Ashish Malhotra is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. In addition to writing for CityLab, he works as a correspondent for Deutsche Welle and The Times of London. He has previously held positions at Al Jazeera English and The Hindustan Times.
India’s Balkrishna Doshi, who won the 2018 Pritzker Architecture Prize, talks about his career and the future of his adopted city, Ahmedabad.
Over his 90 years, Balkrishna Doshi has seen a lot. Still, nothing could prepare him for the call he got in early March, telling him he was this year’s recipient of architecture’s most prestigious award: the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Doshi is the first Indian ever to win it.
I traveled to Ahmedabad—the city Doshi has called home for more than 60 years—to report a CityLab story about his legacy, with input from the man himself (you can read it here). But Doshi, whose sense of humor and verve belie his years, gave me more of his time than I expected. So what follows is a lightly edited version of some of our conversation.
Ahmedabad might not seem the most likely place for you to have set up your practice. Yet others here say the city has a certain spirit that made it a great place to make architecture. How do you think that came to be?
I think [it was] the kind of attitude of the people. That is very important—encouraging you. [If] you want to do something, they will encourage. You want to try, then they will say, “I think, why not try?” They never question the future, or they never question the kind of difficulty that might come in the long run.
[When] you ask somebody in Bombay or some other place, they will say, “Yes, but then what will happen? How will it be maintained? What kind of future [will it have]? Will we be able to get financed?”
I think in other places, people start their work creation with doubt. Here, we start with [the] future.
But do you think that’s gotten lost, to some extent? Was it more the case in the past?
No, I can’t say “lost.” But it has been scattered.
Even in Ahmedabad?
Yes. Because the city has grown, things have become much farther [apart]. And those people who were the pioneers, those who created Ahmedabad to be a “Manchester of India”—I think that has now more or less disintegrated in a sense. You know, the textile industries have died down, [those] people have become old. The younger generation has perhaps not imbibed this [attitude], so it is not the same.
It is still there. There are a lot of traces, and there is a temperament like that. So what one has to do is find another way to awaken this. And get those other layers, you know, which don’t have this experience, and catch them and bring them down. Then you’re back again.
So do you think the Pritzker announcement can be a part of that reawakening?
The Pritzker is a great award. Unimaginable. It’s the first time in India—that’s another story. But it is also the recognition of saying that these kinds of buildings are really wonderful, they are globally recognizable buildings. The philosophy of creating something for the have-nots, I think is one of the unique things that can happen.
But now the question is what kind of institution should we build in Ahmedabad, so that again there is a regeneration, revitalization, and resurgence of this place. So that Ahmedabad, with a younger, larger generation, can be much greater.
Being recognized as a [UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017] was one of those things that made people begin to think that, ‘Yes, we have something.’ We have a heritage, and we have to not only conserve, but we have to preserve other things, and slowly create other heritages.
So I hope, you know, that is what will happen with the Pritzker award. That [local people] will think, “There are so many buildings that are mentioned there.” Getting that award recognizes all this, and it has now become public. All those things, if we catch them again and put them into another network, I think we would be doing a service to everybody. Because everybody will become aware that [the old buildings] are not only there; now there’s new things happening.
Is the award like a validation of a certain philosophy?
Not only a validation: It is also a trigger to go back and improve. And continue. I think now everybody—including government offices, and planning and urbanization offices—everybody will start thinking, “What is this award?” And if they think about aesthetics, architecture, quality of life, concerns for life—if those are the agendas which get recognized, and accepted by experts—[they’ll think,] “Why not continue that?”
So I think this will trickle down. This will go a long way. Because I’m sure, frequently now, this image will come back.
Is winning something you at all expected, or was it a surprise?
No, no. It is a big surprise. A bolt. A bolt from the blue.
So how does it work? How did they tell you? Did you at least know you were nominated or something?
No, no, no. Nothing. Only when they give the award, that is when they tell you, and that is what happened. And I was thrilled and surprised. Absolutely surprised.
Did you think it was a joke?
Of course, of course. My eyes were full of tears. I called her [pointing to his granddaughter, Khushnu] and said, “My God, we have got something else. It’s something like lightning from the heavens has dropped.”
It’s often mentioned that you had two great mentors, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. How did you balance their influence with creating your own distinct style?
You know, if you go to a seven-star hotel and somebody is teaching you, and he gives you wine and cake and great food and all that. Then when you go home, you go back to your regular food.
So I had that seven-star treatment of architecture aesthetics, and a great, pathbreaking journey. And then I came back home. And I did this.
This was my homecoming. So you can imagine for how long I have been thinking about these kinds of issues. It’s one of my life’s missions.
There are a lot of young people working here at your firm. What characteristics do you look for before bringing a young architect on board?
Young people have a lot of dreams. But they don’t know what their dreams are. And they have doubts. So what one needs to do is tickle them and give them some shots [in the arm] so they really say, “Yes, I think I should do that.” And I think that’s the job that we do here. We try to get them and to open their minds.
So the best way is to open doors for everybody. Those who want to go through—go inside—I think they should. Those who don’t want to go, they will not. One should never try to [impose] change.
The School of Architecture—when we started, we never wanted to change, but we wanted to become. And I think the important thing is: can you become what your dream is? And I think that is perhaps the essence of Ahmedabad.
You say you want to open doors, which is interesting because your School of Architecture building [at CEPT University in Ahmedabad] was designed without doors; you just kind of get immersed into it. Is that also in a figurative sense supposed to be part of the experience?
Yes, you can walk in—animals, dogs, everything—everything goes inside. And I think, what is wrong [with that]? We are in a world that is so generous and good. Holistic. Our philosophy is holistic. For us, life is in everything. So why not really continue it? Why create doors? Or why create restrictions?
So I always wrote, in the [CEPT] campus, my whole idea was that an educational campus should be without doors. No boundaries. And that philosophy I continue.
Listening to you speak reminds me of what many people have said about you: that you’re like a philosopher, or something bigger than just an architect. How do you respond to that?
How do you feel that? Why?
Just the way that you speak, the way that you think ...
So an architect speaks in straight language and I’m going, you know, into the clouds? Confusing you? [laughter]
No, not confusing! But there’s a broader philosophy you follow, right?
That has always been there, otherwise I would not have ventured even into starting a school or setting up a partnership. We have people from all over, and we have visitors and people who work here from different parts of the world, which has been the case all the time. So we’re actually, what I would say is an internationally, globally thinking organization. With participation from everywhere.
But despite being global, a big part of what you do is working with your local surroundings ...
We are “glocal”!