Balkrishna Doshi—the father of Sustainable Architecture in India

The legendary Balkrishna Doshi just received the Pritzker Prize, the highest accolade in architecture. His greatest contribution is his vision to institutionalise traditional Indian architecture

Photos by Sanyam Bahga and (inset) Vaishal Dalal
Photos by Sanyam Bahga and (inset) Vaishal Dalal
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Rachit Seth

The first thing any student of architecture is taught is that one has to learn to observe. The great Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi taught us that and much more. In a documentary based on him, he has remarked ‘I'm Not an Architect... For Me It’s a Search”; thereby stating that his work is centred on the humility of observing, and eternally searching and learning from situations and memories that are clearly reflected in his works. As aspiring architects, this is the most valuable lesson he taught us.

When I went from a small town in Uttar Pradesh to Gujarat to learn the ‘Mother of All Arts’—Architecture—the first name I heard of was Balkrishna Doshi. He was the tallest and the greatest. On a tour to study the intricacies of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, created by celebrated and renowned architect Louis Kahn, our professor told us that, had Balkrishna Doshi not convinced Kahn in 1962, we could not have witnessed this architectural masterpiece.

In this design journey spanning 70 years, Balkrishna Doshi—who just received the Pritzker Prize, the highest accolade in architecture—never adopted the typical qualities represented by run-of-the-mill architects that were part of an elitist jargon. His simplicity and his dedication is his greatest strength and his vision to institutionalise Indian architecture is his greatest contribution. He established the Institute of Architecture, Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), Ahmedabad—an institute of excellence, which became the ‘Shantiniketan’ of western India. With its simple brick and concrete buildings, shaded courtyards and staircases, and open layout, the project shows the influence of both Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, who had worked with Doshi on a project just before, but it is also reminiscent of the traditional Indian townscape.

For the past 70 years, Doshi has conceived and created the narrative of India's architecture through projects which include private residences, schools, banks, theaters, and low-income housing developments. While ‘Sangath’, Doshi’s own studio, represents the connection between nature and the individual, ‘Amdavad ni Gufa’ - conceptualised and designed to exhibit the works of the great M F Hussain is an epitome of his experimental works and provides a deep insight to his instincts which shape modern Indian Architecture.

Photo by Sanyam Bahga
Photo by Sanyam Bahga
BV Doshi was the architect of IIM Bangalore; a view of the Academic Block
Photo by Sanyam Bahga
Photo by Sanyam Bahga
BV Doshi was the architect of IIM Bangalore; a view of the Library Block

Despite his vast number of completed projects, Doshi is a relatively lesser known name in the West. The Pritzker jury, while bestowing this award, made an important observation about his contribution. It states that "with an understanding and appreciation of the deep traditions of India’s architecture, Doshi united prefabrication and local craft and developed a vocabulary in harmony with the history, culture, local traditions and the changing times of his home country India".

Doshi’s works were deeply engrained in the ethos of Indian culture. For him, "Indian culture has many ways of using the same ideas—whether in dress, music, or architecture". Personally for me, he is the father of Modern Sustainable Architecture in India. He is the master, who could so simply and easily bring about poetry without the need for structural twists, artificial material overload and steel-glass façade jungle works, that have become the bane of contemporary works.

Doshi has spoken the language of architecture like no other. He says “Architecture is a matter of transforming ephemeral situations and conditions. It is not about decisions on paper, in the program, in materials or climatic comfort, but about the behaviour and attitudes of people and how this is all sewn together. Architecture serves to open doors—not one, but many."

Rachit Seth is an architect based in Delhi and a member of the Communication Department of the Congress party. He tweets at @rachitseth

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