately generate surprising visual relationships and resemble a traditional Indian city.
Finally, it is essential to note that, unlike other like-minded architects, Doshi does not see his focus on indigenous building forms exclusively in the context of cultural and social influences, but above all, with a spiritual background. The architect tries to incorporate the timeless, infinite understanding of life internalised in spiritual customs into his design tangibly and implicitly. All this leads to the holistic awareness of the task of architects to generate (living) space that provides an adaptive place of expression to society’s living conditions. Only in this way can architecture be accepted, understood and used to its full potential.
Balkrishna Doshi, edited by Vera Simone Bader, Writings on Architecture & Identity, 2019 (last accessed 25/04/2021)