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.
Balkrishna Doshi, this year’s winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, has left a deep imprint on Gujarat’s biggest city—and not only through his buildings.
AHMEDABAD—In 1954, Balkrishna Doshi, a young Indian architect and protege of the legendary Le Corbusier, moved to the city of Ahmedabad in the northwestern state of Gujarat, where he would soon settle down and establish his own practice.
Based on his pedigree—he had worked and studied in Bombay, London, and Paris—the move was not particularly obvious. Ahmedabad, in comparison to those global hubs of art and culture, was decidedly more provincial, and according to the first census of independent India in 1951, had a population below one million. Le Corbusier’s most significant project in India—the city of Chandigarh—was also underway, and Doshi’s initial involvement in its planning indicates he could have stayed on and played a larger role there instead.
Despite his other options, Doshi—who was born in Pune, about 400 miles south of Ahmedabad—chose a city better known as a textile than architectural hub. But he detected a spirit there that matched his own sensibilities, and soon, in large part due to Doshi himself, Ahmedabad would also become a center for modern Indian architecture.
“There’s this weird mix between pragmatism and beauty that Ahmedabad has,” said architect Riyaz Tayyibji, a former student and lecturer at CEPT University, an institution founded by Doshi in 1962. “I think Doshi realized that this was a quality of the city … It was already there in the ethos, and he knew that this was there intuitively.”
Doshi, now 90, has similar feelings about the city he calls home.
“I always liked this city because of the intimacy, the congeniality of the people here: very generous, very helpful and encouraging. And I think that’s what the essence of this city is,” he told CityLab in an interview at his iconic office, Sangath, last week.
Almost 65 years after moving there, Doshi’s commitment to Ahmedabad culminated this month when he won architecture’s most prestigious award, the Pritzker Architecture Prize. His selection, of course, was based on a career which boasts significant projects across India, not just in his adopted city.
But there’s nowhere else that Doshi has had as deep of an impact as Ahmedabad, which is dotted with buildings and institutions of his creation. And for those within the city’s architecture fraternity who know him most intimately, Doshi’s legacy extends far beyond the physical structures he’s built, into the relationships, community, and understanding of place he’s formed alongside them.
“He’s always been a kind of instigator”
Doshi’s first job in Ahmedabad was to supervise four Le Corbusier projects in the city. The role allowed him to begin forming relationships with some of the city’s wealthiest families—patrons of bold architecture that sought to discover what could be modern and Indian at the same time.
With the support of one of these families, he soon founded the School of Architecture—which, along with subsequently established schools (including for planning and interior design), became known as the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), gaining university status in 2005. Through CEPT, Doshi was able to attract global thinkers and foster future generations of architects, forming lifelong personal connections while cementing Ahmedabad’s status as a center for architecture.
Though Doshi was no longer teaching when Tayyibji was getting his degree, he was still heavily involved with the school and its students, allowing for interactions that Tayyibji says left a profound impact on his generation for their authenticity. “As a person he is so approachable, it’s incredible,” Tayyibji said of Doshi.
Tayyibji recalled once working on a competition submission with other young architects when Doshi, already in his seventies, visited their makeshift studio to discuss their ideas. “He didn’t ask us to bring the drawings to his office. He came … walked up seven floors. We were all working on the floor—we had no tables—and he sat on the floor and gave us a two-hour critique without even thinking he was doing anything special.”
When you talk to Doshi, or to those deeply influenced by him, certain words are regularly repeated: partnership, dialogue, participation. Together they represent a collaborative search and journey to answer questions about time and place, a process that Tayyibji says hasn’t ended for Doshi, even after 74 years in Ahmedabad.
“He’s always been a kind of instigator,” he said, noting that Doshi will often call 10 or 12 young architects together on a whim, to press them on “what the hell they’re doing” about the present state of architecture. When this happens, “You’re completely taken aback, ” said Tayyibji. “He’ll want you to commit—that ‘We will meet every Friday and start the revolution.’”
Doshi is a man often described as more than architect: a philosopher, who like another of his mentors, Louis Kahn, speaks his own language to express his musings on the world. Many of Doshi’s sentences begin with “No, no, no” or “Na, na, na,” and that’s his initial reaction to Tayyibji’s use of the word “instigator.” Still, he concedes he does prod others to think deeply about their surroundings.
“That is my nature. I like to question, raise issues, and participate,” he said. “Why does a citizen have to be quiet all the time and only accept? Why doesn’t he become a creative person? Why doesn’t he do something?”
“We don’t own our cities … We are aliens, not even visitors. So in that place, the best thing is to tickle everybody—make them think. ‘No, no, you are not this.’ That’s what I do.”
Though Doshi’s ideas may sometimes seem to be in the clouds, they’re also grounded in the reality of his buildings—unmistakably apparent for all to see.
“You see [his philosophy] reflected in his works in some way or the other. It’s not just talk,” said Doshi’s granddaughter Khushnu Panthaki Hoof, also an architect and a partner at the family firm, Vastu Shilpa Consultants.
This is perhaps most clearly evident at CEPT, where Doshi not only fostered free-flowing ideas and thought on a conceptual level, but did so literally through his School of Architecture building.
