26 AUG 1927 – 24 JAN 2023: The Rasa of Space
A tribute to the architect B.V. Doshi and his legacy of breathing life into the static
With the passing of Balkrishna Doshi on 24th January, the last of the great modern Indian architects has become one with the ages. Doshi formed part of a vanguard led by Habib Rahman, Achyut Kanvinde and Charles Correa, whose prolific designs set the stage for an architecture of independent India, unfettered by the baggage of the past. Their buildings reflected an optimism fuelled and mentored by India’s first Prime Minister and squarely located the Nation State at the forefront of modern architectural expression. These young architects basked in the opportunities offered, and created the new institutions of a free India with contemporary materials, aesthetics and space making. In this, they followed the heroes of international Modernism that preceded them, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn.
Doshi spent close to a decade working with both Le Corbusier and Kahn, in Paris, Chandigarh and Ahmedabad, overseeing projects like the High Court, the Shodhan House, the Millowners Association and the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad. He considered Le Corbusier his guru and Kahn a mentor, imbibing from one lessons on the dexterity of concrete and from the other the austerity of brick, learning to use both contextually and critically.
Doshi recalls the first time Le Corbusier sat down at his table in the Paris atelier, where he demonstrated his architectural philosophy to the young acolyte using drawings and words: “Animating walls starts a dialogue and thus they become active elements of architecture. Always bring life to all static elements and connect buildings to the cosmos.” This advice was taken to heart, never forgotten and formed the basis for his own practice. When awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2018, Doshi acknowledged his guru: “I owe this prestigious prize to my guru, Le Corbusier. His teachings led me to question identity and compelled me to discover new regionally adopted contemporary expression for a sustainable holistic habitat.”
Doshi began his own architectural practice with projects like the Institute for Indology (1957-62) and the Premabhai Hall (1956), both in Ahmedabad, using the architectural vocabulary developed by Le Corbusier. His buildings boldly celebrated RCC (reinforced cement concrete) in its raw, unadorned Béton brut materiality, in a form of architecture called Brutalism. The sculptural composition of the Institute of Indology belied its actual purpose as an archive of rare Jain manuscripts. And yet, even while practising an international modernism, Doshi sought to make a building that was both authentic and rooted. Its high plinth and full-length overhanging veranda emerged from studying Jain upashrays, while the modulated light within kept temperatures down to preserve the fragile artefacts. This was done by partially embedding the building into the ground, creating a basement-like space where air circulated through cross-ventilation.
Environment and context synthesised to become the hallmark of Doshi’s architecture. In his projects the building’s specific relationship with the site always led to the development of spaces. His buildings do not just sit but emerge from their locations. Site and building become one, in a way perceptible to both users and afficionados. In his School of Architecture (1966-68), the building is wedged into the natural slope of the site to create spaces that are insulated from the harsh Ahmedabad sun. His own office building, Sangath (1979-81), perhaps the most iconic architectural studio design in India, has barrel vaults rising from the ground. The visitor approaches the building, past cascading water in pools and channels, climbs to the springing line of the vaults, and then enters the subterranean workplace. Light comes in through the ends of the vaults like an ancient basilica. Doshi’s own studio is like a monk’s cell, illuminated by reflected light. Architect and cartoonist Ajit Rao, who worked for Doshi for several years, finds this his favourite part of the office: “A simple overhead periscope-like device alters the harsh south-east rays into a soft celestial glow, breathing pure drama into the space. And when a cloud moves past the sun, it feels as if the gods themselves have turned on the dimmer in the room.”
Doshi’s other iconic design is his most experimental, the Amdavad Ni Gufa (1992-95), or a Cave in Ahmedabad, that he designed in collaboration with the artist M.F. Husain. The cave is underground—only the freeform undulating roofscape of ferrocement, finished with China-mosaic, rises like a leviathan emerging from the permafrost. Both artist and architect put their creative minds together to come up with an interior space never conceived before, making an Altamira for Husain to stay and paint in. Once again, site and building work as one. In Mani Ratnam’s O Kadhal Kanmani (2015), Doshi appears as himself in a surprising cameo, guiding a group of aspiring architects through his Gufa. The Gufa has no conventional building elements. Light enters only through punctures in the roof. He describes it succinctly: “When sunlight comes in, it moves, so the building and space starts moving.” Doshi has always had a fondness for animation, movement and kinesis. This he achieves with light, modulating it, then setting it free it to provide ever-changing perspectives.
I search for the right word to describe the kinetic quality that Doshi brought to the rigidity of built form. ‘Elastic’ or ‘flexible’ won’t do. I think perhaps I will fall back on the Hindustani lacheelapan. Yes, this describes Doshi’s predilection best. The School of Architecture has a plan libre (free plan), where inside and outside spaces are purposefully ambiguous, and studios flow into other studios, without walls or academic silos, encouraging students of architecture from various years to do the same. My fondest memory of this building is visiting it late one night in the early 1980s to find students happily snoring away below their very drawing boards. An architecture school with lacheelapan, with doors always open, students always welcome, day or night.
Another of his most loved spaces is the long corridor in IIM Bangalore (1977-85), punctuated by courtyards. The cross-section of this promenade is a composition of stone masonry, tall, slender columns of concrete holding up a pergola, permeated with creepers and sunlight, throwing a variety of shadows that illuminate and diffuse the walkway with banded light throughout the day. Doshi’s spaces evoke visual delight, in tune with the hours and the seasons.
These pursuits worked across scales for Doshi, even in the homes he designed. Take his own home (1959-61) named Kamala, after his wife, where he lived for six decades. Speaking to photographer and artist Dayanita Singh, who documented it in Portrait of a House: Conversations with B.V. Doshi, he says: “How do you give people a chance to become themselves, lose themselves? Where does formality become informality to the point of almost intimacy?” In Singh’s deeply affecting, intimate images, we see spaces tumbling into each other across levels, steps becoming seats, its inhabitants brought together in proximity and love.
When Doshi was conferred with architecture’s greatest honour, the Pritzker Prize in 2018, the jury celebrated his work as one that embodied a deep sense of responsibility and a desire to contribute to his country and its people through high-quality, authentic architecture. “Projects must go beyond the functional,” the jury said, “to connect with the human spirit through poetic and philosophical underpinnings.”
With a career spanning seven decades, and his vast influence as a modernist, a designer of settlements, an Aga Khan Award winning creator of low-cost housing (Aranya, Indore, 1983-86), a teacher of generations of students whose lives he transformed, Doshi cannot be pinned down in shorthand homilies. He worked within contexts, then went beyond them. He acknowledged his influences gratefully, learned from mentors and clients alike, then created designs that satisfied both. He was always well loved by his students the age of his grandchildren. My tribute limits itself to his conceptions of space. But here too, Doshi asks: “What was important? Was it the form of the building, the content, the space? I thought the most important things are the experiences, the rasa which is the subtle experience of the space that makes the space memorable. It extends the associations and enriches imagination.”
There is a shamanic quality to Doshi’s architecture that shall always be present. Even as we revisit his buildings, we will be aware of a silent murmur in the background, an incantation, a breathing of life into static elements, connecting his work to the cosmos.