Studio space on its top floor looks out onto the campus’ central plaza through doors that are almost never shut, while open space below the structure creates more room for students to work, discuss ideas, and socialize. There are no doors to actually enter the building, a consciously designed quirk to encourage open learning.
“When you walk into the building, you don’t even realize when you’ve entered it,” said Surya Kakani, the dean of CEPT’s architecture faculty. “As much as it seems like a very formal, Modernist building … you dissolve into it.”
For Kakani, the wonder of the building’s design also lies in how it has shaped the education inside it, and how it fits into its surroundings. “It has a certain robustness and frugality which connects with the larger ethos of [this place],” he said. “We’ve had a culture of making the best out of the minimum, and in some sense, this building embodies that. And that’s an ethos over which you can layer anything … but still, its core is its core.”
The past weeks have centered around celebrating Doshi, but Kakani’s reference to a core local ethos is a reminder of the controversy that has surrounded that very issue in recent years. Since at least 2015, Doshi and CEPT’s leadership have been at odds over a variety physical and philosophical changes at the institution. One of the most contentious issues is a proposed new building that would stand next to Doshi’s School of Architecture, which his closest supporters feel would take away from his original work.
Kakani said he has tried not to get too involved in the dispute, although he is a dean at CEPT. He maintained, however, that Doshi is still widely revered on campus. “If he were to walk in even now, the respect he would command is amazing.”
But Doshi hasn’t walked in for a while. And although he’s chosen to immerse himself in other projects rather than dwell on the fallout, others are more vocal about their displeasure.
Neelkanth Chhaya, a former student and close friend of Doshi, is one of those people. Chhaya generally exudes a calm and gentle vibe, and he sports a distinguished beard which rivals that of Santa Claus. But his disposition was hardly jolly when he talked about the proposed building—designed by Christopher Benninger, an American-born architect who has practiced in India for decades and founded CEPT’s planning faculty. This “academic hub” would be three stories tall and sit on part of the campus’ popular north lawn.
“It is outstandingly insensitive to the campus,” Chayya said of the design, drawing on the table where he was sitting to illustrate his point. “It cuts a landscape which was very dear to everyone who grew up on this campus … It destroys this very wonderful space.”
Other new buildings have been constructed at CEPT in recent years, and Chhaya believes they are emblematic of the institution becoming more rigid and defined, and contrary to the spirit it ought to represent. Such buildings, he said, “are containers of activity, rather than fabrics that include and allow activity to move through and out.”
An architecture rooted in place
An element of Doshi’s legacy seemingly at stake in the CEPT controversy is the extent to which he has always integrated elements of the local environment—whether of the climate, the landscape, or simply Indian ways of living—into his architecture.
Chhaya, like Kakani, believes Doshi’s work fits into a broader, historically Indian ethos of maximizing resources and living frugally. But he also says Doshi’s work reflects domestic life in India, and notes the great importance often attached to outdoor spaces in traditional Indian homes.
“Doshi caught onto that,” he said. “Not to clean up and isolate an architectural environment into simply an architectural art, but to connect it to life forms, is something which is peculiarly Indian. The weaving in of outdoor spaces and movements across—this is something like the way an Indian house or street would work.”
The School of Architecture building is a clear example of this. But so too are many of Doshi’s other buildings, such as Sangath and the Institute of Indology, for their interplay of space, light, nature, and water. Their designs are deeply embedded, almost rooted, into their locations, as is the man himself.
“Doshi wanted the physical structure of a building to resonate with the physical structure of the place he was building in. That can only happen when you kind of seep into a place,” said Tayyibji, who, along with Chhaya and Doshi himself, feels that such sensibilities are missing from many contemporary buildings.
With its population now above 6 million, Ahmedabad is the largest city in Gujarat. In recent decades the state has followed a hard-charging model of development led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014. Chhaya is scathing in his view of ”Gujarat model” projects (such as GIFT City, a “smart city” 7 miles from Ahmedabad’s airport), calling them “clean and efficient” but “soulless.” In his eyes, such work does not fit into the spirit that characterized Ahmedabad’s architecture up until the 1980s.
Before, he said, “There was this very reticent use of wealth [which had] a value that allowed other cultural forms to show up more. This is what makes the specific model of architecture we have in Ahmedabad something that is valuable, and which should be learned from.”
Many Doshi disciples hope that his Pritzker is a sign that the world has learned from Ahmedabad. In their eyes, the announcement has come at an important moment, when trends and priorities have been moving in a very different direction.
“One was beginning to feel that genuinely, the era was over,” Tayyibji said. “There was a possibility that the legacy of Doshi would just kind of dissolve into some sort of invisibility. The Pritzker just gives that whole period a shot in the arm … Now you just feel that there’s a general acceptance that there’s value in it.”
Back at Sangath, Doshi himself also sees the power of what the Pritzker might do. He’s never been a man low on energy, but the announcement only seems to have replenished his reserves. He said he may soon call a press conference to raise questions about what can be done to make Ahmedabad a “clean,” “wonderful,” and “viable” place. It’s an idea that sounds much like the spontaneous meetings he calls within Ahmedabad’s architecture community.
“I’ll continue working,” he said. “[The Pritzker] has given me a lot of encouragement, yes. It has given me confidence, encouragement, and it has made me think again: ‘What else can I do?’ That has happened. And I feel very flattered and happy.”